Penny Sparke begins her book on the relationship between gender politics and design, As Long as It’s Pink, by recounting a segment from the cult 1990s BBC television series “Signs of the Times.” The show, which set out to document the personal tastes of British homeowners, featured a woman “married to an architect for whom white walls and minimal décor were de rigueur. The woman explained how she sometimes went into the children’s bedroom—the only room in which curtains were permitted—and softly wept.” What could be so unsettling about the design of a room that it would drive a woman to tears? And more generally, what is it about minimalist spaces, those mainstays of architectural history classes and interior design magazines, that makes them seem cold and alienating to people who actually spend time in them?
Perhaps the best example is the one of esteemed doctor Edith Farnsworth who, feeling caged in the sleek fishbowl designed in 1951 by that most revered of modernists, Mies van der Rohe, was driven to sue and publicly denounce the architect, exclaiming: “We know that less is not more. It is simply less!” But a minimalist interior has even deeper implications than a vague sense of anxiety it evokes—it is also deeply entangled in the politics of gender and class.
Certain connections between words and genders are often made in our minds without us even knowing. The feminine has long been connected to the organic, ornamented, even frivolous, while the masculine is considered rational, organized, efficient and simple. This is why even today, work by Zaha Hadid—one of the few women architects who have achieved success in that great boy’s club, architecture—is described as “graceful and sinuous,” “fluid and organic,” while her male counterparts produce work that is “austere and grand,” “minimal and restrained.”
The connection between femininity and ornament is embedded in a set of values that developed during Victorian times. What we today dub the cult of domesticity sprang up in the 19th century as a result of a bourgeoning division of spheres, where men went off into the public realm to work and provide for the family monetarily while women were placed in charge of the domestic realm and expected to provide for the family emotionally. The home was meant to convey a sense of comfort and coziness. It was to become a sanctuary from the outside world, a site of leisure rather than labor—but only for the man coming in from outside. For the woman, the domestic space was the workplace, where she was put in charge of creating an almost womb-like environment. These expectations were reflected in the fashion for heavy upholstery and soft textures—aided by technological developments such as the invention of the coiled spring in the 1820s, which allowed for almost comically corpulent sofas and armchairs—as well as an overabundance of curtains, carpets and wallpaper. For the first time in history, the interior became an extension of the female, an indicator of her worth as a homemaker. The interior became an expression of her identity, so it came as no surprise that the woman was often seen as the greatest ornament in the ornamented home.
Many of these gender dichotomies, which we like to believe have been cast out with other outdated Victorian mores, have remained firmly embedded in our cultural discourse. “The Signs of the Times” show is an excellent example. The famous British photographer of all that is mundanely poetic, Martin Parr, followed up the interviewing process with a series of photographs, which he published in 1992. In one of them, a woman and a man are depicted sitting on a small bed, facing opposite ways. The caption reads: “It was very masculine when I came in here, so I put my quilt out—the flowery one which he detests.”
Even more recently, a 2013 Apartment Therapy article which set out to analyze the intricacies of masculine versus feminine décor proclaimed that a female space is one where “there’s a lot going on”: a space full of “tiny curios,” “soft, comfy things (like a tufted headboard),” “piled fabrics,” and “floral prints.” On the other hand masculine spaces were ones of “straight lines, simple, modern shapes and angular things.” The author explained that design was simply a physical expression of “our cultural conception of manliness [as] effective, no-nonsense,” as well as the seeming fact that “male bodies have more straight lines and harsh angles than female ones,” showing clearly just how alive and well gender stereotypes remain.
The ideas of cozy domesticity of Victorian times have of course been rejected many times since, most notably during the Modernist period. In its search for universal answers to questions of urbanism, architecture and design, Modernism advocated solutions that were rational, functional, efficient—and of course, minimal. But in developing a standard according to which architecture and design would be modeled, it is hardly surprising that the greatest modernists looked to a body much like their own, a body that was well-educated, white and male. Everything else—the warmth and individuality of feminine domesticity in particular—was believed to be redundant, even harmful, in the modern world.
Influenced by these ideas, a group of female reformers took it upon themselves to redefine what the interior meant for the woman within it, adopting strategies from the public sphere and the work done in factory production lines. The reform first took place in the kitchen, the woman’s ultimate workplace. Influenced by the writings of Christine Frederick and inspired by Le Corbusier’s “machine for living,” Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen was a gleaming marvel, a true embodiment of the professionalized domestic sphere. Clutter was removed, technological developments were integrated, steps were measured to ensure utmost efficiency of movement. Minimal spaces such as these were seen as freeing, as they allowed women to achieve equality by adopting stereotypically male qualities such as order, simplicity and productivity.
But did this truly set the woman free? Or was the result similar to the boom of household appliances in the 1950s, which increased standards of cleanliness and expectations of housewives, but contributed little to equality. The proliferation of refrigerators, microwaves and vacuum cleaners implied the same thing as a modernist kitchen, separated from the rest of the home to prevent the smells and the noise. It created a lonely environment in the midst of technological wonders and the sleek severity of minimalist surfaces. No wonder the housewife had no other choice than to cry for the curtains.