August 25, 1986 12:00 PM

by Witold Rybczynski

Here is a book that will change the way you look at your house or apartment—for the better. Despite the title, the subject is comfort, an “idea that has meant different things at different times.” After the crowded confusion of medieval living, comfort in the 17th century meant privacy, intimacy and then domesticity. In the 18th century, people wanted leisure and ease; the 19th emphasized light, heat and ventilation; the 20th stressed efficiency and convenience. “Although the human body has not changed,” the author explains, “our idea of what is comfortable differs from that of 100 years ago.” Rybczynski, a Canadian architect who teaches at McGill University, uses paintings and literature to describe the homes of the past. He explains that a chair, which the Greeks made well but medieval craftsmen did not, is not as simple as it appears. It “must simultaneously provide for a number of conditions. There must be sufficient padding to prevent pressure on the bones…. A back support is necessary—the sitter should be held more or less erect.” The angle of the back must be just right. Any slumping forward “will cause a slight collapse of the lungs, a consequent reduction in oxygen intake, and fatigue.” Rybczynski winds up this engrossing volume with the conclusion that “domestic well-being is too important to be left to experts.” We must, he says, tend to such things ourselves, by insisting that comfort comes first. (Viking, $16.95)

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