Frontiers

Tracing Spaces

Historian Joan DeJean's new book reveals the French origins of our comfort-driven lives.
September 2009

If you’re reading this while seated comfortably, chances are you’re enjoying the benefits of a design revolution that began in France in the 1670s, a period of time Joan DeJean has dubbed “the age of comfort”—also the title of her latest book on French history and culture.

In The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual—And the Modern Home Began, DeJean explains how the contemporary idea of a comfort-driven life first took shape during the 17th and 18th centuries—with developments in architecture, furniture and fashion converging with other phenomena to effect a dramatic cultural shift.

“At first I wanted to write a book called The Sofa,” remarks DeJean, laughing, “and everyone said that no one would publish it. But the sofa was one of the first things that intrigued me. I was interested in the concept of seating—the fact that there was little seating in the home, certainly no comfortable seating, and no seating for more than one person. So the sofa, which came into existence between 1685 and 1710, struck me as something that really changed things. And then I decided to include different types of rooms—from the bedroom to the bathroom—since the sofa’s invention was bound up with the concept of private rooms, each designated for a specific activity.”

DeJean writes that while Louis XV took for granted the right to a second existence outside the public eye, this attitude represented a radical departure from the received wisdom of the age. “The sea change that ended the uncontested rule of magnificence began as a palace revolution,” writes DeJean, “when first a royal mistress…and then Louis XIV’s children, legitimate and illegitimate, their wives and husbands, and his grandson’s wife joined forces to promote a way of life based on a new set of values: comfort, informality—and privacy.”

"Whereas Louis XIV had reserved almost no space for his unofficial life, his great-grandson created an entire parallel universe for himself at Versailles. … The interior world came to occupy roughly as much space as the official Versailles, but it was all completely invisible to visitors." - Joan DeJean

In just a few decades the Palace at Versailles was transformed. “Whereas Louis XIV had reserved almost no space for his unofficial life,” DeJean explains, “his great-grandson created an entire parallel universe for himself at Versailles—a second dining room and so forth. … The interior world came to occupy roughly as much space as the official Versailles, but it was all completely invisible to visitors.”

Changes in domestic interior spaces spread from the aristocracy down through the wealthy financial class and further, leading to significant changes in the psychological lives of a wide swath of French society.

“Obviously we can’t say that there was no interior life before this,” says DeJean. “What becomes obvious, though, is that during the course of this period people start to talk about it much more. Memoirs become much more common. Different literary genres that express emotions, interior life, et cetera—they boom during this period. Novels are full of scenes of people just talking about their emotions. And the whole vocabulary of interiority develops as a result. Take a simple concept like falling in love. Now, obviously, people had fallen in love before, but there was no expression for it in French prior to this period.”

Throughout The Age of Comfort, DeJean traces a set of real-life historical figures whose personal stories are reflected in the interiors of their homes, which DeJean was able to recreate through floor plans, probate inventories and other documents. Among her subjects are an actress, a wealthy financier from humble beginnings, and a working female novelist.

“Tracing these individuals, you can really see how quickly people of very different socioeconomic backgrounds want the same things,” explains DeJean. “Of course, I’m dealing with people who are all moving in certain Parisian circles, and I don’t have the same information for the home of a very poor person. But when you have someone who’s an actress—someone who is not an aristocrat—the simple fact that the floor plan of her home was preserved by architects shows an interesting change. Architects would never have done homes for actresses before. And they would never have kept the plans.”