That the British are obsessed with our homes is a truism. Few other nations obsess quite so much about daily fluctuations in house prices, or attach quite so much cultural and social cachet to the idea of home ownership. The tale of modern British history is in large part the tale of our relationship with the spaces in which we reside: the move from rural to urban areas; the post-war reconstruction; the building and, under Thatcher, sale of social housing stock; the boom of the 90s and 2000s; today’s housing crisis, which has made home ownership a distant dream for many young people.
The Design Museum sets out to explore this obsession, looking not to the future, as the title suggests, but into the past. It takes radical concepts from the 1950s, 60s and 70s – complete with giant, tactile installations – and asks whether they have, or will, come to pass. The result is fascinating, less a comprehensive look at the evolution of the home than a mad, niche vision created by someone obsessed with retrofuturism and 1970s Italian industrial design.
Back in the 60s and 70s, free love and communal living were rarely far from the agenda, and these ideas permeate the exhibition. Beds, in particular, are ever-present. There are giant, multi-person sleeping pods, a huge, felt nest in which visitors can curl up, a metal mesh that sleeps at least three, a video installation that imagines the bed not as a private place, but a group – even a performance – space. To many back in the 60s, the idea that 50 years later we’d still be pairing off into couples and living in the same Victorian houses would have seemed impossibly boring; we’re such a disappointment.
Indeed, it’s not always the outlandish pieces and grand designs that make the biggest impression, but the way we’re still grappling with the same old problems.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, space has been a constant concern – how can we eke more from the increasingly small flats in which many of us reside? As anyone who reads Joel Golby’s brilliant articles on the London rental market knows too well, this is as much an issue today as it’s been at any point in the last half a century.
Home Futures includes a series of designs for “micro-homes” that try to utilise every square inch of space, with sketches and concepts for everything from bath tubs to kitchen worktops; some of these ideas are only now being seriously considered by architects and interior designers.
Elsewhere are examples of 50s and 60s retrofuturism, with Jetsons style moon-pod homes and lots of inflatable furniture. There’s a big emphases on the ‘future materials’ that became available during this time of technological upheaval, with designers keen to incorporate nylon and perspex and polycarbonates into their furnishings and architecture. This is neatly reflected in the curation, with the space divided by translucent sheets of plastic that have an appropriately “space-age” feel. The crowning glory is perhaps the scale model of the famous modernist house from Jaques Tati’s film Mon Oncle, which both typified and parodied this stark new aesthetic.
Weaved into this fabulous tapestry are nods to the times these visions came true: the modern smart-home, for instance, while mostly consisting of plugs and light bulbs, is hinted at in the concepts of many designers working in the pre-internet age. But by and large, this isn’t a history lesson but a celebration of the weird and wonderful way people hoped things would turn out, and, perhaps, a hint at how we might live in some far-off future.