April 21, 2011

Heard, but not seen – invisible technologies in the home

Our homes are filled with no end of technologies, simple and complicated.  Most people, however, would rather not see these devices, or at least have them disguised in some way in order to blend in with the furnishings.  Here are just some examples.

Light switches and electrical sockets come in functional white plastic but also a multitude of other colours and materials to suit; Georgian brass, for instance.

In the days when domestic telephones came attached to a cable, you could buy one in any colour of the rainbow.  You could always find the right one to match the wallpaper.  Today’s cordless versions are usually lost somewhere under a pile, so the colour is largely irrelevant.

Televisions that came in wooden cabinets, so that when the doors were closed, it looked like a drinks cabinet.  Today’s fancy screens that are mounted on living room walls resemble modern art.

Radios too were housed in cabinets.

Let’s not forget the current fashion for retro style products – candlestick telephones, wartime wireless sets, fridges that look like they came straight out of a 40s American diner – the latest technology but dressed up like an antique.

There are still many housewives from the old school who cover their ‘black boxes’ with pretty lace cloths and other fripperies so that they blend in more.  A small digression here: one of the reasons why my friend Margaret got divorced was because her ex didn’t like her putting table cloths on top of his new two-metre-high stereo loudspeakers.  He said it ruined the sound effect.  She said they were an eyesore.  Anyway …  Household technologies are not meant to be seen for what they really are.

You may also recall a post that gave homemakers instructions on how to make decorative telephone screens, with matching covers for the telephone directory.  Useful though these items were, they were too ugly to be on public display.

In the same era in Weimar Germany, Walter Gropius advocated a concealment of domestic technologies.  Yes, water, electricity, heating, telephones and suchlike are vital but we should not be confronted with evidence of their presence.  In a Bauhaus home these functions should be invisible.  “One wants to be served, but the presence of the servant should not be allowed to make us feel uncomfortable.”

Walter Gropius, Paul Schultze-Naumberg.  “Wer hat Recht? Traditionelle Baukunst oder Bauen in neuen Formen.”  Uhu, no.7 (April 1926)

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.