What happened to... Home Futures

The garden gnome

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.

Who better to room with than the son of Venus and Bacchus? Beyond being a little man with gigantic genitals, Priapus was the god of gardens and fertility. Statues of him have been found in private villas and in the houses of Pompeii and ancient Rome. As such this demigod is considered the forefather of the ornamental hermit or garden gnome, a somewhat peculiar phenomenon that became a craze in eighteenth-century England. A serious country estate would be nothing without a romantic garden, complete with follies and hermitages, populated with hermits – fantastical or real. Dressed as druids, these professional recluses would be required to grow their hair and refrain from washing. Yet as the romantic era of ‘pleasing melancholy’ changed, and the job of hermit disappeared, living hermits gave way to mass-produced ceramic, wooden and, later, plastic garden gnomes.

Although they were popular throughout the twentieth century, it seems that our contemporary culture has let this potent dwarf down. Apart from those fond of kitsch – such as artist Paul McCarthy, who continues to enjoy both the naïve charm and the sexual suggestiveness of the gnome – the figure has lost its appeal as a room or garden mate. In the East the appetite for outside hooded totems survives, such as Jeju’s dol hareubangs – penis-shaped rock statues placed in front of gates on this South Korean island, representing gods that offer both protection and fertility. Luckily the internet, in its ability to perpetually reverberate with both past and current folly, has helped the Western garden gnome regain some of its stature #gnome-spotting #gnome-napping.

Although the traditional gnome might be gone, sharing one’s home or porch with inanimate and fictional figures is as popular as ever. Sony’s aibo or Bandai’s Tamagotchi – machines that require care in exchange for company – were precursors of the AI-infused pets and robots that will be populating the smart home of the future. As latter-day Snow Whites, we will be commanding seven subservient little helpers to give us massages, scare away fruit thieves or satisfy other needs. But the spirit of the gnome is stoic, mystical and Pan-like. Our modern-day version of this sentiment might be best recognised in the cat; certainly, the sheer number of cat videos available on the internet proves that this creature inspires endless amounts of novel, pleasing melancholy.

—Florian Idenburg

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.

Background image | Garden Gnome, Attila stool by Philippe Starck for Kartell.