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Mette Mechlenborg home is where the entertainment is

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Mette Mechlenborg


Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? asked the English artist Richard Hamilton in 1956, presenting the new artwork with that title that was later to become so famous. Hanging freely in space the home in Hamilton’s collage is a presage of mass culture’s invasion of the private sphere. It introduces the strong colours so characteristic of the sixties and the zebra rug that irrevocably made the home the preferred setting for lifestyle and staging. Next to the comic strip Young Romance hangs a portrait by the painter Roy Lichtenstein illustrating the new art ideal. The consumer culture that staged itself in the fifties inside the walls of the home manifests itself as a Rosenquist canned ham placed decoratively on the table. The lamp is decorated with a Ford logo and an arrow pointing at the woman hoovering the stairs, telling us that “ordinary cleaners get only this far”. Even the technology of mass culture is represented in Hamilton’s collage: a housewife series is being shown on television, the radio has been placed on the floor, and in the window you see a flashing cinema sign advertising the legendary jazz singer Al Jolson. A modern hero and heroine are placed at the centre of the collage; a well-exercised half-naked woman sitting on the sofa with a lampshade on her head and the distended tits of the fifties, and a phallic muscleman posing for the audience with a gigantic lollipop in his hand, bearing the inscription “pop”. Both figures are “displaying their lats, pects, and tits as Product” (Hughes 1991:344).

Hamilton’s collage is the first work in modern art history to incorporate the notion of “pop”, and one of the first works of art to recognize the sweeping transformation of everyday life that the growing entertainment culture brought with it. As Lawrence Alloway wrote in his review of the work in 1959, Hamilton illustrates “a shift in our notion of what culture is” (Hughes: 342).

This article is dedicated to the subject Home as entertainment. In the following pages I would like to focus on this particular aspect of the home; an aspect that does not entirely explain the magic and complexity of the home, but an aspect we cannot and must not ignore.

Entertainment has always played an important role in the home. From storytelling in the light of the paraffin lamp after dusk to piano-playing in the afternoon and singing folksy songs while drinking beer. Entertainment is an important part of human history, of understanding ourselves and of our conception and understanding of the world.

In this article an anecdotal introduction to the emergence of the modern home will function as our entry point to an examination of the entertainment activities outlined in Hamilton’s collage that have resulted today in what can be called the ‘Tivolization’ of the home, and have made the home an indispensable pawn or player in the entertainment industry; a Tivolization that strikes everywhere in our culture, from the idea of the experimental city through the showmanship of politics, sexuality and sport as well as in edutainment programmes, funscapes and parks designed to appeal to your senses. Entertainment has become an increasingly important business everywhere.

Home entertainment and surround-sound systems

Two important aspects come up when we talk about the home in relation to entertainment. One is the issue of consumer culture, which throughout the era of modernism has made the home a theatre for escalating consumption. It is a general assumption that since the breakthrough of modernity the home has become an even bigger asset in the nation’s balance sheet, and that today it accounts for as much as a third of the gross national income in several Western countries (Kumar); this is a proportion intensified by the fact that our society is increasingly moving towards a ‘do-it-at-home’ economy. As observed by the Australian economist Hugh Stretton, home is the place where we spend most time and most resources.
“In affluent societies … much more than half of all waking time is spent at home or near it. More than a third of capital is invested there. More than a third of work is done there. Depending on what you choose to count as goods, some high proportion of all goods are produced and even enjoyed there. More than three quarters of all substance, social life, leisure and recreation happen there” (Stretton:183).
In the perspective of industrialization, the Tivolization of the home is closely connected to the commercial industry Searching for ‘home entertainment’ on Google gives you an idea of the powers controlling and benefiting from the demand for entertainment in the home. This summer (2007) more than 716,000,000 sites refer directly to this search phrase. The market does not yet seem satiated. On the contrary, in January 2006 the international Dutch trend bureau Trendwatching proclaimed the home one of the global consumer trends – and recommended companies to be up front with home entertainment if they want to continue to be able to satisfy the ever more creative and demanding consumer (

The other aspect of the home as entertainment is the communication industry which provides cheaper, more mobile and more flexible inventions. This has made entertainment easily accessible to members of the household. The multimedia business in particular saw the possibilities in the home at an early stage and made it its strongest, most stable marketing target. Since the 1950s, when Hamilton presented his collage, the multimedia industry has grown enormously. The possibilities have become greater, and today cover a variety of sophisticated high-technology entertainment options for the entire family for time-consuming and challenging self-entertainment programmes on the computer and the Internet.

These possibilities further indicate that the entertainment options found earlier in the public sphere have now moved into the private sphere/the home. Today the public cinema has strong competition from the home cinema, Disneyland from the Sony Playstation, and outdoor concerts from the private Dolby Surround Sound System, DVDs and MTV. Cafés and bars compete with high-profile espresso machines, drink-mixers, home-café chairs and tables to an extent where the experience at home becomes as good as the experience out there. Among other things, the ‘home pub’ has experienced a renaissance since the 70s, when it was still hidden away in the dusty basement. Heineken has already sold more than 150,000 of their newly-marketed Beer-Tenders in the Netherlands alone, and Philips Interbrew’s counterpart – Perfect Draft – has been predicted a glorious future in the home bars (, January 2006). Thus the big entertainment experiences are absolutely not only found out there, but also at home.
Home’s best

As Martin Zerlang wrote in Underholdningens Historie (1989), the entertainment industry is closely connected to the history of modernity. According to Zerlang, entertainment plays an important role in the growing demands on the human ability to concentrate. As compensation for this, entertainment is where we find diversion, amusement and redemption. Entertainment considered as a sort of cure for the new demands on our time is close to the image of the modern home. Since the beginning of modern times, the home has been described as a place where you can find shelter, ease and comfort. A sacred place in a world of chaos and change.

This is confirmed by medical texts from the second half of the 19th century, describing a direct connection between the new conditions of modernity and the function of the home within this modernity. The texts deal with various illnesses that arose in relation to the escalating trade market that became the starting signal for the capitalization of the Western countries. One of the most important of these was George Miller Beard’s A Practical Treatise on Nervous Exhaustion from 1869. This book, based on studies of patients in New York, was published in translation in France in 1895 (Robinson: 1996) and laid the basis for a general diagnosis of many nervous ailments prevalent at that time. In the book ‘neurasthenia’, or the ‘maladie de Beard’ as it was soon named, is explained as an overstraining of the nervous system exposed to the intense stimulation of the urban world. Because the typical patient suffering from the ailment was “the mental worker”, a well-educated male from the bourgeoisie, the condition soon became a symbol of mental superiority and was considered a natural and socially acceptable consequence of the new power in the market place – capitalism (Drinka, 1984:208).

The cures for the ‘maladie de Beard’ were many and varied, most of them suggesting that the busy, overburdened professional should withdraw to a quiet oasis of rest and convalescence when he returned home after a hard day’s work. Because the home was the most evident place for such withdrawal it also became an urgent matter to discuss how the home could be organized so it would not provoke or excite the nerves of the overburdened, hard-working professional. As the art historian Joyce Henri Robinson explains in her article “Hi Honey, I’m Home– a whole series of handbooks and popular articles (later this became the domain of magazines and periodicals) concerning interior design and furnishing grew out of this new market culture advising the housewife how best to create an interior satisfying to her husband. Among other works, Robinson refers to Jacob von Falke’s Art in the House 1879:

“.. the husband’s occupations necessitate his absence from the house, and call him away from it. During the day his mind is absorbed in many good and useful ways, in making and acquiring money for instance, and even after the hours of business have passed, they occupy his thoughts. When he returns home tired with work and in need of recreation, he longs for quiet enjoyment, and takes pleasure in the home which his wife has made comfortable and attractive” (Robinson 1996:102).
As revealed by this text and similar texts from the period, beauty, quiet and a comfortable atmosphere were the ideals determining the creation of attractive home scenarios. The main point in all these texts is that the house contrasts aesthetically, socially and culturally with what is outside the home. And more than that, the ‘quiet enjoyment’ at home compensates for and heals what has been disturbed or destroyed outside the home.

It is a paradox that the combination of entertainment and home, in the long run, makes it difficult to maintain the idea of the home as a secure and safe haven, or as Benjamin expresses it a “box in the world-theatre” (1983:169). If home was from the outset the main framework for various kinds of entertainment, then entertainment soon burst out of the framework of the home and opened up to the “world-theatre”. Without any doubt, one of the biggest blows was the entry of television into the private sphere.

Television: The modern altar

Since the 1950s, when television had its breakthrough in Europe and the USA, the television has more than any other technological apparatus influenced the way we access entertainment, and perhaps more importantly, how entertainment is developed. In the infancy of television broadcasting was limited to a few hours – only a third of the Danish population owned a television set at the beginning of the 60s (Carlsen). Soon, though, the media revolution gathered pace and in the 1990s it culminated in an explosion of the number of television channels – with 24-hours news services as the standard. Today it is not unnatural to have 30 channels, a television for every member of the family and a variety of accessories, for instance video and DVD players, surround systems, Playstations and access to specialized television channels. Television represents the industrialization of entertainment in the modern home.

From an interior design point of view the entry of television into the home should not be underestimated either. From the beginning, television entered the home with a natural kind of authority which very soon made the radio lose its position as the family’s favourite focal point. While other technical objects like the toaster, the dishwasher and the food processor, which at that time were put away when guests were visiting the home, and in general were kept in rooms of lower status (the kitchen, the scullery, the basement), the television was installed in (what was then) the most important room in the house – the living-room – in which the most precious family hours were spent and staged. The sofa suite, the chairs and the little coffee table were arranged to make sure that wherever you sat in the room you would have a good view of what was being shown on the screen. If the television was not placed on a plinth in the middle of the room (which often gave it the character of a sculpture), it was often an integrated part of a bookcase designed with a special shelf for the television, where it posed with the same importance as the family heirlooms and photos of birthdays, holidays and deceased family members/relatives.

Today other rooms seem to have taken over the role of the living-room as the most important room in the house. One example is the Scandinavian mega-success, the ‘conversation kitchen’ (a combination of living-room and kitchen), which in the late 90s was the room that from a cultural point of view replaced the living-room. This is where quality time is spent around the kitchen table and at mealtimes, and this is where pleasant, meaningful and entertaining conversations take place. The conversation kitchen – like any other new rooms in the house that we decorate, furnish and show to others – is an image of the evolution of the home, socially and culturally. It is like what could be called ‘wellness rooms’ like bathrooms, yoga rooms, and so on. But this is also an evolution closely related to technological developments in entertainment. You could say that today it is just as prestigious to be able to show off an American refrigerator with multiple functions, a built-in ice-cube machine or a high-tech home spa as it was in the early 50s to own a television. The television – like the American refrigerator and the Jacuzzi – is not only for your own pleasure; it also plays an important role in creating and staging your status and identity.

Entertainment for the masses

Television was quickly adopted in ordinary homes and in Denmark was soon given the popular name ‘the house altar’. This designation was first and foremost meant as a joke, but it was highly descriptive of the role that the television set was given in many homes. The television became the object of daily worship and for many people also the pivotal point around which activities in the home were structured and planned. Many sociologists consider the dinner table the most significant rallying-point for the family, but they underestimate the importance of television and the effect it has on the family life (as exemplified by the sociologist Mary Douglas’ “The Idea of Home: A kind of space”, 1999). There, in front of the blue light, today’s programme was discussed and the news was evaluated, as well as the clothes of the host or hostess of the programme. In front of the television was where you spent time together in a way that, according to Douglas, is a condition for the coordination of time and place that is fundamental to the creation of bonds between family members (Douglas 1991: 291).

Zerlang claims that entertainment is the modern human being’s substitute for the community of family or society that was lost when modernity set in (Zerlang 1987, p. 8). If this is the case, television did – at least while there was only one set in each home – to some extent form the glue that stuck the modern family together. This is what David Gauntlett and Annette Hill conclude in their analysis of television habits in the UK:

“.. television is, at the very least, a catalyst for forms of organisation of time and space – or, to be more emphatic, often a primary determining factor in how households organise their internal geography and everyday timetables” (Morley: 90).
The comparison of the television to an altar is given an extra dimension if it is seen in the light of the German intellectual Walter Benjamin’s reflections over the loss of “aura” in “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarheit” from 1935/36. Surprised, fascinated but also worried about the new world, Benjamin predicts dramatic changes in our reception of art. Technology can bring us art from remote corners and places in a way that has only now become possible. However, the benefits of this new technology come at the expense of the “aura” – the unique mystique that is associated with religious art and the relics used in rituals and ceremonies.

Benjamin experienced the invention of the radio before he died in 1940, but he did not experience the invasion of mass culture we have seen since the invention of television. This medium, to a far greater extent than radio, cinema and photography, has replaced art as the communicator of reality. More than anything else, the medium has changed our conception of reality. Instead of seeking information, visiting foreign cultures and places ourselves, we let the world come to us in small, concentrated doses via television programmes, often constructed in a way that makes them interesting and entertaining. Furthermore, as Robert Hughes points out, we create our own television montage when we zap from one programme to another (1991). Today people all over the world sit in front of their television, zapping through a wide variety of programmes like quiz shows, documentaries, soap operas etc. and between German, Arab, English and French channels to find what they really want to watch. In this chaos of images and inputs we piece together our own private montage of the world from the existing montages brought to us by television. It is very unlikely that this jigsaw puzzle we create for ourselves is a depiction of the world as it really is. On the contrary, it is very possible that our own montage “insulate[s] and estrange[s] us from reality itself, turning everything into disposable spectacle: catastrophe, love, war, soap” (Hughes1991: 345).

The media’s fascination with your dwelling

Television entertainment as we know it today builds on 2000 years of cultural history, but especially on variety shows. It seems as if the relationship between television and activities in the home has been reversed. Today a lot of television entertainment revolves around home activities, while earlier a lot of home activities revolved around the television. This claim is confirmed by the endless number of sitcoms, reality shows and home-oriented programmes offering entertainment dealing with interior design, furnishings, love, intrigues, family problems and DIY. Home furnishing programmes have become particularly popular. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Changing Rooms are television concepts now showing in Europe, the USA and Australia, where programmes about the home, the family and intimate everyday life are among the Top Ten preferred entertainment programmes in prime time. Meanwhile we see a decline in news and documentary programmes and ‘normal’ entertainment programmes (Jensen 2005). This focus on the home is enhancing our understanding of the home as one of the most attractive entertainment options of our time.

The media’s fascination with house and home is very recent, but has seen explosive development. In 2000 the first home design programme was shown on Danish television. Room Service – as it was called – was introduced to the Danish public by one of the two Danish national channels, DR. The programme – which was a Danish version of the British Changing Rooms – was only the beginning of a long series of ‘lifestyle and utility programmes’. What they all had in common was a strong interest in intimate everyday life and the social, aesthetic and consumer aspects of this life (Carlsen/Frandsen). Five years later you could find a total of nine different Danish versions of international home-and-family programmes on the two public channels. If we also count the big Danish commercial channel TV3 the number rises to 13. To this must be added a number of foreign productions (primarily Australian, British and American) plus Danish-produced food and garden programmes and a number of DIY series and lifestyle programmes which in one way or another relate to the home.

The number of programmes has been fairly stable over the last couple of years. Only the angle, the theme and the anchors seem to change. The latest, quite peculiar invention in this field is the new ‘Clean House’ programmes, where the viewer is invited into the home of a messy person not capable of keeping his or her home tidy and neat (or maintaining decent hygienic standards) and is therefore in need of help from experts.

The recipe for these programmes, according to the media researchers Carlsen and Frandsen, is a combination of different television concepts and genres in the fields of entertainment and consumer information. There may be contest and quiz elements (e.g. in Hammerslag, where two teams try to get closest to real estate prices), programmes like Kender du typen (‘Know the Type?’) inspired by the detective genre. (Two lifestyle experts visit a celebrity’s house. They are given a number of clues and in the end they have to guess who the actual person living in the house is). The fairytale motif is the basic dramatic template of many makeover programmes – something uncool or even hopeless is changed into something beautiful and attractive, often finishing off with a surprising confrontation because the owner did not know that his kitchen, living room, wardrobe or house was being redone or changed. In Extreme Makeover: Home Edition a not very well-off but likeable family gets its house redone or very often torn down and reconstructed. Other programmes that can be mentioned are Hokus Krokus/(= the British “Ground Force”), Fra Skrot til Slot/(“Junk to Jewels”), Changing Rooms and Hjerterum (where young couples move in together). In addition to the above-mentioned programmes you also find programmes where one or several persons are portrayed through the way they live, what’s in their fridge and the kind of paintings they choose to hang on their walls.

The programmes are relatively inexpensive to produce, they have a broad appeal and they represent a strong card in the increasing competition for viewers in the multi-channel system, because they steal the viewers from the more classic entertainment programmes. Up to a million Danes (that is, 18% of the Danish population) watch these programmes, so their popularity is not up for discussion and nothing indicates that their success is declining: watching the home on television is one of the strongest entertainment activities in the home today.

A relaxation fix

With only a few exceptions, the lifestyle and home improvement programmes have been subjected to harsh criticism from reviewers and media researchers. As objects of academic analysis the programmes have had a hard time breaking through this barrier, and have often been bypassed by media researchers. The explanation may be found in the general ‘feelgood’ effect and the obvious similarity to commercials in their approach and theme, which make them uninteresting from a scholarly point of view:

“.. neither at the national nor the international level have these programmes attracted any scholarly interest. This can probably be explained by the type and content of the programmes” (Carlsen/Frandsen 2005:4).

The criticism has been outspoken in public debate, where these programmes are considered voyeurism and lowbrow entertainment (Frøstrup). To paraphrase the Danish writer Bo Tao Michaelis’ definition of the ‘feelgood’ genre; the programmes are seen as examples of a prevailing modern ‘Biedermeier style’ – a withdrawal from frustrating reality into an intimate mini-world where, at home in front of the television screen, we are heroes and heroines at the centre of the ‘feelgood’ story. This is also the conclusion of two students of media science when they describe the programmes in a newspaper essay as “a relaxation fix in the cosy atmosphere of the home presented in predictable formats which for a moment oust the feeling of being powerless” (Dabelsteen/Raaben 2005).

The wellness room

The same rhetoric could be used of the new ideals that are characteristic of our interior design and home interior magazines today. After many years of focusing on style and expression (Rybczenski) interior designers and home interior magazines are now talking about ‘wellness rooms’ as the latest accessory to the house – rooms that are especially designed for quality time and adventure and which differ from other rooms and former ideals for interior design by focusing on wellness and cosiness.

The key words are atmosphere, Zen, soft towels and the fireplace – also in the bathroom, which is today the room in which luxury is practiced and enjoyed. Self-pampering is emphasized and the high-technology home Jacuzzi or the two-person shower only seem to function optimally with organic oils and ethereal aromas. If there is room, the bathroom is combined with a sofa suite and an exercise bike with a built-in television/video and telephone, so that you don’t need to move around. As an example, take Modulia’s new bathroom series “New York”; a room for “self pampering. An oasis to look for new energy where there is room for both body and soul” ( If you want to add the newest of the new you fit out the bathroom with the new line by the world-famous designer Philippe Starck – Starck X, where the armatures and fittings look like joysticks from a computer game! Who says maintaining daily hygiene has to be boring?

The writers in Bo Bedre, a prestigious ‘Better Homes’-style Danish magazine, write about turning the home into a theatrical show where the occupant is the director. Everything is choreographed and staged in the complete wellness experience when the occupants of the house come home from work, tired and in need of rest and relaxation. The marketing director Karl Christian Birk of HTH, the international manufacturer of bathrooms, kitchens etc. suggests that the wellness room, as the most acceptable place for withdrawal in a dwelling, may be seen as a reaction to the culturally ‘heavy’ living-room (for instance the conversation kitchen), which has now been celebrated for years, where all family members need to do everything collectively. This description also seems to fit Yamaha’s new Entertainment MyRoom, a closed-off, soundproof 2.5 m2 box for the living-room, inside which you can play noisy games, listen to music, work or just be yourself. Originally designed for professional musicians, it is today for sale on the Internet with a ventilation system, windows and an inside locking system. Entertainment, wellness and individual time; all three in one!

Me, myself and I

In former times the living room was the preferred centre for family entertainment, but today entertainment is fragmented physically, culturally and socially. Today all rooms in the home are potential places of entertainment for members of the household. While the goal of entertainment was formerly to gather the household together, today it offers the option of having fun individually. This is the case with the wellness room, which has taken over what was once the function of the entire house: to be a place of retreat. The office has on the other hand become the place where we play computer games. Practically every household member possesses a television, a DVD, a video and a Playstation, just as the hobby room, the garden and the bathroom offer activities for the individual – not to mention the kitchen with its advanced machinery such as pasta machines, juice squeezers and the espresso machines that have become the domain of the trendy man. Even cooking has become a discipline of experience and staging!

The fragmentation of entertainment in the home is a sign of the prevailing individualism. In this, the consumer culture plays an important role. Instead of appealing to the needs of the collectivity, the consumer culture builds on the dreams and needs of the individual. Consumption is always directed towards the individual, not the collectivity. The result is that we can be both on our own and together inside the home. Each with our own headset, magazine, television programme and individual activities, we are able to satisfy our own needs without taking into consideration the needs of the collectivity – and still be together! A somewhat dystopian picture of family life in the home today, some might say.

The Tivolization of the home

One can discuss how big a difference there is between ‘today’s home’ and the home as it was perceived when Hamilton created his collage and punctured the myth of the home as something existing outside mass culture and the entertainment industry. Without any doubt, homes have become more appealing and certainly more sophisticated, pluralistic and effective when it comes to entertainment. If we look at entertainment history as part of the history of the home, the home can be considered a centre where individualism, the urge for new experiences and commercial interests are closely interconnected. Like so many other things, the home has become part of the general culture of experience that we find in the urban space.

The wellness rooms, just like the new garden rooms, the home theatres, the interior design magazines and the home improvement programmes, all testify to the industrialization of the home, a process that has been going on ever since the origin of the modern home, and which cannot be separated from the increased focus on the individual that is also predominant outside the home, a focus on individual experience and performance. The international trend bureau Trendwatching defines it this way: “we are all MASTERS OF THE YOUNIVERSE, our homes turning into highly connected, sophisticated control and entertainment centres” (

It could be argued that our understanding of the home is related less to the actual home than to the entertainment and the fiction associated with the home – an autonomous self-propelled industry that duplicates our idea of the home. Today our experience of the home is based on two different kinds of home: a concrete, practical, lived-in home where our prosaic everyday life, our morality, actions and social relations are mixed together; and an abstract, media-created collective home where all aspects of life are divided up into different genres, television programmes, games, timeframes and carefully measured needs and interests. If the home was earlier the symbol of privacy, recreation and all that could be viewed as in opposition to life outside, it is today common property and a public matter. In this way the home as entertainment has become an important part of the entertainment economy and of the culture in general. This is where we log on to and become part of the multi-technological, global mass culture.

For the same reasons, entertainment in and around the home can be considered instrumental in mass culture’s communication of the new demands and possibilities of (late) modernity. This is the case when the Danish sociologist Henrik Dahl compares popular culture (in the wide sense) to the ‘discussing public’ of early modern time (2005). Via home improvement programmes, interior design magazines, lifestyle series and new trends in design and technology, the new demands, problems and possibilities related to the ideas of identity, consumption, family and staging are communicated to us in easily digestible, non-offensive and entertaining ways. The new funscapes in the city and city space, the entertainment parks, the concept of edutainment and the turning of politics into a show, are parallel to the ‘Tivolization’ of the home, the place where fear, insecurity and complicated expert knowledge are turned into something that is recognizable, familiar and constitutes a good experience. Press the button on the Jacuzzi, the home cinema, the massage machine, the DVD, and enjoy!


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