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Unhappy? Clean house

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With spring comes the idea of spring cleaning, of purging the home and letting in light and air. This annual purgation has grown from a prosaic necessity to a psychological apotheosis: the clean home as the foundation of contentment. When did people start believing that the good life was dependent on domestic perfection?

In the flowering of modernism between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second, architects forged a stainless-steel connection between housing and health. Victorian homes were a nightmare to them, a cesspit at any level of society: They were dark and stuffy; they were filled with carpets and hangings and ornate picture frames that harbored dirt and were difficult to clean; their primitive plumbing made it hard to bathe.

The early modernists wanted to wash away this squalor with an ocean of shining chrome, tile and white plaster. Dirt-hoarding fabrics with grime-concealing patterns would be consigned to the efficient rubbish chutes. Furniture would be made from wipe-clean leather and steel. Generous windows and electric light would expose every speck of dirt. In Light, Air and Openness, the architectural historian Paul Overy showed how the early modernists were obsessed with healthful living and influenced by the design of sanitariums.

The better home would lead to better people. Love of purity, in the words of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, "leads to the joy of life: the pursuit of perfection." He was far from the first to tie minimalist hygiene in the home to moral purity. Adolf Loos famously connected decoration with degeneracy in his 1908 essay "Ornament and Crime." A person's soul could be cleansed only when his domestic surroundings were purged: "Soon the streets of the town will shine like white walls. ... Then fulfillment shall be ours."

Because you can never be too healthy, the early modernist interior was thus a minimalist interior. Walls were plain white stucco, floors were uncarpeted, windows were generous, surfaces were bare. Vigorous and virtuous this environment might be, but it didn't immediately sell itself as a source of happiness. Le Corbusier famously called the home a "machine for living." He meant that it should be serving us, working for us like an appliance — an entirely reasonable idea. But the message came across that the modernist home was somehow less than human, that it lacked some basic vitamin of homeyness.

Most of us still find the idea of purging our surroundings to be an overture to more virtuous behavior. An untidy desk feels like a barrier to work; a slovenly kitchen is not conducive to cuisine; a sock-strewn bedroom might be a hindrance to amour. A good tidying up is what's needed, and then the human factor will fall in line.

But the minimalist home is not as labor-saving as it claims. It rejects even the set-aside newspaper or the smallest smudge — these things cannot be allowed to linger, they must be driven out. The homeowner must stay on guard duty lest the forces of derangement establish a fingerhold. Too much of this, and it's the mind that becomes deranged.

Minimalism had a short life. Its asceticism was at odds with the rising consumer spending of the latter half of the 20th century. Designers started to preach comfort. Throw pillows, bold patterns and misshapen crockery crept in; Eames-style dressers were offset by quirky antiques and kitsch curios. Psychological studies showed the beneficial effects of color in the environment, so the white was painted over. The icy prose of the modernists was replaced by the warmth of Terence Conran's House Book and Martha Stewart Living.

But the new guard shared something with the minimalist: The home was still meant to improve its inhabitant. What had changed was the emphasis — the intended result was a peaceful mind instead of a healthy body.

This, too, sounds perfectly reasonable. It becomes a problem when it becomes a mania — when the state of your mind is considered contingent on the state of your home. Particularly Jesuitical in this respect is the Swedish flat-pack furniture and meatball giant Ikea. Its "Chuck Out Your Chintz" campaign of the '90s was an urge to purge unseen since the likes of Le Corbusier. A more recent slogan was "Happy Inside": Brighten up or clear out the home and soothe the soul.

Ikea is not alone. Modernist determinism — the idea that our lives can be perfected by perfecting our environments — lives on in the rhetoric of a thousand marketing departments. It is backed by television's pop psychology, where the mental health of hoarders is restored by de-cluttering. Doing something about our surroundings has become a surrogate for therapy.

Of course one's home can be a source of happiness. But if we imagine that its primary role is to make us happy, we could end up believing that if we are unhappy, our home is primarily to blame. The marketers prefer it this way, because they have a solution: whatever it is they're selling. But home improvement can just as easily be a displacement activity, a distraction from underlying problems unrelated to decor. I like to remember the architect Cedric Price. Confronted by a client who wanted to turn his life around with a new house, Price suggested that what he really needed was a divorce.

Will Wiles is the author of the novel Care of Wooden Floors. This piece originally ran in the New York Times.

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