Home: A Short History of an Idea, by Witold Rybczynski. New York: Viking. $16.95. Those of us who would rather sprawl the evening away in grandfather's padded rocker than try to negotiate our way around a fashionable Wassily armchair can appreciate what Witold Rybczynski has to say about the evolution of the idea of comfort.
Although ``home'' is the subject of the title, this engaging new book is really about the feeling of being at home -- the satisfaction that comes from walking into an otherwise unfamiliar room and saying to ourselves, ``Now this is comfortable.''
A professor of architecture at McGill University, Rybczynski has been both an observer and a recorder of the effects of modern technology for some time. In this, his third popular work on the subject, he sets up an intriguing historical context, proposes some reasonable findings, and then leaves us to act on our own conclusions.
His examination of comfort begins with a 14th-century bourgeois town house and ends in designer Ralph Lauren's Manhattan duplex. Along the way we get a glimpse of medieval furnishings, Dutch interiors, Georgian cottages, and modern warehouse-cube style, to name a few.
It was in the Netherlands that the idea of family life as an architectural component took root and where the concepts of both privacy and domesticity began to grow, mainly because of what he calls the ``feminization of the home.'' As so-called women's work was reproduced with touching sympathy by Dutch painters of the 17th century, its value came to be more widely appreciated -- and individually expressed.
With the crafting of comfortable furniture for the French court of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour comes still greater refinement of the concept of home. It really flowered in Georgian England, where landed gentry and country homes came to be synonymous with enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment. (You aren't convinced? Then read a page or two of Jane Austen and note the frequent allusions to comfortable rooms, comfortable views, comfortable meals, and comfortable situations in general.)
As Rybczynski leads us through the arrival in the home of gaslight and ventilation, electricity and labor-saving devices, he concentrates on the evolving tangibility of and access to comfort. His style is as loose and, yes, as comfortable as a down-filled comforter, and it saves this history from slipping too far into the academic. He is perhaps at his best and wittiest when he's describing such oddities as an 18th-century ``Water Witch,'' a primitive water-powered engine that developed air suction and could be used to power vacuum cleaners, massagers, and even hair driers.
In the early part of this century, as art deco gave way to Le Corbusier's New Spirit, and then to the Minimalism of the '70s, Rybczynski contends that the attempt to simplify got lost in its own stripped-down rhetoric.
``So-called postmodernism has missed the point,'' says the author. ``What is needed is a sense of domesticity, not more dadoes; a feeling of privacy, not neo-Palladian windows; an atmosphere of coziness, not plaster capitals.''
Although comfort in a home may be hard to define or quantify, we know it when we see it -- and Rybczynski urges us to look more diligently for it.
What's needed today, he says, are homes that offer more privacy and intimacy, smaller rooms, more comfortable kitchens, redesigned bathrooms -- and that's just for starters.
Comfort, the good professor persuades us, should be the business of families and individuals -- rather than engineers and architects. In fact, he urges us to insist upon it as an -- if not the -- integral part of home.