Ideal homes, 1918-39 – Q&A with author Deborah Sugg Ryan

Monday, 5 Mar 2018

1. What book in this field has inspired you the most?

I have been influenced by several books that present biographies of houses fused with personal memoir, notably Julie Myerson’s Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House (2005), Rosa Ainley’s 2 Ennerdale Drive: An Unauthorised Biography (2011) and Margaret Forster’s My Life in Houses (2014). I was also inspired by Akiko Busch’s Geography of Home: Writings on Where We Live (1999) and Ben Highmore’s The Great Indoors: At Home in the Modern British House (2014) because of their fusion of historical and sociological observations on the design and use of the twentieth century home with the authors’ own experiences. The style of writing of these books – lucid, engaging and accessible to non-academic audiences – was also important to me.

2. Did your research take you to any unexpected places?

The most unexpected place my research took me was, in some ways, the most obvious and also the most personal. After I had written the first draft of the introduction, with which I was not happy, I kept returning to a throwaway comment I had made about my personal experience of an interwar house that I purchased in 1995. Built in 1934, the house had all its original decorations and furnishings intact. I realised that my experience of renovating this house with my husband (which by the time we had finished friends joked we should have donated to the National Trust) had profoundly affected my understanding of the material culture of the interwar home. So I abandoned what I had written and started anew with an account of viewing the house for the first time, which I used to frame the book.

4. What did you enjoy the most about writing your book?

I was fortunate to be awarded a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship in 2012-13. This allowed me an intensive period of visiting archives and libraries. It has been very important to my research to experience primary sources at first-hand and not just as two-dimensional digital images on a screen. I also relish the serendipity of the archive. The best example of this is the Day Reports of Respondent 082 in the Mass Observation Archive, which I started to read to contextualise a photograph she contributed to the 1938 Mantelpiece Survey. I ended up reading every word she wrote about the minutiae of her everyday life. She documented her loathing of housework, rivalries with her neighbours, disdain with her ‘common’ family and frustrations with her husband’s snobby relatives. This proved an important lived experience to counter the consumer discourse of domestic advice manuals, women’s magazines and advertisements.

5. What did you find hardest about writing your book?

Life got in the way of my academic career. Writing this book coincided with a period of many years of working part-time, firstly by choice to spend time with my young family and then later due to serious ill health. There were long periods when I was not able to work on the book at all. I also changed jobs four times and moved house three times. And I faced the challenge of being located in Belfast and later in Cornwall, far away from my primary sources. It was a stop-start process.

6. Is this your first published book, or have you had others published?

My first book was The ideal home through the twentieth century (1997), which told the history of the Ideal Home Exhibition. I have also contributed chapters to edited books, most recently The Edwardian Sense and Design Objects and the Museum.

7. How did you feel when you saw your first published book?

My first book came out when I had just had my first child and was having a career break. I was sleep-deprived and experiencing the full terror of motherhood when I could not believe that I was responsible for a tiny infant. The book honestly did not seem very important at a time when I was immersed in the moment.

8. Why did you choose to publish with MUP?

It came out of conversations with the Studies in Design and Material Culture series editor Chris Breward, with whom I was very keen to work as a fan of his research and because he was open to the cultural approach I wanted to take to design history. We imagined my book in the first instance as a counterpart to Helen Long’s The Edwardian House. It was also very important to me to have the opportunity for a large amount of illustrations, especially in colour.

9. Did you approach writing this book differently to any of your previous work?

Yes, it is written in the first person and I have reflected on my own experiences, which means that I am very much present in the book. I have also tried to engage my readers by telling stories of individuals to illustrate some of the cultural and social shifts for which I have tried to account. The book is scholarly but accessible to an informed reader. I would be thrilled if people who have lived in, or are currently living in, interwar houses read and enjoy my book.

10. Have you had time to think about your next research project yet? What are you working on now?

I am developing two aspects of the book into new projects. Firstly, I am working on a more international history of the kitchen with a much longer timescale, thinking about past, present and future. I am working collaboratively with colleagues in other disciplines on the kitchen of the future and I am also writing Kitchen for Reaktion’s Objekt series. Secondly, my interest in how people live with and negotiate the material culture and design of the past is being developing in a project on vintage subcultures, focusing on fashion and events. 

Ideal Homes, 1918-39 is available now.

Order your copy here.

Click on the image to see sample pages.

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