Comfort Crash Course

Comfort Crash Course, Day 8: Private Life (or, Why the Couch Is More Comfortable than the Park Bench)

4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort

Hanjin Palermo - day room

Crew members' day room aboard the Hanjin Palermo

“If you have to summarize it in one sentence,” Bill Bryson writes in At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly.”

Given the reading materials I’ve been swimming in for the past week, I can conclude that Bryson is right in this assessment. But I would also argue that the statement could and, for my purposes, should be reversed: that the history of getting comfortable is a history of slowly getting more private.

In my last post I looked at how the Anglo-American redefinition of comfort—its shift from a purely mental or spiritual state to a physical one—gave rise to the modern popular consumer, establishing now-basic household material items as “comforts” that one should be entitled to, as opposed to “luxuries” or “necessities.”

This was, in many ways, a good thing. It meant the democratization of physical comfort and led to, for the first time, a certain standard of living that was expected to be enjoyed not just by the aristocracy, but by everyone.

The Gentle Shepherd
David Allan, “Glaud, Jenny and Peggy,” from Allan Ramsay, The Gentle Shepherd, a Pastoral Comedy (Glasgow, 1788). Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

But the internalization of comfort also meant the internalization of lifestyle. Thomas Maldonado gives a fantastic summary of this shift in his essay “The Idea of Comfort,” published by the MIT Press’s Design Issues in 1991.

Comfort, giving emphasis to the sense of the pleasure of private life, ratifies the central position of the home as the place for social activity and contributes to the formation and consolidation of the modern nuclear family. In summary, comfort is the new model for life proposed by the bourgeoisie; it is the new lifestyle.

. . .

And the purpose is clear: to block the excessive instability of the family, to shelter it from external intrusions, anchoring it to a precise location, tying it then to an interior. . . . In its emergent phase, the bourgeoisie, aware of this requirement, rushed to define the form and content of its ideal life: a life centered on privacy, on “the atmosphere of privacy.”

In some ways, one could argue, this was a good thing from a social perspective. As Maldonado writes, it led to the creation of spaces within the home, for instance, dedicated solely to socialization, such as the parlor:

The parlor constituted the most characteristic typology of the new style of middle-class life. This marked characteristic is accentuated by the presence within the parlor of the so-called “corner of the sofa,” which constituted the “heart of the heart”: an area that independently and compulsorily preordains the place in which conviviality should unfold.

But while it’s difficult to argue with any space being constructed for the sole purpose of convivial exchanges, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that in turning our attention to the comfortization of our internal lives, we began to sacrifice the level of comfort in the exterior public realm that we all share.

Of course since the eighteenth century there have been obvious improvements to public comfort as well. “Disinfectants and deodorants, sewers and paved streets, the elimination of noxious gases in urban areas, safe water related to problems of the supply and distribution of drinking water, sources of illumination—these are all qualifying moments of such a transformation,” Maldonado writes.

But I can’t even count the number of times during my stay in New York that I rushed back from Manhattan to the apartment I was renting in Brooklyn as quickly as physically possible for no other reason than to escape the unceasing drain of the city. Just as people did in the eighteenth century, I would tune out the discomforts of the outside world through the comforts of my interior life.

Despite the “democratization of comfort,” as Maldonado writes, quoting Peter Gay, not everyone is so lucky as to have a comfortable life at home. And many of those who do also want a comfortable public life in the city. We don’t want to have to hole ourselves up in isolation.

And so I would venture to say (though I would invite a counterargument) that the internalization of comfort in the average home was not “the democratization of comfort” at all—that instead the most democratic of comfortable places would be the public space of the urban fabric itself.

Ballard Corners Park
Ballard Corners Park, Seattle

Before I left on this journey, I sat down with the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s curators, David van der Leer and Maria Nicanor, and asked them why, of all the ideas to choose as a theme for the Lab, comfort was the first—more specifically, Confronting Comfort.

They told me that this private-public tension was one of the exact reasons for it. As David put it:

We looked a lot at the architecture that was built right after the Second World War, when there was this whole fascination with living well. Coming out of a war where everything was tough, we believed that everything would be better if we would just live in clean, bright, and airy apartments. So it was very focused on the private living situation. Even when you looked at architecture, “comfort” always went back to that smaller scale of the apartment, or even the bedroom or the living room.

So we wanted to make a jump out of that to the general level of the city. The only reference to comfort that we seem to have had on a city level over the past ten or fifteen years has been revamping former warehouse areas into gallery zones, or revamping former port areas into parks along the river. But is that really comfort? It seems that the only way we’re thinking about cities and comfort is: okay, we need to get our parks along the river and then everything will be fine. But I don’t think this is really the case. We have our parks along the river and things are still not fine.

I am, by nature, a public person. I am that person who talks to you on the bus or the airplane; who accepts invitations to join strangers’ pub crawls; who sits at the bar instead of at a table in hopes of meeting strangers or hearing bartenders’ life stories; who carries an egg shaker or a siren whistle when I travel in hopes that the opportunity will arise to join in an impromptu jam in the park.

I have numerous memories from my childhood of my parents reminding me that not every stranger is one I should talk to. As long as I can remember, I have reveled in public life. It’s why I love the city.

I am also somewhat of a recluse. I become easily overwhelmed by social interaction and by city life, especially in times of stress. It is not unusual for me suddenly to be gripped by a need to get away so strong that I’ll pack my car late at night without warning and drive six hours to a cabin in the mountains.

But never has my desire for public life been stronger than here aboard this ship, where it is, more or less, simply not an option. Of course, there are others aboard: the crew, captain, officers, and other passengers are all wonderful people with whom I share convivial moments. But it is no match for the unpredictable thrill of strolling down my neighborhood street or playing my saxophone downtown on the night of a big hockey game.

The absence of public life is more than enough to make me truly appreciate how important it is.

Yes, we need comfortable homes for living our private lives. But we need comfortable public spaces for our public lives too. A truly democratically comfortable city is one where we have the choice to live our lives in one, the other, or both.

Photos: (top) Christine McLaren; (bottom) courtesy of

The Comfort Crash Course is a two-week series by BMW Guggenheim Lab|Log blogger Christine McLaren as she journeys 15 days from New York to Berlin via containership, following the same cross-Atlantic route traveled by the Lab itself last fall. In the complete absence of city life, and armed with a library of diverse readings that helped inspire the theme for the Lab’s first cycle, Confronting Comfort, as well as others recommended by Lab|Log followers, she explores this theme at its core. The goal: to discover and understand the roots of the human quest for comfort—and why it needs to be confronted. More here.