What happened to... Home Futures


To mark the Home Futures exhibition, guest authors take stock of some of the changes that the contemporary domestic interior has endured in the last two decades. What happened to the TV, the telephone, the bed? Explore more of these essays in the official exhibition catalogue.

The earliest evidence of human-controlled fire dates back more than half a million years. The Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province might be ‘the site of the world’s oldest barbecue’. Besides cooking, fire also provided warmth and protection. Firelight allowed daytime activities to extend into the evening and warded of night-time predators. This enabled early humans to abandon the treetops in favour of settling and sleeping in caves and on the ground. The control of fire shaped our evolution by fuelling cultural innovation, and dietary and habitual change, as well as the dispersal of Homo sapiens across the globe. The fire, contained in the hearth, kept dwellings warm and safe – and so came to define our modern concept of domesticity. Historically, the fireplace was the main source of heat in the house and the place where food was prepared. It was the central location in the home, around which family and guests gathered. Hearth and home were synonymous.

Fire, however, resists control. The 1666 Great Fire of London burned more than two thirds of the city and destroyed many homes. Once the symbol of safety, fire was now recognised as a safety hazard: a dangerous threat to the home and its inhabitants. As the control of open fire inside dwellings became increasingly sophisticated, the fireplace has been gradually replaced by more efficient ways of heating, lighting and cooking. Today, central heating, thermostats, boilers and radiators create an evenly tempered domestic environment.

The presence of the fire in today’s homes serves the purposes of nostalgia rather than any real functional use. Think of the candles on romantic dinner tables – or those on birthday cakes, blown out in celebration. Or the fake stuff: electric heaters that mimic the archetypal images and familiar sensations that fire provides; digitised images of flickering light accompanied by a soundtrack of crackling wood. Real fire is now rare in the domestic setting, and therefore a luxury. Take the extravagant AGA cookers that evoke traditional 1920s bourgeois, cast-iron ovens powered by real fire. As the numerous celebrity testimonials state in one AGA advertisement, ‘No breakfast tastes like the AGA breakfast.’ It seems that the fire is back, for the chosen few, and it’s here to symbolise a wholesome and luxurious lifestyle: it connects us to the Arcadian origins of the home.

—Eszter Steierhofer

Related exhibition

Home Futures

Explore today’s home through the prism of yesterday’s imagination. Are we living in the way that pioneering architects and designers throughout the 20th century predicted, or has our idea of home proved resistant to real change?

Find out more

Home Futures

Alongside original essays by leading voices in the field, this richly illustrated book features more than 200 colour images, organised in six thematic sections exploring privacy, the smart home, compact living, self-sufficiency, nomadic lifestyles and the idea of the home as an idyllic landscape.