Domestic Interiors Database: the new HGTV?

As much as I keep it a secret, I do have to admit that I love shows about buying and selling homes. There’s nothing like watching interior decorators transform a space, watching newlyweds fight about what room to make their office and which to make their guest room, and seeing a dilapidated house change from potentially-haunted into a modern, cozy, living space. Instead of binge-watching HGTV and watching people fawn over their granite counter tops, there’s also an excellent archive of domestic interiors that spans both time and space.

Compiled by the Arts and Humanities Research Council Center for the Study of the Domestic Interior, this archive was built between 2001 and 2006, as a part of the AHRC’s mission to “ensure that knowledge and understanding by arts and humanities research is widely disseminated for the economic, social, and cultural benefit of the UK and beyond.” The archive features over 3,000 entries, spanning six centuries of interior designs.

The Domestic Interior Database (DIDB) is interested in investigating the way the use of domestic space changed over time, decorative and functional objects within domestic interiors, and how people of these times considered their spaces. These questions are posed through the accumulation  of both reference information and interpretive data, supported through images such as: Renaissance paintings, popular magazines, eighteenth century graphic-satire, and drawings. Textually-based evidence is sourced from novels, poetry, diaries, letters, advertisements, and periodicals. Due to the plethora of visual culture materials sourced, and the wide-range of supporting text-based materials, this is truly an interdisciplinary archive that may prove useful for many times of research going beyond domestic interiors.

The DIDB is also an incredibly transparent archive, with a separate page devoted to discussing the research methodologies that went in to selecting and curating materials to be a part of the database, as well as selected bibliographies. When searching on the DIDB, you can even save searches and results for long-term projects. To begin searching through the archive, simply enter a keyword in the search box on the upper-right hand corner. For example, I searched for ‘magazines’ and returned with 303 results spanning the years 1769-2005.

A revolution in the printing industry in the eighteenth century stimulated a rise in serial publications and an improvement in printing techniques. The Town and Country magazine included illustrated plates…(1769)

Each record provides basic information about the artifact, but also adds scholarly commentary about the image, and lists themes, representational strategies, and a break down of the space to aid in a user’s understanding of the image. For example, in a survey of a 1945 photograph of a war submarine’s living quarters, the record lists the type of dwelling this space would be considered (institutional and residential), the quantity of rooms within the space (Dining room, workspace), and the objects within the space (coverings, furniture, equipment). The final entry in these records gives suggestions of related archive entries to view.

“This official photograph shows part of the wardroom (officers’ quarters) of the submarine HMS Tribune. Even in the extremely cramped interior of the submarine, attempts were made to incorporate the usual, class-specific visual vocabulary of officer status with, for instance, dark wooden paneling, magazine racks and furniture such as wardrobes.”

In addition to these types of entries, design fanatics can enjoy a historical take on familiar domestic spaces. For example, I was able to find this 1947 book illustration on advice for setting up a ‘proper’ living room:

“This double-page illustrated guide to arranging and decorating the living room is one of four selected from Modern Homes Illustrated of 1947 which offers practical suggestions to readers for laying out different rooms in the house. The advice above features both a traditional recipe for converting an attic room into a functional living room and a more modern ‘open-plan’ version on the ground floor.”

The archive maintains compelling artifacts that show the evolution of domestic spaces in multiple eras, locations, and from perspectives of different class levels and occupations. These mass-produced guides on living room arrangement are drastically different from Renaissance oil paintings of bourgeois interiors:

“It shows a large interior space, with glazed windows and leather hangings, but which is otherwise almost empty. Scale and the surface decoration of the walls are given most weight. It is often interpreted as a courtesans’ interior. The proximity of the seated man and woman, the woman playing music, and the dancing suggest sociability, but the bed which is prominently depicted behind the couple does suggest a sense of heightened sexuality.”

Whatever corner of the archive you find yourself searching through, make sure to steal some design-inspiration for your own home!

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