Bill Bryson has written some remarkable books. The travels for which he became famous, taking in Britain, America and Australia, are frequently hilarious and rarely less than perfectly observed.
Those travelogues are complemented by deeply researched works like A Short History of Nearly Everything and One Summer. So little is known about William Shakespeare that Shakespeare: The World as Stage becomes a fascinating study of life in the late 1500s and early 1600s, including the development of London into the metropolis we know today.
It’s a little strange, then, that I’ve never picked up At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which looks at how the things we take for granted in our houses - the rooms, their relationship to one another, what we fill them with and do in them, and so on - came to be the way they are.
Happily, I’m currently remedying the situation. It’s a weighty tome, of which I’ve read about a third so far. Already I’ve laughed helplessly at his description of the joyless attitude of Mrs. Beeton in her famous book on household management, and there’s barely a page where you don’t gasp at learning the origin of another everyday word or phrase.
The development of homes from single-roomed halls in which every household activity took place to multi-roomed houses is particularly fascinating. In the larger houses of the very wealthy, kitchens and dining rooms would be so far apart that one stately home owner resorted to installing a railway in his property in an effort to deliver food to the table while it was still warm.
Among such entertaining curiosities, what really stuck out was a fact about Italian house design during the Renaissance. Rooms weren’t given specific names because they didn’t have specific functions; occupants moved around the house during the day, wheeled furniture accompanying them, seeking the best combination of sun, shade and natural light as they went.
That chimed nicely with my recent post about making full use of space. Not only that, but at a time when so much is written about performance gaps and a lack of comfort in buildings, it’s really interesting to think of people being flexible about the functions of rooms and intentionally pursuing the best living conditions at any given time.
Of course, technology makes it much easier to use the rooms of modern buildings at any time of day for any purpose we want. Technology also makes it easier for us to tie ourselves to certain rooms. If you want to spend all day in front of your prized 65-inch 4K television then good luck wheeling that from one room to another!
The point is, we all know that natural light is good, and that a better connection between indoors and outdoors - where it can be achieved - is healthy. And yet we often choose not to pursue that, or find ourselves unable to do so.
That can be down to poor building design - like the patio doors that look so impressive when buying the house, but which let in too much solar heat during summer and lose too much heat during winter, so the room is hardly ever comfortable.
It can also be due to giving our rooms formal labels that describe what they should be used for and not necessarily what they could be used for. Maybe we all need to embrace a bit more informality, and enjoy using our spaces at home and work more flexibly.