PRINT December 1986


the stress and comfort of pillow talk.

ARE WE COMFORTABLE? IF NOT, let’s not make matters worse by blaming ourselves. Let’s blame Modern architects. Everyone else does. They wanted us to live in a work of art even if it killed us. Say good-bye to all that. No more architects’ raptures on a chair of beauty as a joy for backbones. Be post-Modern. Demand your rights; fight back with pillows.

Pillow-fighting in post-modern rings is a stock routine. In the form of history reupholstered with an intellectual stuffing of post-Modern polemic, the bolsters are flying through the air and the times, tossed up with great gusts of pious sympathy for the battered bones of the poor neglected modern citizen, “the actual building user” The will to comfort doesn’t always come covered in prints by Laura Ashley and Pierre Deux; it’s increasingly wrapped up in words.

In his recent book Home, a studious exposé of the Modern conspiracy to deprive us of creature comforts, Witold Rybczynski embroiders his pillows with history, common sense, wit, and half-truths. In last year’s bestselling House, Tracy Kidder, author of The Soul of a New Machine (on the computer), soothes the future-shocked present-numbed reader with the hum of comforts for the soul to be found in ye olde design (Greek Revival). In a review in early October of the Walker Art Center’s recent show of the work of Frank Gehry, the New York Times hastened to reassure its readers that while Gehry’s work could easily be mistaken for art (apparently a bad thing), in fact it really “deals in the issues that all architecture deals in—space and form and materials, and in human comfort as well.”

Not all of this deep-pile thinking is a knee-jerk reaction against Modernism. Much of it, in fact, is a natural expression of the cold condition Modern architecture fell into when its self-creative power relaxed into the formulas of empty mannerisms. Actually, you don’t have to be post-Modern to want chestnuts roasting by an open fire, but much of this pillow talk makes it sound that way, makes it seem that the Moderns wanted to put the fire out. It caricatures the Modern attack on bourgeois complacency as Scrooge-like contempt for human well-being. Rybczynski, for example, devotes page after page to lambasting Modern architects for their failure to consider comfort, but not one paragraph to current research into the way comfort coexists with stress—cannot, in fact, exist without it. The view of comfort and stress as two mutually exclusive entities denies this inherent symbiosis. Stress, as Barbara Brown puts it, is the condition of “the uninformed mind”: it is caused specifically by the mind’s need for adequate information to meet the demands the environment places upon it.1

The Canadian researcher Hans Selye has formulated the terms “homeostasis” and “heterostasis” to describe the way stress can open the door to a heightened sense of wellbeing or of comfort.2 Homeostasis is the condition of internal equilibrium in which an organism’s defenses are adequate to meet routine demands. Heterostasis, literally “other position,” is the process by which the organism raises its level of defenses by introducing new information to meet new demands. With the explosion of such demands into the daily pattern of modern life, the maintenance of our internal equilibrium came to depend on our ability to be thrown off balance, to regard the stress of new conditions not as a signal for retreat but as a call for exploration. Discomfort is a message the body sends us when we require information not obtainable “at home”: it is the catalyst for heterostasis, and, in turn, for homeostasis—without the former the latter comes only as false security, which can shatter like glass at the sight of a flashlight through the window. This was, of course, the charged point of Modern architecture. It sought to supply the 20th-century figure with information about the new environment it was experiencing and creating. The bare Modern interior was a metaphor for the need to strip away suffocating upholstery so that self-creation—the concept, fundamental to human progress, on which the modern world was banking—would turn out to be more than redecoration.

Necessary renovations on one’s self are not usually comfortable, and indeed the cost—as well as the liberation—for the Moderns was the break in the illusion that some authority would provide a secure, comfortable place for them in this insecure world. It was up to them. This information naturally jolted the inherited view of architecture as the art of assigning everything its fixed place. Some architects rose to the challenge, designing their buildings to deliver a jolt. Yet they wanted not to cause discomfort but to reduce it. Instead of ranting on about the horrors inflicted on mankind by progress, they believed in our capacity to organize the new information to our advantage and even our pleasure. They had faith that architecture could participate directly in the homeostatic/heterostatic process instead of pretending to offer refuge from something inescapable.

The current cries for comfort only reflect the numbing post-Modern politic that we don’t need any more bad news, that we’re in tough times but we deserve to sink back into a softer life, that we’ve had enough already with these selves inventing themselves all over the place—why don’t they all go home and relax. If it’s reassurance one wants, of course a pillow does a good job. It’s a machine for falling asleep—to and through the call of one’s time.

So now, to cap a column that holds up the metaphor of a pillow to describe our moment, we can choose one of three capitals: a coffin, a nightmare, or a dream. I’ll choose the dreamer who fights pillow-fighters with more pillows, bigger pillows, until we wake out of our stupor and feel the stress that underlies all comfort, even false comfort: Liberace, the man of the hour, who shows the truth that it’s possible to learn from a lie.

Liberace’s “private world” is of course a public statement. He lives most of the year in hotel rooms and only visits his houses, a dream world in which the symbols of comfort are supercharged with the stress of self-creation. The pillows here are too excited to relax. This world, with its conventional icons of comfort (overstuffed pillows, chaise longues, fur throws, gilt-framed portraits, French telephones, deep pile carpeting, silk-shaded lamps), jolts us out of our slumber with the kinetic power of electric cables. The luxe and the volupté are there, all right, but the calme has been shattered, transformed into a performance space in which we begin to worry whether the pillows couldn’t use pillows themselves. They conspicuously occupy the turf that recognizes how stress and comfort feed each other, the turf Modern architecture once traveled, and that pillow Modernism must build on.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. This column appears regularly in Artforum.



1. Barbara B. Brown, Supermind, New York: Harper & Row, 1980, and paperback reprint Bantam Books, 1983.

2. Hans Salye, Stress without Distress, New York: Lippincott and Coswell, 1974, and paperback reprint New American Library, Signet, 1975.