Modern living? : domestic advice literature and design discourse in post-war Britain
Existing academic treatments of advice literature have used it either as a true record of historical practice, or as untrustworthy and requiring corroboration with other sources. Neither method extracts its maximum historical value. The hypothesis tested here is that analysis of domestic advice literature using techniques of literary and visual close reading is revealing of the mediation of modernist design sensitive to the interplay of social and material factors in the home. A research problem addressed in this study is, therefore, to model a method for using domestic advice literature in the pursuit of design historical understanding. This study draws on a sample of three hundred domestic advice texts to examine domestic design in the postwar period (1945-1970), and particularly, advice given about modernist design as a response to social change.
Part One presents the methodological position, situated in chapter one as part of a reassessment of the significance of the everyday, of the domestic, and of mediation. A genealogy of the interrelated development of etiquette, homemaking and home decoration books supports the decision to use these sources collectively as a hitherto uncharted genre of domestic ideals revealing of the social and material aspects of domesticity. With reference to post-structuralist historiography and literary analysis, a case is made for the value of looking at domestic advice, rather than through it, using close textual and visual analysis. Chapter three demonstrates the value of applying techniques of literary analysis to this genre for revealing underlying ideological values.
Part Two establishes the value of the method in three case studies of advice directed at novel social characters to have emerged during the first half of the twentieth century: the newly enlarged middle class, the newly unassisted hostess and the teenager consumer. Domestic advisors offered solutions based to a greater or lesser degree on modernist design values, including utility, economy, flexibility and modularity, proposing that these novel material forms would better accommodate postwar social practices. However, close reading reveals ambiguity and faultlines; the advice is shown to serve existing dominant groups, privileged by class, gender and age. The project of domestic advice literature is compromised by the authority necessary to the role of the advisor, which produces inherently ideological hegemonic discourses, while the project of modernism is shown not to live up to the claims made for it by domestic advisors.
This thesis contributes to knowledge an original demonstration of the value of close textual and visual analysis of domestic advice literature for design historical understanding of how social change and its material solutions have been managed in mediating discourse.