HomeCultureBooksMeet the Author

A quick history of making a house a home

A quick history of making a house a home

How we choose to decorate our homes has always been tied up with social forces outside. Living Rooms writer Sam Johnson-Schlee traces that history of interiors


A living room with chintz floral wallpaper, floral armchair and a painted blue dressing tableChintz, once a symbol of luxury, later became synonymous with old fuddy duddy interior design trends

The year before Tony Blair evicted John Major from Downing Street, IKEA launched a campaign to get British households to “chuck out your chintz”.

The advert condemns chintzy interiors to the same old-fashioned and class-riven era that New Labour promised to rescue the electorate from. Now the home was to be filled with brightness and open-plan living in a new age of domestic modernity.

But chintz has a long history. Originally the word was used to refer to a specific printed fabric from India, close to Hyderabad. The brightly coloured and intricately patterned materials became so fashionable in Europe that French and British textile manufacturers successfully petitioned to have it banned.

"IKEA launched a campaign to get British households to 'chuck out your chintz'"

By the early 19th century, "chintzy" became a word to describe not fine imported textiles but the mass produced European-made imitations.

Later, chintz absorbed all kinds of other Victorian styles and by the 20th century "chintzy" encompassed all kinds of once fashionable 19th-century interior objects: doilies, ornaments, potpourri, velvet, floral wallpaper.

By the Nineties it was derided because chintz was associated with a certain fussy working class or middle class aesthetic epitomised by television programmes like Keeping Up Appearances.


Green velvet sofa in green painted room with checkered tiled floorVelvet helps create a comfortable interior that lets you escape the stresses of capitalist society for a minute

The philosopher Walter Benjamin was fascinated by style and consumer fashion in the Victorian era. In particular the domestic interior of the homes of the middle class, which was expanding with the industrialisation of the economy.

He thought that all of the ornate and fussy furnishings of such homes were a way for people to escape from the stress of a rapidly changing society, even though they were benefiting from it financially.

Velvet upholstery was a key part of creating these comfortable and protective environments in apartments and houses in cities like London and Paris.

Velvet is notable because of the way it responds to the body. When you run your hand over velvet it leaves a mark behind, the perfect material for upholstery and cushions that are designed to mould to your body and comfort you.

Perhaps the recent fashion for velvet sofas is evidence of a new desire to hide away from the things that are happening in the world, safe inside our homes.

Picture frames

If, as I have suggested, the home might be seen as a space shut off from the outside world, how do we stay connected to the things that we love? One of the features of the contemporary interior, just as it was in the 19th century, is the gallery wall.

Picture frames proliferate in our homes as a way to feel connected to people, places and ideas that we wish to allow into the home even as we try to shut other things out.

The most obvious example of this is the family photograph. When hung on a wall it acts as a sort of portal, connecting us to people that we are not with.

"Slogans like 'Live, Laugh, Love' represent a reach for a kind of utopia"

Picture frames are a way of controlling the things that connect with our domestic lives. But the trend for slogans and more abstract images could also be thought of as a way of connecting our homes to the world at large.

Slogans like "Live, Laugh, Love" sometimes get made fun of but they represent a reach for a kind of utopia. Framed pictures of holidays, band posters, family photos, art prints, and self-improvement slogans; they are all a kind of dreaming.

Picture frames make a kind of collage of things that represent the world we wished we lived in.

House Plants

House plant sits in basket weave pot on shelfHouse plant mania took off in the Victorian era, when home owners competed to own the most rare and unusual flora

The Victorians became obsessed with ferns in a frenzy that became known as "pteridomania". They had to be kept in special terrarium-style glass boxes called wardian cases to protect them from the polluted city air.

The pattern on a custard cream biscuit is a left-over from this fashion for ferns.

Perhaps the most iconic Victorian house-plant, the aspidistra or cast iron plant, did so well because it could survive even the most unpleasant atmospheres in smoggy London.

Today house plants are a good companion in the housing crisis. Private renters must always be prepared to move house at a moment’s notice and a house plant with its self-contained living environment will not be overly disturbed by the move.

House plants allow those without access to outside space and with insecure tenancies to bring life into their homes. There is a kind of solidarity between houseplants and their owners, both finding a way to survive inside their containers.


Making quilts and blankets and other soft things for friends and family is a way of expressing love. The things in our home made by people we know feel like a kind of embrace from them at a distance.

But most of the things in our homes are made by people we will never meet, so what kind of relationship do we have with them?

It is easy to forget that the things that provide you comfort, that you buy from IKEA or Dunelm, were made by someone, probably in another country to the one where you bought it.

"It is not only things that make our houses into homes, but the work of thousands of people"

These workers will be paid only a fraction of the money you exchange for the warmth and comfort that the thing they have made provides you.

And in between that factory and your house are hundreds of other hands and workers who move it along the supply chain. And beyond that are the people who produce the raw materials. And despite all of their wages and work it is still their bosses who take home the lion’s share of the £50 you spent on that blanket.

It is not only things that make our houses into homes, but the work of thousands of people. While our homes may feel private and separated off from the West, they are actually entangled with lives and labours around the world.

Even if you live alone, you are connected to the world at large in countless ways. Being at home is really being together.

Living Rooms by Sam Johnson-Schlee is out on November, 10 2022. Available from Peninsula Press for £10.99

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.