This article will investigate the re-evaluation of “home” from shelter to showcase in nineteenth century English culture and literature and its subsequent representation in US film, television and contemporary Australian society. Within “home” are embedded the mythologies of stability, family, honourable aspirations and moral dimension. Equally these qualities are interlaced with judgement, one-upmanship, vanity and financial burden creating a complex, but nonetheless widely understood language of materiality. The “home” is a contradictory space, its cyclic oppositions reflecting and magnifying class aspirations, divisions and fantasies.

This narrative power of “home” is well exploited in literature and film, but equally we “write” and “read” our own domestic stage sets. Home-makers have come to depend on a number of visual cues to help construct their domestic environments. In the nineteenth century they relied on advice manuals, catalogues and show rooms, and to these we have added magazines, the internet, home-maker centres and display homes, amassing an elaborate library of scripts, in Goffman’s sense, by which to shape our dreams of living well.

Home is an emotionally charged site of human endeavour, delicately balanced between public and private; dream and reality; investment and debt; comfort and hardship. Regardless of situation, in times of hardship or otherwise, home is a much coveted site of display; the stage upon which we perform our lives and those we aspire to.


In 1990 the Australian Broadcasting Commission telecast the first Australian-produced lifestyle television program. The Home Show, hosted by Maggie Tabberer and Richard Zachariah, would usher in a new era of television programming, in which “home” became not only a physical site of lived experience, but a remotely viewed entertainment industry. The great Australian dream had become the great Australian show. The program’s appearance also aligned with some of the first murmurings of dissent associated with the latest version of this dream. The book of the program, published after its second series, includes an introduction containing an extract from an interview by Tabberer with the late Manning Clark. Clark laments, “as long as Australians continue dreaming of owning their own homes on quarter-acre blocks they will remain in overdraft, battling budgets and bonded to the banks. Isn’t this committing Australians to a conservative society forever?” (Tabberer & Zachariah 1991, 8). Clark’s concerns and predictions were ultimately realized. “Mortgage stress” is now as familiar a media term as “property boom”, reflecting the potential for home to simultaneously induce both overwhelming financial anxiety and the reassurance of sound, conservative investment. Since Clark’s observations, overstretched and credit burdened Australians have relentlessly pursued their obsession with home ownership—and its representation on television. We are now enticed by an enormous variety of imported and locally produced home shows devoted entirely to home as lifestyle, entertainment, asset and ornament.

In her analysis of The Block (2003), Australia’s most successful home make-over program, Fiona Allon ponders its success:

Was this just an exceptional moment in Australian history when conservative ‘white picket fence’ national politics, a property boom and escalating levels of economic affluence came together? Or when IKEA-mania, personal insecurity, and a general turning inward aligned like the planets of the solar system in a freakish kind of harmony? …The appeal of The Block related to something more entrenched and long standing: a culture of home-centred individualism that has long existed as one of the most defining traits of the nation (2008, 26).

Allon goes on to align the success of the program, as she suggests in her commentary above, quite definitively with the politics of the conservative Howard government that relentlessly assigned nationhood, happiness and security to home ownership. She quotes Howard’s declaration of home ownership as an “article of faith”, “a noble aspiration” and “the heart of the Australian experience” (2008, 18). Alison Clarke emulates Allon’s ideas by suggesting “the British boom in home improvement in the 1980s was associated with the broader conservatism and materialism of Thatcherite politics” (2001, 23). Both suggest the encouragement of home-centeredness is a means of realising the voting public’s desire for self-identification and control over their personal domains. This, in turn, encourages a strong bond with the prevailing government that permitted, indeed enabled, such asset-building and empowering possibilities. Home ownership is perceivably our own personal economic boom and a stake in our country’s financial stability.

Home is, however, beyond just a political and social construct of secure financial investment. In 1942, as Australia remained in the grip of war-time uncertainty and the fringes of battle drew perilously close to its shores, Prime Minister Robert Menzies used the notions home as a reassuring measure of Australia’s identity and wartime resilience:

One of the best instincts in us is that which induces us to have a little piece of earth with a house and a garden which is ours, to which we can withdraw, in which we can be amongst friends, into which no stranger may come against our will (1942).

For Menzies home possessed a metaphoric meaning beyond just bricks and mortar. It was a safeguard for familial and civic virtue and a slice of nationhood to which Australians were both owner and protector. Home was, and remains, a site where even in times of extreme uncertainty, we can find familiar and comforting signs of continuity and stability.

“A house”, claims Gaston Bachelard, “constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability” (1994, 17). Stability, whether real or inferred, is a much-coveted human ambition, and for many of us, is realised in the construct of home. A stable family life infers a “home” is the physical site from which the core foundation of stability emanates. To be “homeless” is a situation to be pitied. It infers perpetual transience and non-belonging; an impoverished existence with no warm or familiar refuge in which to comfortably retreat each day. By contrast our homes are invested with an intensity of meaning that reach far beyond the basic requirement of refuge. The unity of building, interiors and objects reflect who we are, or perhaps more accurately, an accrued vision of how we wish to be perceived. We create staged internal spaces against which we act out our present and induce our possible futures, “thereby framing and reflecting our sense of self” (Hecht 2001, 123).

Erving Goffman suggests the self is in fact a multiplicity of acting selves. “Everyone is always and everywhere more or less consciously playing a role. It is in these roles we know each other, it is in these roles we know ourselves” (1969, 17). To enable our roles to assume a richer sense of belief and meaning, they require an appropriate theatrical set to help articulate the narrative. Goffman continues:

firstly there is the ‘setting’, involving furniture, décor, physical layout, and other background items which supply the scenery and stage props for the spate of human action played out before, within or upon it (1969, 19).

Our homes are the stages we construct to reflect who we are and how we wish our lives to be read. As Bachelard observed, “we write a room, read a room and read a house” (1994, 14).This capacity to “write” and “read” interiority is strongly rooted in the home cultures of the burgeoning middle-class of the nineteenth century. Alison Clarke describes the components of the middle-class interior of this period as:

indicative of bourgeois leisure, displayed within a carefully articulated schema promoting the home as both showcase and shelter and ‘civilizing’ space … The ornamentation, decoration and conviviality associated with the middleclass parlour epitomised the notion of home decoration as an expressive—if highly prescriptive—practice perpetuating bourgeois values of social aspiration, material comfort and lineage (2001, 24).

The rooms were carefully constructed sets, exhibiting to all who entered them that they belonged to a family who understood the language of things. Luxury, refinement, respectability and pedigree were firmly established in the materiality of the space.

By analysing select examples of ‘home’ and its associated language within European cultural history, it is possible to establish a definitive link between the history of home as a narrative and performative construct, and home as contemporary lived experience. As Bachelard suggests the cocoon-like security of home comes from the material presence of spaces shaped by human hands and architectural features:

In our house we have nooks and corners in which we like to curl up comfortably. To curl up belongs to the phenomenology of the verb to inhabit, and only those who have learned to do so can inhabit with intensity (1994, xxxviii).

Whether in historical fiction or the reality of modern habitation, home is a repository of realised ambitions and unmet desires; gagging debt and financial security; private intimacies and public show; lived reality and staged perfection.

Home in the History of Literature and Cinema

Nineteenth century literature employs vivid descriptions of domestic interiors and property as a means of extending the value of a story’s principle characters. Their moral dimension, social positioning and economic worth are embodied within the descriptions of their homes. As Charlotte Grant explains:

It is the novel as it developed through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that is arguably the written form most closely associated with the domestic interior, and this association fuels persuasive metaphors around the house, fiction and the interior (2006, 135).

These texts have set the terms and the tone for much of our contemporary imagining of the home, the scripts and ideas which are represented here having emerged out of a protracted “boom” and rise in power of the capitalist middle-classes and the domestic products which they purveyed and consumed.

Within the works of Jane Austen, for example, houses are as vividly characterized as the personalities that inhabit them. They play a pivotal role in situating their residents’ social and economic circumstances within the complex pecking-order of English society in the early nineteenth century:

For Jane Austen the houses of country squires and nobility alike were not simply the expressions of a wealthy ruling class but an ideal civilization, a mixture of self-esteem, national pride and uncompromising good taste. And, as such they provided the ideal background for her novels: an orderly foundation on which to stage social folly (Watkins 1996, 52).

By the nineteenth century the furnishing and decoration of the middle-class home, and the carefully rehearsed social etiquette performed within it, had become a conspicuous means of expressing ones social position.

Social life in a country house was conducted as an intricate set of rituals. The architecture of the house was the stage, the furniture was the scenery (Sudjic 2008, 105).

The “writing” and “reading” of class identity lay firmly within the domestic interior.

As never before families invested time, money and a burning interest in designing their domestic tableau, creating impressive landscapes and atmospheres in room after room (Clarke 2001, 24).

Where wealth and land had once sufficed to demarcate social boundaries, cultural sophistication, aesthetic appreciation and proper behaviour were also required to articulate one’s position (Watkins 1996, 64). Even when a family fortune was in decline, a display of cultivated manners in rooms of cultivated taste was a socially strategic means of preserving one’s status (Clarke 2001, 24). In Austen’s Persuasion (1818), the reputation of the massively indebted Elliot family is preserved by a decision to lease the family estate of Kellynch Hall and retreat to smaller rented accommodation in the fashionable city of Bath; an action that would “remove their embarrassments and reduce their expenditure, without involving the loss of any indulgence of taste or pride” (Austen 1818/2008).

Austen regularly employed comparative properties to define social boundaries and alterations in fortune. Indeed a fall from favour could be easily suggested through a downward shift in her characters’ property. It is pity we are persuaded to feel when Austen’s female protagonists are forced to evacuate their grand country home, Norland, in Sense and Sensibility (1811). When ownership of the beloved ancestral home of their father passes to their half-brother upon the patriarch’s death, the Dashwood sisters are forced to decamp to a much smaller four-bedroom cottage by the sea with only three servants to their aid:

As a house, Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles. A narrow passage led directly through the house into the garden behind. On each side of the entrance was a sitting room, about sixteen feet square; and beyond them were the offices and the stairs. Four bed-rooms and two garrets formed the rest of the house. It had not been built many years and was in good repair. In comparison of Norland, it was poor and small indeed (Austen 1811/2008).

This collapse of fortunes or “bust” is a typical Austen architectural purgatory: a waiting room for young women until they are wed to the well-to-do and returned to their rightful place amid the nobility. More importantly, this extract demonstrates how long we have held sacred the emotive ties to the traditional—and nostalgic—house form. Barton Cottage is described as “defective” for lacking the picturesque charms of more established older abodes. Its functional regularity and newness is read as dull and uninviting, and quite incapable of capturing any emotional investment from the Dashwood women.

Austen also used grand domestic architecture as a means of devaluing a person’s character. In arguably her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813), the tediousness of Mr Collins is escalated each time he expounds the grandness of Rosings Park, home of his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. His attempts to flatter his hostess at one party sees him compare her drawing room to “the small summer breakfast parlour at Rosings, a comparison that did not at first convey much gratification” (Austen 1813/1985, 67). Realising his offence, he attempts to atone for the insult by reassuring his hostess that Lady Catherine was indeed a woman of many parlours, and “the chimney piece alone had cost eight hundred pounds” (Austen 1813/1985, 67). Mr Collins’ constant referral to the value and size of another’s real estate served only to diminish his own moral virtue and social standing. To be in perpetual awe of wealth is to suggest an unfamiliarity with it; a sycophantic idolizing of another’s worth based entirely on materiality.

However, the most famous of Austen’s house “characters” must be Pemberley, seat of the landed gentleman, Mr Darcy.

Darcy is not merely Austen’s wealthiest hero, his house confirms his possession of taste and moral probity. Pemberley, with its well-proportioned rooms and prospects provides Elizabeth with clarity (Grant 2006, 148).

When asked by her sister Jane, when she had become enamoured by the bristly Mr Darcy, Elizabeth answered, “I do believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (Austen 1813/1985, 382). The seduction of luxury and real estate is often a persuasive love token in the affairs of the Austen heart. The homely estates of Uppercross and Longbourn are no match for the riches of Kellynch, Pemberley and Netherfield.

Literature has given us numerous houses over which we can delight and construct mentally until television and Hollywood came to give form to our imagined visions. The nineteenth century mansion proved a particularly enduring trope of filmic representation: Pemberly, Brideshead, Tara and Rebecca’s Manderley have all traversed the threshold of imagined grandeur to cinematic reality.

Film architecture—interiors and exteriors—is always architecture that has been depicted, photographed, turned into an image. It embraces the actors and scenes like an air-space that has become visible, like a built coat, a petrified robe, a stage set. Its presence defines the setting, the social position of the characters and their inner mood (Schaal 1996, 16).

Much like the traditions of nineteenth century literature cinematic sets have long been utilized to establish and reinforce character types, their social positions and moral dimensions. As Hans Dieter Schaal suggests, “film architecture is an architecture of meaning. There is nothing in the frame that is not important and does not have something to say” (1996, 16). A traditional homely set, for example, provides a reassuring, idealized and morally superior framework, that can reflect well upon the characters that inhabit it.

In addition to its capacity as a general marker of character and dramaturgical nuance, Hollywood film of the 1930s proved particularly important in the establishment of Art Deco as part of Australia’s national domestic language. From the projected screen, Deco’s sleek contours, shiny chrome, radiating sunbursts and towering ziggurats crept into the architectural forms of the cinemas themselves and ultimately beyond, into the exterior worlds of commerce and suburban domesticity. Art Deco was not just modern, but representative of a future built upon new technologies, new materials and new allies. Deco provided the visual cues that Australia’s population and administration was keeping pace with the rapid changes of the twentieth century. As a country still tethered to an overwhelming alignment to Britain, Australia could disguise its cultural dependency, at least on the surface, beneath a “pastiche of lurching rhythms and angular forms” (Holden, 1995, 156) borrowed from the architectural vernacular of corporate and domestic America. (see also below; Fry 2010; Boyd 2010).

Marjorie Garber claims “the house plays a peculiarly powerful place in the logic of good and bad materialism” (2000, 147). This concept was particularly visible in the 1930s Hollywood film ofThe Women (1939). In the movie, the social whirl of New York’s society women is depicted as one of unparalleled luxury and leisure. It, like so many MGM movies of its time, presents its characters as “independently wealthy and living in a mad world of cocktail parties with the source of such luxury usually unspecified or taken for granted” (Mandelbaum & Myers 1985, 33). Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is the cheerful and well-bred Manhattan socialite ultimately wronged by the sharp-tongued and cunning shop girl, Chrystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Mary’s residence is a grand but traditionally appointed series of apartments; a “good” material cache of modern luxuries deserved by a “noble wife and mother”. The vision of Chrystal’s apartment after she has wooed and married Mary’s husband, is a ludicrous and overly opulent baroque bathroom. The room is a “monument to bad taste—just right for a vulgar social climber” (Mandelbaum & Myers 1985, 40). The rooms represent the division between “good” and “bad” material culture and are used as defining evidence of character; one honourable, the other wanton.

Mary’s home is notably traditional, appointed in comfortably upholstered furnishings, with decorative niches displaying an array of tasteful ornaments, referencing America’s old-money attachment to the tasteful trappings of history and tradition (Mandelbaum & Myers 1985, 17). It is not, as one may expect for its era and locality, a grand Art Deco apartment. This was the reserve of another cinema archetype altogether:

Most closely associated with Art Deco were the nouveau riche, the underworld, the worlds of entertainment, travel and retailing, and women either kept or liberated (Mandelbaum & Myers 1985, 13).

In an earlier MGM film The Divorcee (1930), also staring Norma Shearer, the decadent sets are a series of sinfully modern interiors; the sites of infidelities, counter affairs and adultery among the ranks of the New York smart-set. An audience predisposed to the cosy comforts of doily-clad armchairs remained unthreatened by this Hollywood “otherness”. This was a world far removed from their own; an escapist fantasy, to be observed, judged but rarely experienced.

Equally, Art Deco was representative of commerce and stern establishment values as evidenced in the law offices of George Simon (John Barrymore) within the corporate edifice of the newly erected Empire State Building in Counsellor at Law (1933). But, whether corporate or domestic, Hollywood’s Art Deco interiors are an idealized fiction, capable of denying the currency of place and situation. An audience suffering the realities of economic hardship through the depression of the 1930s could, for an hour or two, escape their own material shortcomings by viewing an idealized alternative: beauty, glamour, wealth and sumptuous interiority.

In Australia, chevron shaped wall sconces, angular china coffee sets and other such accoutrements were easy modernizing home adornments that required little risk or commitment, yet exuded all the connotations of smartness and energy. According to Robin Boyd, the residents of Australia’s white-collar suburbs were keen to adopt the modernity signified by the appearance of domestic Art Deco in the mid-1930s. Boyd describes it as “the ‘jazzy Moderne’, a fidgety sort of iconoclastic, beatnik aberration” (2010, 64). It dispensed with the fussy Englishness of earlier architectural styles. He also described it as “Australian as spaghetti on toast” (2010, 65), suggesting it was little more than a diluted, domicile variation of an imported style. Tony Fry goes further in his insightful analysis of Australian design and modernism:

Australia was first constituted by imposition. The slow progress to self-determination, in conditions of dependency, was bonded to the models of the modern drawn from elsewhere—especially Britain and, later, the USA. Modernity was thus not a driving historical condition of transforming social and economical conditions and their cultural consequences. Rather, it was a regime of signs—the arrived appearances of the modern world of metropolitan capitalism (1995, 213).

Hollywood film was one of the “sign” providers that, along with imported magazines, advice manuals and catalogues, provided a rich source of images that “acted to create a typology that registered the look and operation of the modern world” (Fry 1995, 213). Australia’s home culture has a long history of dependence on signs from elsewhere, Britain and the USA in particular.

In 1975, Peter Weir carefully selected a particular house to represent Appleyard Hall, the private and exclusive girls school operating on the fringes of the Australian bush in 1900. While the narrative of Picnic at Hanging Rock occurs outside Woodend in Victoria, the school is represented by Martindale Hall, a Georgian style mansion near Mintaro in South Australia. It was designed by the London architect, Ebenezer Gregg, and constructed in 1879 by predominantly English craftsmen, brought to Australia for the sole purpose of building the house, who then returned once the construction was finished. The style and provenance of the house is significant. “Always there was the Georgian, symbol of good taste and breeding, for those most anxious to display their Englishness” (Boyd 2010, 72). There can be no greater sign of Englishness, an enduring symbol in nineteenth century Australia of civility, good behaviour and moral probity, than an English style house designed by an English architect and built by English craftsmen. The meaning is not lost in the film. An Australian school for well-heeled young women in 1900 would have a self-determined class-encrusted Englishness as its core value. The building would serve as both protector of this and a visible sign that the education of it was occurring within.

The Hall’s refined English façade would have created the desired Victorian “theatre of arrival” (Timms 2008, 18); its stately proportions registering as solemn and authoritarian. “The aim was to impress upon you that you were leaving behind the vulgarity of the mundane world to enter a more orderly, sophisticated and cultured one” (Timms 2008, 18). Order, sophistication and culture were certainly desirable qualities befitting the education of young society women, and the vulgarity of the Australian bush was best left at the estate’s gate. The fate of the three girls who disappear during the Valentine’s Day picnic in the film reiterates a prevailing construct of the Australian bush. It is a place to be feared by women; it is “dangerous, non-nurturing and not to be trusted” (Schaffer 1988, 62). Safety, by comparison, lay in the construct of the English home and the protocols that governed its habitation. To abandon one or both of these, as the film suggests, is certain to end in chaos and disorder.

Significantly, the interior of Martindale Hall is not Georgian, but Italianate, the height of modernity and superior taste in 1879:

The richer mansions eschewed such cut-rate ornament as the sand moulds of the foundries could turn out. For them Italianate was the only accepted costume” (Boyd, 2010, 60).

In The Australian Ugliness, Boyd argues that Australia’s architectural history consists of a series of almost theatrical gestures of “cloak and camouflage” (2010, 21), the practice of disguising a building’s actuality of place with cosmetic effects and borrowed theatrical veneers of sophistication and worldliness. At first the “veneers” were adopted from a governing England and by the 1930s from the United States as well. Again, Tony Fry expands on Boyd’s ideas:

what can frequently be found in Australia is the fallout and modification of that which is originally created for other circumstances. Australia is the land of the simulacrum, a place of original copies and unplaceable familiarity (1995, 209).

In the context of the Victorian interior, like that of Martindale Hall, Australians who sought a display of elegance and sophistication looked for it in the drawing rooms of England.

From Imagined Interior to Lived Experience

The use of Martindale Hall in Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, provided the necessary social and historical context against which to present the film’s narrative. The Hall acts as a symbol of stern English authority locked in battle against a ruthless and unforgiving Australian bush. Its formal masonry walls were the armour against the unknown, a comforting, if somewhat foreboding familiarity in a site of unruly and potentially terrifying emptiness.

But equally as a place of actual habitation, this grand house stood for infinitely more than mere shelter. It was a conspicuous sign of wealth and proof of pedigree. Martindale Hall and the many Victorian estates of equal and lesser scale reflected their owners’ notion of “home” as a cultural alignment to Britain. By the late nineteenth century the furnishing and decoration of the Australian home replicated those in England. Like those they copied, they would become a carefully articulated means of expressing social position, and, as with Weir’s cinematic set, they articulated situation without need of explanation.

Figure 1: Cover, W.H. Rocke & Co. (1874), Remarks on Furniture and the Interior Decoration of Houses. Reproduced with the permission of the State Library of Victoria.

Martindale Hall was a trophy home constructed for the wealthy twenty-one year old pastoralist, Edmund Bowman. Bowman and his grand estate epitomized the economic boom occurring in Australia in the 1870s. The Melbourne furniture retailer W.H. Rocke & Co. (figure 1) proclaimed in 1874:

A golden shower of prosperity has descended upon the leading productive industries of the country, additions are daily made to the ranks of our wealthier residents, and never before has the creation of magnificent household interiors, as well as exteriors, proceeded at so great a rate. Throughout the country the owners of property are rivalling the ‘homes of Merrie England’ in the size, conveniences and grandeur of their residences, which not unfrequently resemble the mansions of English noblemen (anon. / W.H. Rocke 1874, 9).

Embedded within the Victorian middle-class home was the essential drawing room. W.H. Rocke exalted the virtues of the room in its 1874 promotional catalogue, and in so doing epitomised much of the era’s attitude toward domestic luxury:

It is an excellent outcome of our national feeling that the most bigoted utilitarian has never laid his profane hand on the British drawing-room. That one room in every house suggests ideas of poetry and beauty, as well as comfort and decency, is a vast national blessing. It must tend to exalt, refine and enrich the mind (anon. / W.H. Rocke 1874, 17).

The drawing room was an indication to all who entered it that they were entering the home of a decent family culturally aligned to England regardless of actual geography. Its members housed a sacred and carefully articulated collection of domestic and ornamental accoutrements whose holistic vision was greater than the sum of its parts. The room, explains Alison Clarke, was “the internalised vision of what other people might think of one” (2001, 42). Each object included in the scheme was added not for its function, but its narrative. Each spoke of success, good taste, and civility to a rarefied audience: the few honoured visitors deemed worthy of an invitation. These were people judged to be of equivalent standing and good taste. As Trevor Keeble argues, “in the context of nineteenth-century domestic culture, to have taste was to have the ability to judge” (2007, 68). Within the Victorian drawing room a wife could confidently display her decorative homemaking skills before the judgment of visiting peers, and simultaneously present the good fortunes of her husband who could afford her the luxury to do so.

The drawing room was a performative space as much as a domestic one. Like a stage or cinematic set, the room informs its privileged audience of the social situation, tastes, habits, and personality of its owner. Expectations determined by Victorian etiquette, class and protocol, informed how the space was to be used and how one acted within it. Again, Keeble explains:

In an era which saw the widespread proliferation of consumer culture, the social conventions of ‘visiting’ provided models of design, behaviour and taste, and these models were understood and interpreted as explicit acts of homemaking (2007, 68).

Australia’s ‘good society’ slavishly emulated the customs of sociality determined thousands of kilometres away in Britain. The drawing room was domain where, at stipulated times a Victorian woman could declare herself “at home” to female friends and acquaintances (Timms 2008, 67).

The original purpose of the ‘at home’ was to give women a taste of social life, an aim effectively thwarted by rigid rules of etiquette. A lady set aside a particular afternoon for receiving callers, who were expected to stay no more than fifteen or twenty minutes, occupying themselves in brittle repartee over tea and cake. Each visit was announced with a calling card, around which a terrifying set of protocols became encrusted. Any breach of calling card etiquette might have one branded as ill-bred, which was certain social death (Timms 2008, 67).

The drawing room was a crucial site of peer judgement, and one ruthlessly stage-directed by a set of governing protocols. It was almost exclusively located at the front of the house; its public face where service and tradesmen were banned and redirected to a side or back entrance. The front room, as Marjorie Garber explains was “condemned to respectability and neglect” (2000, 80). Erving Goffman also examines the notions of “front” as the site in which we act out the personas expected of our social situation:

‘Front’ is that part of the individuals performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance. ‘Front’, then is the expressive equipment of a standard kind (1969, 19).

The front room remained a standard feature of Australia’s domestic architecture until the 1950s.

In the modern Australian home we have abandoned the front in preference to a less formal back-of-house. The kitchen door has long been the preferred entry for family and trusted friends. Here they can enter without formality and without judgement. No well-to-do woman of the nineteenth century would ever dream of greeting or entertaining guests, familiar or otherwise, in the kitchen. This was a site of service and drudgery, below her station as mistress of the house. It was purely functional; unadorned and undecorated. But, in time we have adjusted and redefined our back-of-house. The new aspirational showcase has shifted from the ‘graveyard parlour’ to the large, open-plan living room and kitchen. The coveted luxuries of kitchen appliances sit alongside flat-screen televisions, and big comfortable furniture have replaced the fussy ornamentation, velvet drapes and marble fireplaces as signs of affluence and social one-upmanship.

The Modern Home Show

Goffman claims that:

one of the richest source of data on the presentation of idealised performances is the literature of social mobility. In most societies there seems to be a major or general system of stratification and in most stratified societies there is an idealisation of the higher strata and some aspiration of those in lower places to move to higher ones (1969, 31).

The language of the afore mentioned retailer W.H. Rocke & Co. was rich in descriptive qualities that made no secret of how one should act if a financial windfall should occur:

There is the frequent case of a man to whom has come a sudden access of wealth—a pastoral settler, whose unusually large clip of wool has just got top price in London, or a mine proprietor, whose claim a sea of wash dirt or a wall of golden quartz has just been developed—who forthwith vows that the wife of his bosom shall no longer be annoyed by the dinginess of her house fittings. Accordingly he gives her carte blanche to the best firm in Melbourne to send up and refurnish her drawing and dining rooms from top to bottom (anon. / W.H. Rocke 1874, 5).

While contemporary retail language is not as florid as that of Rocke, it still relies heavily on the ‘booming’ potency of aspirational language. An example of this can be readily examined in the advertising vernacular of the modern housing estate; sites where the semiotics of homes like Martindale Hall are distilled into smaller but nonetheless impressive representations of luxury and comfort.

The outer Melbourne suburb of Caroline Springs has promoted its latest land release, The Grange as such:

From the moment you cross over The Grange’s stately entrance bridge, you’ll know you’ve entered an address of serenity and prestige. At the heart of the village is a million-dollar European park, its natural amphitheatre and alfresco kitchen providing perfect opportunities to get together with friends and neighbours. Yet while you’ll have all the privacy you’ll ever need, rest assured waterfront dining, shopping and first-class amenities are all just minutes away (anon. 2011, 5).

The language is deliberately, and unashamedly, seductive. “The vocabulary of real estate is flirty, seductive, a come on” argues Marjorie Garber. “They promise not just a place, but a relationship” (2000, 6). “Waterfront dining”, for example, is suggested as an experience best shared, and just one of the opportunities “to get together with friends and neighbours”. Such leisurely indulgences are the by-product of a booming economy, and ones afforded at The Grange and deserved of its residents. “Grange” in itself is a loaded term denoting prestige and quality. The Grange was the name English Architect August Pugin gave his house in Ramsgate; the Penfold’s Grange vintage is well known as Australia’s most expensive and collectable wine; it is the name of a luxury hotel in London; and a maker of expensive French furniture.

The scale of the homes in newly developed suburbs too, speaks volumes of the aspirations of their owners, and how they wish to be perceived. The trophy home remains, as it did in the nineteenth century, one of the most visually explicit means of presenting one’s aspirations to a public that is either invited in, or simply passing by. Either way, they are a much-coveted audience who must be wowed by the performance of the house.

Shoe-horned into tiny blocks of land the over-scaled homes, dismissively termed “McMansions” by critics, one sacrifices land and trees for a multitude of modern amenities—multiple bathrooms, bedrooms, home theatre, study, a formal living room, dining room, gourmet kitchen, family room, multi-car garage, outdoor living area, a grand double height entry with an equally grand statement staircase. In Jean Baudrillard’s The System of Objects he equates the “triumphalism” of the fins of American cars in the 1950s to “the sign of victory over space” (Baudrillard 1996, 59). The fins serve no purpose, other than to suggest speed, which of course they do not actually produce in reality due to their added weight to the car. “They were purely a sign; not of real speed, but a sublime, measureless speed” (Baudrillard 1996, 59). Similarly the “McMansion” is a victory over space (figure 2). What it crams within its restrained boundaries, is quite remarkable. But like the fins, they suggest a meaning that they do not deliver. They are purely a sign; of affluence and like-mindedness. Anna Klingmann attributes the success of new housing developments to their emphasis on middle-class family values and their effective preclusion of social heterogeneity (2007, 79). Difference is not promoted, but a staged and carefully articulated homogeny is.

Figure 2

Klingmann discusses this staged urban perfection particularly though her analysis of Celebration, the Disney owned gated community in Florida. It appears like an extruded Norman Rockwell painting: streetscapes that recall a safe, nostalgic and romanticized America of the past. It is, she claims, the site where “the smooth transition between scripted drama and urban reality become most evident” (2007, 77). It recalls the staged perfection of Disneyland itself:

As part of the moral sanitizing, visitors are encouraged to feel safe. The undesirable and threatening aspects of society are purged. Not only is dirt, crime and poverty removed, but social deviance is curtailed. Disney does not tolerate drug consumption, unrestricted free speech, gang paraphernalia or behaviour, unusual religious practices or open displays of homo- or hetro-sexuality (Klingmann 2007, 79).

For Klingmann Celebration is the quintessential branded city in which controlled environments are perceived as “safe, familiar and comfortable, entertaining yet homogenized to accommodate a commonly accepted standard” (2007, 80).

Celebration’s success in appearing “safe and comfortable” relies heavily on a romanticized sense of “past”. Equally in Australia our modern housing estates are brimming with façades of nostalgic longing: Colonial, Victorian, Federation, Edwardian (figure 3). The “fake rusticity” Robin Boyd was so critical of over fifty years ago, still remains an enduring component of our modern suburban landscape. As Fiona Allon explains:

with instability and uncertainty all around, ‘history’ provides a reassuring patina of confidence and steadiness, even if it does exist only as a catalogue of references, a pastiche of styles able to be selected purely on the basis of personal choice. Land and space may be at a premium, but the memory of suburban childhoods, when everything seemed simpler and slower, can be rekindled through any designer finish (2008, 144).

Figure 3

Dressing the Set

Housing estates provide numerous clues to how the modern Australian should be living. While the exteriors regularly replicate the warm familiarity of nostalgic house forms, the insides are visions of luxurious modernity. Spotless glass splashbacks, pristine carpets, stainless steel appliances, untarnished furniture, and spa-retreat bathrooms abound in home after home. The rooms are staged not for function, but for show. Televisions are cordless plastic vacuum-formed hollow objects. Furniture on the whole is kept clean, modern, neutral and limited. At no point do these homes replicate the genuine clutter most Australians accumulate over time. Nor do they embrace any notion of “make do” or “second hand”. There are no hand-me-down items of furniture or sheets thinly veiling windows as the indicators of newly inhabited homes. As Goffman suggests “if an elaborate show is to be safely staged, it may be more useful to remove oneself from the facts rather than stick to them” (1969, 194).

Once the display home is entered, the audience is self-propelled through a sequence of desirable, but artificial room-scapes, dressed as persuasive lures to a lifestyle most are hoping to emulate. Within the new housing estate the audience members are induced to believe that they too can live on multiple planes of luxury, comfort and convenience:

Visit a display village on the city’s edge and join the crowds wandering through perfectly finished but eerily empty houses, each person mentally acting out his or her private dream of domestic living. In a way these display homes are the ultimate fantasy space, asking you to do nothing more than add your presence to complete the picture (Allon 2008, 138).

The display suite of rooms is not just the preserve of display villages, nor do they only exist on the outer edges of the city. Department stores and later home concept stores have also long understood the persuasive lure of stage-set luxury. Again, to use W.H. Rocke & Co.’s catalogue as an example, customers were invited to join them in “a summer and winter drawing-room in the latest style, both admirable illustrations of perfect good taste and judiciously large expenditure” (anon. / W.H. Rocke 1874, 18). The illustrated showroom accompanying the text is an abundant confection of buttoned upholstery, voluminous drapes, and a multitude of small, heavily ornamented occasional tables that shamelessly required a large amount of money to secure them (figure 2).

Figure 4: “Drawing Room Group”, in W.H. Rocke & Co. (1874), Remarks on Furniture and the Interior Decoration of Houses, between pp. 16 & 17. Reproduced with the permission of the State Library of Victoria.

More than a century later IKEA is utilising the same display technique, but with a far more budget conscious, globalised, and—as Deyan Sudjic, suggests—imperial approach:

IKEA’s strategy in every country in which it has established a presence is to refuse to budge a single millimetre from its tested formula. Its products are all given Scandinavian names, the café serves Swedish meatballs, and the taste is IKEA’s not that of its customers (2008, 112).

Customers around the world can peruse entire apartments—the same apartments—within any of the stores so they are able to envision a home entirely constructed of IKEA products and unadulterated by the intrusion of other brands or objects. For the uncertain purchaser, IKEA provides a fail-safe home-styling homogeny conveniently flat packed and ready to slide into the back of the family car.

But a trip to the city edges or shopping precincts is not necessary when there are more immediately accessible clues to living well. The internet provides us with a world of endless homes and rooms in which to indulge our fantasy longings and legitimised voyeurism. Equally, contemporary home magazines provide visual evidence that the dream interior is achievable. Indeed, they are among our many current consumer must-haves. But, they, like display homes, present a staged perfection that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in reality.

Take for example the March 2011 edition of the UK magazine, 25 Beautiful Homes; a magazine that carefully presents its cover price in British pounds alongside Australian, American and New Zealand dollars, suggesting the a beautiful home is indeed a desirable and “universal product” (Baker 2011; Klingmann 2007, 80). The cover lines include the expression “real-life rooms” (Baker 2011). They are not, apparently, artifice or illusion. A single portrait of the owner is represented in most stories, but the rooms remain otherwise unpopulated. A casually dishevelled rug hangs half off a bed on page 27, a prop that suggests, though does not prove, some human engagement with the room. The magazine continues its pictorial feast of casual luxury, orderly clutter and perceived human engagement through the occasional open laptop, set table and empty wine glass awaiting filling. It is not until page 80, the eleventh “beautiful home”, that the seduction of its “real-life rooms” takes complete hold. Over five pages the reader is lulled into believing this home is real. No one is present, though according to the text it is home to two adults, two children and two dogs. An un-poured bottle of orange juice on the dining table and uncut fruit on a kitchen chopping block suggest some human activity may occur eventually in the house. But it is the careful visual analysis of the hero-photo on the opening spread that clinches the illusion. In the centre of the image sit two lamps on a grand refectory table. The one on the right has a cord that reached to the surface of the table but disappears beyond that. The one on the left has no cord at all, dispensed with through digital post-production. The unsightly realities have been erased wherever possible: cords, mess, people, pets.

The advertising industry, too, provides persuasive visual cues towards the unreal staging of our interior existence. All domestic activity and family interaction takes place, in the most part, in immaculately maintained interiors of enviable size, finish and location. Even the most basic cleaning products swoop over distinguished surfaces—granite, stainless steel, Italian tiles—making them shine and gleam like jewels. In the 2010 Pine-O-Cleen advertisement, a woman disturbingly wipes her luxury stone bench-top and child’s highchair with a portion of raw chicken. She does so with an enviable collection of stainless steel appliances in the background (Reckitt Benckiser / various 2010). When she shifts to the Pine-O-Cleen wipes, a spray of glittering stars trails after her effortless cleaning action. Cleanliness and middle-class luxuries are inextricably linked. Similarly, the most banal of breakfast cereals are eaten amid a plethora of gadgetry that distinguishes the contemporary dream kitchen from lesser ones. In the 2007 stop-frame animated Coco Pops commercial, the cereal falls from a cabinet within a conservative but nonetheless aspirational kitchen (Kellogg Co. / various 2007). The cereal leaps across designer cookware and an expensive ceramic Belfast sink, before landing in the bowl. This is not an advertisement aimed at children, but an attempt to appeal to careful parents to reconsider their nutritional concerns against Coco Pops. Its appearance in a conservative but expensively appointed kitchen provides some qualification of the product as a valid and responsible parental choice. Moral probity and family welfare are secure in the sanctity of the well-appointed but homely comforts of the modern kitchen.

Compare this kitchen with that of the “Kids and Alcohol Don’t Mix” television advertisement by DrinkWise Australia (2011). A teenager is permitted his first drink in the safe environment of home, but this home is not a vision of glossy surfaces and enviable up-to-the-minute appliances. On the contrary it is shabby, dated, cluttered and tired; battered by daily use and left to degenerate by a family too busy to care for it. By comparison to other televised kitchens, it is a disturbingly ‘real’ reality; possibly the only real interior in current advertising. Its singular truthfulness is strangely alienating. We want to belong in the other kitchens and imagine that we do. This shabby reality is an unfortunate fiction, or at best, a truth that belongs to other people. Our imagined realities have an alignment with refinement and connoisseurship, or at least the bulk of the advertising we view suggests we should.

Because of the size and mass invasion of media into our lives today, interior design is subject to fashion much more than it used to be. And herein lies the danger: when people slavishly follow trends, they and their homes tend to look increasingly alike (Tabberer & Zachariah 1991, 54).

So warned Maggie Tabberer in The Home Show twenty years ago, ironically herself setting a fashion for home as an televised chimera, and dispensing domestic advice to Australians through the new economic logic of program merchandising: the book. Likewise, the 2010 episodes of The Block brought with it the latest in merchandising, including a website embedded with links to presenter blogs, Facebook, and product placement, as well as “style guides brought to you by Freedom”, a company specialising in furniture and homewares (Cress & Barbor 2010).

But regardless of the medium, or as a component of lived experience or fictional representation, home embodies powerful and emotive qualities. Family, stability, social situation and moral standing are firmly embedded in the structure and mythology of the house. Even if the house is overshadowed by the burden of suffocating debt, this for all except those that shoulder it, is invisible, irrelevant and secondary to its role as a sign and marker of personal success. What the outsider sees, is what we want them to see: the reward due to a nation of ‘aspirational’ citizens. We devote enormous amounts of money, effort and time into the creation of a staged domestic perfection. Before an audience of a very select few, family and occasional friends and strangers, we act out the life we so desire: an intoxicating mix of fantasy and reality; an idealised, domicile bliss in preference to the ordinary and the tarnished.


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