Exactly 40 years ago, Faith Popcorn, one of the first people to style herself as a futurist, coined a new meaning for the word “cocooning”. She used it to describe the ambiance sought by 1980s suburbanites as they slouched on their rhino-sized sofas in front of their rhino-sized TVs. In Popcorn’s folktale, the drugs and dancing of the 1970s gave way to a new prestigious pastime: fatigue. Exhausted cocooners, hellbent on dodging the disco, headed for their dens.
The den became the signature room of the era. It was kitted out with brass fittings, stained-glass Tiffany lamps and built-in oak cabinets, and often sunken like a Turkish bath. Those hefty leather couches, with their buttons and studs and beefy rolled Chesterfield arms, seemed somehow alive. The arrangement was designed for reclining, with a date or mates, feet up on a coffee table laden with chicken marsala and, as the decade wore on, large urns of Chardonnay.
Thanks to the current plague, we’re cocooning again. Last summer my family bought a house in the country which we refer to as our “bunker”. Our basement is stocked with own-brand ramen and powdered goat’s milk, the only non-perishables we could find online as johnnies-cum-lately to the survivalism game.
Like our 1980s forebears, we’re exhausted. But there’s nothing sumptuous about our house, where the four of us (two of whom are school kids) work, study, eat, fret and sleep. Over the months, we’ve hosted various family members, who more or less quarantine in one room before joining the pack. Each guest requires their own zone on the butcher’s block in the kitchen so they can spend their days browsing eBay or trading bitcoin.
One interior designer recently remarked that whereas once families would stick a desk in a bedroom and call it a home office, now they lay down row upon row of shudderingly fast internet cabling. Each room is now an indeterminate zone, the use of which can be switched from work to leisure depending on the time of day. The result of all this design improv is an unhip WeWork, where desks, microwaves, card tables, laptop chargers, cheap modernist sofas, indoor herb gardens and yoga mats jostle and clash.
With a squint, cocoons like ours could pass for Instagram bait. In photos you see spare, whitewashed living rooms and a ZZ plant or two (the ones capable of tolerating even malign neglect). But there’s nothing jovial about pandemic rooms. They have been razed of clutter and keepsakes, as if to impose amnesia about the before times. In the current climate these interiors look antiseptic. Amid the clean lines, minimalist furniture and white shag rugs, splats of acid blue and neon orange suggest contrived cheerfulness. The buttery upholstery and voluminous window-dressings of the old den are long gone.
We bought a house in the country which we refer to as our “bunker”
This is a clean break from recent trends. In 2019 maximalism was in vogue – chintz, plaid and intricate Arts and Craft prints. The new spaces are less William Morris and more Clorox. After months of leafing through design mags, I finally worked out that, perversely, they emulate the very place that we’re all trying to avoid: the hospital. Pandemic-era design is styled as “airy”. It also looks like a void.
Spotlessness is a manifestation of our anxiety, as though we might be able to detect the seething virus so long as we keep our surfaces clear. As we stay at home awaiting the vaccine, our houses are stocked with fear. In mine, this is most obvious by the door, where stacks of medical masks sit on a tray that might have held a passport or lipstick in more carefree days.
The hard edges and chilly monochrome of these living areas have provoked a countervailing reaction in the bedrooms of our teenagers. The Danish aesthetic of hygge, a cosycore response to winter that dominated design a few years ago, has given way to something so snug as to verge on the catatonic. Michelle Santiago Cortés, who writes about youth culture for Refinery29, a website, has identified a trend that she calls the New Cosy. She explains that it’s beloved of a generation that might well come to be known as Zoomers, in more ways than one, if this thing doesn’t let up. The Zoomer in quarantine, according to Santiago Cortés, forgoes not just parties with potentially infectious friends but also the communal areas of the house that she might well share with her parents.
My daughter is very much a New Cosy devotee. She often takes to her bed. College and high school have long dissolved into her screens. A haze of lavender-scented steam from a diffuser settles around her, as her room glows blue, red and pink from the mellow LED strobes that TikTok has made de rigueur in teen lighting. She listens to either chillhop or classical music. Nothing here could possibly unsettle her, as she flits between FaceTime, group texts and a round of “Among Us” on her Nintendo Switch. The virus is far, far away. Everything is soft and luminous here. Hard edges, ominous shadows and malevolent viruses are out of sight and out of mind. In my daughter’s room, we’ve even erected a white macramé swing so that, when she ventures out of bed, she can further leave our sorrowful Earth behind.
Pandemic rooms have been razed of clutter and keepsakes
Architecture and design have always responded to disease. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 gave rise to the scorching New York radiator, a clanking nuisance that burns scalding hot because they were designed to be used with the windows open. A century ago Alvar Aalto, a Finnish designer, and Richard Neutra, an Austrian-American architect, demolished Victorian stuffiness and filled parlours with nature, light and air in the hope of keeping tuberculosis at bay. They were directly influenced by sanitorium design. “Cure porches”, on which consumptives rocked under blankets as the breeze cleared their lungs, are the antecedents of our prophylactic socialising on park benches and stoops.
Anxiety about contact with others cannot be kept outside our four walls. Individual members of a household who “pod together” in the futuristic phrase, also crave isolation. Each WFH adult and each remote student now needs a place to Zoom. The new interior design must keep family members both productive and apart. My daughter can retreat to her padded-cell bedroom. In the living room, where a card table and coffee table serve as desks, my partner and I turn our backs to one another when in need of privacy and use our spines as cubicle dividers.
For those in close quarters who don’t have a room going spare, there are always headphones. In “Moby-Dick”, Ishmael, cold and exposed as he scans the sea for whales aboard the Pequod, muses: “You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.” Manifestly true, but the impossibility doesn’t stop workers-from-home trying to build shutters for their skulls. Noise-cancelling headphones allow you to turn your head into a soundproof room.
As we stay at home awaiting the vaccine, our houses are stocked with fear
This may take cocooning to an extreme, but there’s little hope that butterflies will eventually emerge. In quarantine we have regressed into pupae, stuck in PJs and playpens. Our cultural life has almost flickered out. Last year’s design highlights feature white rooms with few books or paintings; no one has tickets to plays or concerts at the ready. In their place are the trappings of self-care – instruments for gentle exercises redolent of a hospice. There are stationary bikes and meditation cushions. Zones are demarcated for geriatric bodywork, which at least keeps the spirits up.
As coronavirus continues to make its home in human bodies, those fleeing it have retreated to immaculate clinics flanked by castles in the clouds. This dark season will be long, but it can’t last for ever. Someday we will get our offices back, our bars, our classrooms. Then we’ll need entirely different designs. Perhaps maximalism will make a return. We’ll buy Tiffany lamps again, with their Art Nouveau stained glass that looks mellow and faintly unclean. By then we won’t care: high on our inoculations, we’ll be cavalier about dirt. We’ll finally dump the masks and make our way back to the disco.■
ILLUSTRATIONS: MARK SMITH