An interview with Grace Lees-Maffei, author of Design at Home

In this interview, author of Design at Home: Domestic Advice Books in Britain and the USA since 1945, Grace Lees-Maffei, answers 5 questions about her new title and her aim to establish domestic advice literature as a 'rich, historical resource'.

Design at Home brings together etiquette, homemaking and home decoration advice as sources in the first systematic demonstration of the historical value of domestic advice literature as a genre of word and image, and a discourse of dominance. This book traces a transatlantic domestic dialogue between the UK and the US as the chapters explore issues of design, domesticity, consumption, social interaction and identity markers including class, gender and age.

Author Q&A

1. A manuscript is a large undertaking, what was your vision upon starting Design at Home and do you believe you have achieved your goals?

I wanted to show how domestic advice books are such rich resources for understanding design practices in the home, and the consumption of design. Paying attention to these books engages many important issues such as the valorisation of amateur practices and the professionalization of domesticity, the intersections of gender, design, feminism and domesticity, the association of class and design, and the politics of youth. Years of research and writing on this material have, of course, given me a more extensive, nuanced and complicated understanding of the subject. Therefore, I have exceeded my goals, in establishing the historical value of domestic advice books, modelling what I judge to be the most fruitful method for their analysis, and drawing a number of valuable conclusions.

2. What do you hope resonates with the reader?

The home is a site in which the social, material and cultural interact in significant ways, and Design at Home shows how domestic advice books are a great resource for understanding real ideals of domesticity. Design happens within the home as well as outside; design is a practice as well as a group of products, and the decisions people make about how to live are design decisions, just as the ideal lives that domestic advisors advocate are designed. Behaviour is designed, as much as tableware. Design at Home shows that advice books offer solutions which do not always best serve the stated readership. I hope readers of this book will appreciate that domestic advice literature is a rich historical resource, and that it needs to be handled objectively.

3. Who are the intended audience?

I wrote the book for students, teachers and researchers in a range of fields, from cultural and social history, cultural studies, design history, material culture studies, American studies, popular culture studies, literary studies, women’s history and gender studies, youth and family studies and book and publishing history.

4. What makes this book different from similar titles on the market?

There are no similar titles on the market because Design at Home is innovative in three key ways:

Firstly, it establishes the interrelated nature of etiquette, homemaking and home decoration discourses as each being concerned with the home as socially and materially constructed: other studies do not address these three discourses together.
Secondly, Design at Home posits a transatlantic domestic dialogue between the UK and the US of several centuries standing, whereas other titles consider one country or a different group of countries.
Thirdly, Design at Home examines the period from 1945 to the present, whereas existing studies of advice have predominantly examined the nineteenth century.

For example Sarah Leavitt’s From Catherine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice looks only at the USA, only at homemaking and home decoration sources and only at the US. Linda Young’s Middle Class Culture in the Nineteenth Century examines advice in America, Australia and Britain but for the preceding century, while Judith A. Neiswander’s The Cosmopolitan Interior: Liberalism and the British Home 1870-1914 deals with the period preceding that addressed in Design at Home.

5. Can you summarise the book’s key message?

Advice writers proffered solutions purporting to cater for a range of newly identified social groups—the newly enlarged middle class, the post-WW2 housewife and the teenager—but close textual and visual analysis reveals the ways in which domestic advice has functioned as a discourse of dominance, re-inscribing existing social and cultural hegemony, in the period from 1945 to the present.

Design at Home

  • Design at Home

    Domestic Advice Books in Britain and the USA since 1945, 1st Edition

    By Grace Lees Maffei

    Domestic advice literature is rich in information about design, ideals of domesticity, consumption and issues of identity, yet this literature remains a relatively neglected resource in comparison with magazines and film. Design at Home brings together etiquette, homemaking and home decoration…

    Hardback – 2013-12-17
    Directions in Cultural History