In his remarkable new book Making Dystopia, James Stevens Curl keeps quoting someone called Osbert Lancaster, who is cited 20 times in the book’s extensive index. Who is Osbert Lancaster? Well, it turns out my friend David Mittell, of Jamaica Plain, who styles himself “Dr. Downturn” to ridicule my old Providence Journal pseudonym “Dr. Downtown,” loaned me his copy of Lancaster’s Homes Sweet Homes (1939, reprinted until 1948) after a talk I gave in Boston last fall about my book Lost Providence.
[I have discovered that the lender of this book was not David Mittell but my former ICAA chapter board member Oliver Bouchier.]
Homes Sweet Homes pairs Lancaster’s pithy descriptions of 34 often sarcastically titled architectural styles, from “Norman” to “Jacobean” to “Baroque” to “Stockbroker Tudor” to “Even More Functional,” with one of his own wry line drawings of the living room from each period. The one above, illustrating the long quote below, is from “Functional.” The last chapter, “Even More Functional,” is of the basement as bomb shelter, courtesy of “Herr Hitler.”
An example of his dry wit is his description of the rationale for an architectural feature of the Early Georgian household, a round-topped enclosure set back into an interior or exterior wall called a “niche”:
Niches had to be made to shelter the busts of Roman worthies which the antiquarian enthusiasm of Lord Burlington and the Dilettanti unearthed from the soil of Italy in suspiciously large quantities.
Below I quote the chapter on the “Functional” style in its entirety. I hasten to emphasize that each of his chapters lampoons a period style, so it is not just “Functional” that is punctured in its pretensions.
We have seen how, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the average interior tended to become more and more crowded with furniture, ornaments and knick-knacks of every variety. It is not therefore surprising that at last a violent reaction should set in. The voice of the new Puritans, nourished on the doctrines of Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mumford, first attained a really authoritative ring in the late ‘twenties, but even in the succeeding ten years, while it was listened to with ever-increasing respect, the number of persons who felt compelled to act upon such advice as it so generously gave remained disappointingly small. This apparent failure of the reformers in the realm of domestic architecture (in the shop, the factory and the hospital its triumph, though delayed, is inevitable) is, one fancies, one of psychology. The open plan, the mass-produced steel and plywood furniture, the uncompromising display of the structural elements, are all in theory perfectly logical, but in the home logic has always been at a discount. The vast majority, even including many readers of the New Statesman, crave their knick-knacks, though not in Victorian abundance, and are perfectly willing to pay the price in prolonged activities with broom and duster.
At the moment there are signs that many of the leaders of the school, though not of course the more strict, are compromising, and a selected assortment of objets d’art et de vertu are being once more admitted. At first sight they are a grim collection, but nevertheless they fulfil their old illogical function – the cactus sprouts where once flourished the apidistra and the rubber-plant, the little bronze from Benin grimaces where smiled the shepherd-ess from Dresden, and in the place of honor formerly occupied by the kindly Labradors of Sir Edwin Landseer there now prance the tireless horses of Monsieur Chirico.
Unfortunately, after writing this post, I discovered that our cat ate the book. Sorry, Dr. DT!