Culture and body building, gymnastics and exercise: the words ‘embody’ associations of western culture between physical and mental activity, in a balance seen as vital for the well-being of the human-being. A social interpretation of design cannot help but notice that in the construction of inhabitable spaces the focus on the body goes hand in hand with the rise of bourgeois culture. While at the start of the 20th century the main ambition was to have an individual bathroom, already in the 1930s new furnishing typologies arrive that extend its functions.
This is the case, for example, of areas set aside for exercise, with visible gear in an unforced dialogue with more traditional furnishings. Already in 1923 in Vers une Architecture Le Corbusier began to speak of exercise equipment to complete the salle de bains, and in 1927 Marcel Breuer introduced fitness zones in his interiors. Often the presence of these technical objects was connected more to a representation of fashionable vanitas than to real physical needs, in what Breuer himself was to call the “healthy body culture.”
In his Berlin apartment for the theater director Erwin Piscator, it is clear in fact that “having such equipment in one’s home was quite fashionable, even among those who probably never made use of it.” It is curious to observe that this type of accessorized dwelling was often made for “young men,” dandies whose motto was “mens sana in corpore sano,” as in 1931 with the house for a “sportsman” by Breuer himself, leading to a true leitmotif of architectural Rationalism. In these houses, the parlor became a large living area, decades before the advent of the loft, where functional zoning was determined by the presence of specific equipment.
Italy did not lag behind, and the Stanza per un uomo by Franco Albini at the Milan Triennale in 1936 was the Italian version of the trend. This was a mini-dwelling for a single man, featuring marked transparency of the structures, with diaphragms that allowed the gaze and the light to flow as freely as possible. Beneath the bed suspended two meters off the floor there was a rowing machine, almost a statement of the central place of physical activity in the hierarchy of functions.
The trio of Le Corbusier, Perriand and Jeanneret, in 1935, together with René Herbst, designed the Maison du Jeune Homme for the Brussels Expo, where mind and body seem to inhabit a ‘duplex’: on the one hand, the studio for intellectual activity, with desk and bookcase; on the other, separated by a net from an outdoor basketball court, the exercise zone with rings dangling from the ceiling.
In those years there was a total lack of houses for single women: prim and proper society could not get beyond the ban on female independence. Only a revolutionary like Charlotte Perriand dared to put gymnastic rings in the living room of her apartment at Montmartre, a masculine symbol of autonomy and force. But the custom of the age, instead, called for a feminine presence only in homes for married couples. In haute-bourgeois interiors the corner set aside for the woman was not so much the kitchen – a place for servants – as that of the ‘toilette,’ where the ‘missus’ spent time on care of the body, seen in terms of beauty treatments.
Thus came the rise of the antechamber of the bathroom, and then the so-called vanity or dressing tables in the bedroom, as in the Italian version of the ‘toeletta’ conceived as a place to brush hair, store jewelry, put on make-up and pamper the skin with lotions and perfumes. In the 1940s and 1950s designers for the upper middle class created gorgeous vanity tables: Osvaldo Borsani, for his clients but also for the family villa in Varedo (MB), Gio Ponti with one-offs and the series for Parco dei Principi in Rome and Sorrento, Carlo Mollino for the apartments of professionals.
Between nostalgia and hedonism, in the early 1990s both fitness gear and dressing tables returned to center stage, but with clearly updated characteristics in keeping with the cultural stereotypes of our time. On the one hand the vanity table becomes increasingly compact, juggling the surprise effect of vanishing acts with closure mechanisms and the display of increasingly refined materials and colors. On the other, the high-tech world has influenced the formal aspects of exercise equipment, which has migrated from the fitness club into domestic spaces. More recently there has been another phenomenon, that of the transformation of classic furniture types into forms that only visibly reference sporting functions.
Collections such as Body Building by Atelier Biagetti (2015) or Game On by Jaime Hayon (2014) bear witness to wide-ranging reflections on vanity in contemporary society, and on the cult of physical fitness. A way of pondering the concept of ‘appearance vs. substance’ that by now crosses the sexual genders, brought together by an objective of standardized looks. The physical stereotype almost becomes a way of getting beyond gender differences, though whether this is a conquest remains to be seen.
The status symbol today seems to stray far from the needs of wellbeing that change our parameters in substance, in the wake of the lockdown imposed by the pandemic. While the forbidden desire is that of freedom of expression for the body, possibly in open, shared spaces, domestic intimacy too has gained little in terms of conservation of physical form as an end in itself. Perhaps indoor psycho-physical wellness calls for more complex reflections, which contemporary design can now address with utterly novel awareness.