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Richard Eder

Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski (Viking: $16.95; 230 pp.)

July 13, 1986|Richard Eder

A creature that lives between an upper and a lower shell, neatly fitted together, is a tortoise or a turtle. A creature that lives inside feathers is a bird. One that resides within an array of quills is a porcupine.

So, what is a creature that lives in an adobe hut and sleeps on a dirt floor? One that lives in a drafty castle, ornamented though hardly furnished with heavy chests and a few improvised beds and tables; in the company of relatives, liegemen, dogs and servants? One that perches in a co-op apartment with white walls, a sunken bathtub and Breuer chairs?

Not three different species, of course, but only one; though very unstable.

"What is man?," that early biblical question, has been answered in dozens of ways: according to soul, intellect, communal patterns, politics, economic function and even, in the glossier advertisements, leather luggage.

Witold Rybczynski, a McGill University architecture professor, suggests still another way of answering it. The subtitle of his book "Home" is "A Short History of an Idea." The idea is that our wandering human nature can be identified in the wandering meanings we have assigned to our houses.

Rybczynski can be provocative and engaging with his idea, and he can be erratic. His energy comes and goes. He moves, like a glider, on serendipitous air currents. At its most buoyant, his book suggests a history of the human spirit conceived in terms of its lodgings. In its damper down drafts, it subsides into a workaday history of domestic technology and fashion.

He starts off with the present, by taking a wickedly innocent tour of the Ralph Lauren home-furnishings boutique at Bloomingdale's, New York's temple to that zone of modishness that is excitingly close to, yet prudently distant from, the cutting edge.

He has great fun with Lauren and his billion-dollar image industry. "Fifty years ago he might have been a tailor or a dressmaker," he writes. Calling this designer of life styles--clothes, luggage, soap, eyeglasses, room decor--a tailor releases considerable energy. So does his comment, referring to the eclectic results, that "his renown as a designer has been the result of his commercial success, not vice versa."

The Bloomingdale's show is certainly eclectic, yet there is a common note running through its four sections: the rustic Western "Log Cabin" look, the plantationlike "Jamaica," the huntin', shootin', Spartan-tartan-and-brass of the "Thoroughbred" section, and the Early American of "New England." All, in their costume-drama way, evoke past graciousness. All display what Rybczynski calls "invented traditions," and he goes on to ask what we miss in our present-day arrangements that makes this harking back so alluring.

He has something specific in mind, but first he takes us on a tour of the household arrangements of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The first was relatively crude, with masters and servants sleeping in one or two big rooms on beds that were often set up at night and put away by day, so the cooking and eating could proceed. The second was grander and more elaborate.

And yet in both, "home" was essentially a public place. Even in the refinements of Louis IV's Versailles, the domesticity was fairly public. Rooms opened onto each other, and the notion of the corridor was still incipient. To get anywhere, everybody, except for the most exalted, walked through everybody else's room.

For Rybczynski, the concept of the "home" is something different. It took shape gradually in Northern Europe, found its first complete expression in the Netherlands in the 17th Century, and then spread slowly to other parts of Europe and to America. It is a collection of related notions: comfort, domesticity and, above all, intimacy. "Intimacy"--he borrows the notion from Mario Praz--he defines as the relation between a room and its owner. He compares two renditions of Saint Jerome in his study. One, by Antonello, is formal and generalized; in the second, by Durer, the saint is surrounded by a host of objects that are specifically his and bear his imprint. They are the equivalent of the well-worn easy chair.

The Dutch conception of the home is a high point for the author, and his chapter on it is the high point of the book. The lack of class divisions in this mercantile republic, and the lack of building space combined to make the small and intimate home rather than the grand and awkward mansion the ideal for the prosperous.

There were few servants. The lady of the house and her daughters did much of the work themselves. When the Prince of Orange sent an emissary to the widow of Admiral Ruyter, the nation's hero, he found her unable to receive him because she had twisted her ankle hanging up the laundry. Something that would have been inconceivable at the time in France or England.

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