A domestic history
Giles Round considers the way we live.
In his art practice, Giles Round blurs the boundaries between artist and curator. His work examines how our lives are not only shaped by the spaces we inhabit but also by the everyday objects that surround us.
To celebrate the 300th anniversary of Yorkshire-born Thomas Chippendale, The Hepworth Wakefield, in Yorkshire, England, invited Round to create a series of installations to explore how the worlds of craft and industrial design have been coexisting in our homes for centuries. Chippendale has been described as the world’s first interior designer due to his famous room schemes for aristocratic homes of the 18th century. His success was underpinned by ‘The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director’, his itemized catalog from which customers commissioned furniture in the contemporary style.
Round’s research for his exhibition, ‘Giles Round: The Director’, began in The Hepworth’s archives, where he discovered the seminal work of Helen Kapp, who, in 1959, devised ‘Living Today: An Exhibition of Modern Interiors’ as gallery director of the former Wakefield Art Gallery which was housed in a domestic property. Kapp invited eight architects to create a variety of domestic spaces. Alongside this, Kapp produced a highly detailed publication – an amalgamation of exhibition and sales catalog – with prices for all items included. A nod towards Chippendale’s 18th-century publication.
The shift towards open-plan living was just beginning as the doors opened to the 1959 exhibition ‘Living Today’. Sitting inside the David Chipperfield-designed Hepworth gallery space, the conversation with Round began with a question about the pervading tendency towards light and space as a cure. It is now commonplace to adapt a period property to create unified living spaces rather than buying a new build.
Round posits that modern interior design philosophy stems from ideals of healthy living which grew from the wreckage of world war one: “…a response to pre-war times when bacterial infections like TB were much more prevalent. People wanted to be able to clean their homes easily – and wanted moveable furniture that you could rearrange single-handedly. They wanted less space for pests, dust and diseases to accrue. So, on one hand you have things like the Bauhaus and the international style, and then there were more practical forms of modernity that began to look at vegetarianism, exercise and allowing daylight into rooms. What began as radical and avant-garde has taken 100 years to distill into what we now consider as contemporary taste.”
Alongside changes in lifestyle came changes in appliances, which affected the home. “Significant advances were being made in the fields of technology during the post-war period, when industrial products were first being ushered into households,” Round commented. “Designers of the time were reacting to the past with a desire to change the future. These everyday objects were developed from ideas about how we can help our lives to function better and allow us more time to spend on our work … or leisure.
“I sometimes wonder about when these things first arrived in the home. Were they seen as miracles? Or alien forms? How did people react when they saw an automatic washing machine for the first time? Today these things aren’t even considered as being industrial products, but at the time, they were revolutionary and changed the world.”
“The balance between old and new is something I’m keen to bring into the exhibition,” Round said, considering the enduring influence Dieter Rams has had on domesticity by exposing home appliances from their hardwood cabinets to demonstrate their clear function. “This is in addition to great craftsmanship and skill, which sits comfortably alongside examples of what machines can make – which, if perfectly finished and manufactured to a high standard, can also be incredibly beautiful.” Rams is often cited as one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, transforming household appliances for Braun and modular furniture for Vitsœ. The act of making coffee, blow-drying your hair, or putting up shelves was transformed from the banal to the ritual.
Many of us have welcomed electronic devices directly into our homes and adapted our interiors to make space for them. In Round’s experience, those who recall the industrial upheaval of the mid-century era find the idea of fully embracing modern interiors daunting. He grinned while explaining his father’s recent desk quandary: “He wanted to change the office in his house and move everything to a new room and asked me how he could cantilever a desk from a wall. I offered to design something for him, but also told him that someone had already done it, and introduced him to Vitsœ. At the beginning, he was horrified and wanted to know why I’d suggest he buy something that looked like it ‘belonged in a 1960s municipal building’. Regardless, I measured the wall, counted how many box files he had and told the planners he wanted a table. He was sent two different drawings, looked at the cost, and said ‘Well, that’s not a bad price. A bespoke piece would be much more expensive.’ He’s had the desk for five years now, and he loves it. He uses it every day, and the grandchildren sit there to do their homework and make Skype calls on the laptop.”
Gesturing towards technicians installing Vitsœ shelving on the gallery walls for the open-storage element of his exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield, Round asserted that the objects he’s chosen should be, “out in the open, with ceramics, textiles, cutlery, books, luggage all sitting together comfortably on display. In keeping with Helen Kapp’s resistance to a peg-board format, I wanted to use 606, in part, to show the idea of cyclical change. For the duration of the show I’ve invited one guest per month to come to The Hepworth and rearrange all the items I’ve chosen, allowing them full autonomy to create different combinations in the space. So, over the course of six months, the look of the entire set will change completely.
“I think this reflects how stark minimalism doesn’t seem as popular as it was twenty years ago. Nowadays it’s more about eclectic collections, and as much as I hate using the word ‘curated’, it seems to be that mix of styles from different periods is very ‘current’ right now. Even the dark painted floors reminiscent of the Victorian era are back in fashion but being shown off with brightly coloured furniture and pure white walls. I remember Dad talking to me about the 1940s, and how he remembered everything being very brown. Interiors were dark, drab and dimly lit. The layout of his 1930s house remains very traditional, even though I’ve been trying to convince him to knock down some walls, because he says it would be difficult to give up the specific rooms. The dining room probably gets used twice a year.”
As trends and technologies come and go, simple and timeless designs emerge as the dependable cornerstones in the home. The designers and architects of the post-war period devised a system of living that has proved remarkably resilient – their visionary ideas about the importance of light, mobility and longevity have shaped how we live today. With technology moving further into the cloud, many of us feel the need to reconnect with the physical world and understand the importance of investing wisely in belongings that will enrich our lives and our environment.