Wohnseiten: The Interior(s) of Home Journals

by Rosanna Umbach and Amelie Ochs

Figure 1. Presentation of “new forms” in Ein Bilderbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes für junge Leute (c. 1958). Drawings by Bernd Fahrenholz (left) and Saul Steinberg (right), printed photos by Willi Moegle and additional unknown photographers. Image courtesy the authors.

Initiated by Irene Nierhaus and Kathrin Heinz in 2015, Wohnseiten is a research project based at the Mariann Steegmann Institute Art & Gender in cooperation with the University of Bremen, Germany. It has been developed in the Institute’s main research field wohnen+/-ausstellen (“dwelling+/-exhibiting”), which addresses the visualization of the concepts of dwelling and exhibiting in their interlinked discourses. This research field analyzes dwelling as a concept and process of residence, as well as practices of living and exhibiting as part of complex display strategies.

Wohnseiten examines home journals spanning from the nineteenth century to the present in order to analyze their serial, didactic aesthetics.1 The project contends with the following questions: How does the magazine, as a format, produce discourses on dwelling and, thus, living? To what extent does the interplay of text and image mediate, formulate, or design specific forms of subjectivation? The aesthetic structure of the lifestyle magazines reveals power constellations through which occupants and readers are addressed as socially and politically active, gendered, and consuming subjects. The magazine’s instructional content on how to dwell “properly” has gradually established dwelling as a social and aesthetic practice.2 Normalized images of dwelling have been developed through their repeated visualization in home magazines, shaping hegemonic ideas of space and occupants. Thus, magazines form intertwined “displays” that are linked to specific socio-political discourses correlating to their period of publication.3

Our field report aims to contribute to the existing scholarship on interiors and types of dwellings by bringing new focus to the interiors of home journals as socially-constructed spaces. Relying on the findings of our research, we locate the home journal in the center of a media-based discourse on dwelling/living.4 In the following, we demonstrate how display strategies function as didactic instructions, from a postwar picture book to current social media interfaces.

Figure 1 shows a double-page spread taken from a Bilderbuch (“picture book”) published by the Deutscher Werkbund in 1958.5 A photograph of a mid-century living-room interior, which fills half of the right-hand page, catches the viewer’s gaze. Next to the photograph, a caricatured drawing of an anachronistic piece of furniture—half historicist arm chair, half modernist tubular steel chair—is depicted in small scale. On the left-hand page, three photographs of glassware and tea sets alongside another small-scale drawing, showing four types of chairs in order to exaggerate the depiction of different types of seating, stand out from the type area. The meaning of the bold title, Neue Formen (“New Forms”), is explained by the accompanying text. Emphasizing modesty and simplicity, it describes only the merits of these new forms, represented by the “plain” glassware, tea sets, and living room furniture in the photographs. In contrast to these qualities, the text says that furniture like the armchair in the caricature should be avoided. The reason for this refusal is not mentioned; it is left to the reader’s imagination, which is trained by the picture book’s selection of images. Through numerous examples and using a rhetoric that highlights reduced modernist designs, the picture book teaches the viewer/reader to reject ornate forms. Thus, what is formulated here is not only advice about how a living room should be furnished, but also norms of living. This conclusion is supported not only by the hierarchy of the photographs over the drawings, but also by the whole arrangement of the type area.6

The previous example draws on a tradition of manuals for how to design the domestic interior (Wohnratgeber), which frequently appeared in various forms in the first half of the twentieth century. After the Second World War, the picture book introduced a new order of reality to a generation of young citizens within the Federal Republic of Germany. For this purpose, the picture book takes up the modernist (visual) rhetoric by confronting old and new designs from everyday life. The manuals’ didactic narratives were not only taken up by the picture book, but also by home journals like Schöner Wohnen (“More Beautiful Living”).

Figure 2. The modular grid of “mobile living” (re)presented by the reportage “Wir lieben es, mobil zu wohnen,” in Schöner Wohnen 6, no. 10 (1965), 38–9. Printed photos by Richard Schenkirz and Schöner Wohnen. Image courtesy the authors.

In 1965, Schöner Wohnen depicted the “agile” life of the Wallner family in the report titled “Wir Lieben Es, Mobil zu Wohnen” (“We Love Living Mobile”) (fig. 2). Mobile living is introduced as an “unusual program” of living, which consists of versatile and portable furniture that can adapt to the occupants’ needs and that correlates to a certain modernist idea of a flexible way of life.7 The first double-page spread consists mostly of square-format photographs, arranged as modules,  surrounding narrow text columns. It seems as if the ideals of mobile living and flexible interiors are conceptually translated in the layout’s style: Not only does the aesthetic structure (in this example: the arrangement of images and typography) proclaim the idea of mobile living, but the images themselves also do so. One photograph shows a child in a home library reading a magazine that is propped up by a pillow. The child sits on a wooden bench—a piece of portable furniture that creates a temporary Leselandschaft (reading landscape). The magazine spread’s seven images, including this one, produce a narrative where the subject should be just as flexible as the interior itself. Mobile dwelling is presented as a “recipe worth copying” that needs to be learned, and Schöner Wohnen educates its readers/viewers by providing supposedly authentic examples of how to create a modern interior and, thus, how to become a modern citizen.8

In the twenty-first century, ideas of “proper” dwelling are (re-)presented in IKEA catalogs, in television series, on Instagram, and in blogs. The lifestyle magazine tries to incorporate social media into its narrative and aesthetic structure.9 Living at Home + Holly, for example, is labeled as Europe’s first influencer magazine for interiors. It is curated by blogger Holly Becker, an American expat from Boston now living and working in Hannover, Germany.10 Some of the magazine’s pages imitate layouts used in social media, thus linking the printed page to the visual grid of Instagram. The magazine’s social media account, in addition to other interior blogs, is shaping representations of home and interior aesthetics, taking up didactic display strategies as the Schöner Wohnen did in the 1960s. Today, the “readers” can also be part of the (visual) narrative by responding directly through comments or by using the same hashtags to link their own posted Instagram photographs to a certain discursive archive.11 Pictures posted on social media give insight into ostensibly “authentic” but often carefully-arranged interiors; we do not see dust bunnies, dirty dishes next to the bed, or the actions of homemaking in the pictures. Instead, we see well-composed arrangements and fragmented close-ups of furniture. The pictures are subtitled with a multitude of hashtags indicating that the viewer is facing “#scandistyle” or “#coziness.” They collectively serve as yet another translation of internalized visual patterns that demand that the subject exhibit images of their home and reproduce ideas of the “right” way to dwell.

Within the research group Wohnseiten, which focuses on magazines, journals, and media networks, we call attention to specific display strategies and discuss their implications for society. We address magazines as central elements of the (re-)production of Wohnwissen (“knowledge about dwelling”), or a reflection of social conditions and ideals, historically disseminated through various media.12 Through the given examples, we have tried to show how visual elements like images; typography; graphics and illustrations; and floor plans and diagrams design a specific idea of dwelling. The picture book teaches the viewer/reader to compare images in order to make out the differences between the depicted designs: while the double-page spread is the tableau for comparative visual analysis, the ideologically-organized interplay of text and image is the foundation of the viewer’s aesthetic judgement. The latter is the book’s objective.

In the display of Schöner Wohnen, magazine images and texts are interlinked to form a discursive aesthetic structure that instructs readers by showing them ostensibly “authentic” examples of furnishing and living in a “modern” home. Living at Home + Holly demonstrates how digital discourses and interfaces are integrated into the aesthetic structure of the magazine, connecting different types of media in its display. What is more, these didactic implications are even more pronounced and interactive when social media becomes a platform where former readers transform the internalized ideas of the “right” way to dwell by exhibiting their own homes using the same aesthetic imagery and display strategies as those found in home journals.

Wohnseiten aims to connect to other institutions and researchers working on the topic of the home journals’ interior(s), aesthetic structures and social implications. Following the success of our first conference on the topic in 2019,we are currently establishing an early career researchers’ colloquium series.13


Rosanna Umbach

Rosanna Umbach studied Art – Media – Aesthetic Education and Cultural Studies, Art and Cultural Mediation at the University Bremen. Her dissertation project Un/Gewohnte Beziehungsweisen examines family concepts depicted in the display of Schöner Wohnen magazine (1960–1970). Since 2017 she is holder of the Mariann-Steegmann-Scholarship.

Amelie Ochs

Amelie Ochs studied Art and Visual History, History and Humanities in Berlin, Paris, and Dresden. Since 2019 she has worked as a research assistant at the University of Bremen / Mariann Steegmann Institute Art & Gender. Her dissertation examines the context of image consumption and display strategies in early 20th century still life photography.



1. The project’s full title is “Lifestyle Pages – German language home journals from the nineteenth century to the present and their dissemination as media.” Although the English translation describes its objective very well, we would like to stick to the German term Wohnseiten. This term contains the noun “Wohnen” which indicates both the practice of living (at home) and the home’s condition (respectively dwelling/housing). The compound “Wohnseiten” indicates both: the pages of the lifestyle magazine and the different possibilities (“sides”) of living. For further information on the project, see https://mariann-steegmann-institut.de/forschungsprofil/.

2. Research on this topic is relatively new and mainly located in the fields of design studies, architecture, and art history. Our focus on the (modern) magazine as a format that offers important insights into the discourse on dwelling was influenced by Jeremy Aynsley. See Jeremy Aynsely and Francesca Berry, “Publishing the Modern Home: Magazines and the Domestic-Interior 1870‒1965,” Journal of Design History 18, no. 1 (2005): 1–5, https://doi.org/10.1093/jdh/epi001. See also Jeremy Aynsley, and Kate Forde, eds., Design and the Modern Magazine (Manchester, UK: University Press, 2007).

3. Irene Nierhaus, “Seiten des Wohnens – Wohnzeitschriften und ihr medialer und gesellschaftspolitischer Display,” in FKW//Zeitschrift für Geschlechterforschung und Visuelle Kultur, no. 64 (Seitenweise Wohnen. Mediale Einschreibungen, ed. Katharina Eck, Kathrin Heinz, and Irene Nierhaus, 2018), 18–28.

4. See Irene Nierhaus, Kathrin Heinz, and Rosanna Umbach, eds., WohnSeiten. Visuelle Konstruktionen des Wohnens in Zeitschriften (Schriftenreihe wohnen+/-ausstellen, Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript, 2021).

5. Clara Menck’s Ein Bilderbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes für junge Leute (Düsseldorf: Rotations-Kupfertiefdruck L. Schwann, n.d. [1958]) is a 30-page leaflet rather than a picture book. It was addressed to 14- to 20-year-olds, and intended as an introduction to good form.

6. The magazine’s materiality stands out due to various forms of images and text fragments, arranged on bundled pages. Text, photography, and drawings relate to each other in the ways they are placed in the type area. In our research, mainly two theoretical concepts help us to approach the designed (double) page: Dagmar Venohr’s term “iconotext” and Sybille Krämer’s concept of Schriftbildlichkeit (“the script’s/page’s figurativeness”). The latter consists of four aspects: (1) The aspect of structure, i.e. the standing of a statement or an image on the designed page; (2) the visible and the invisible; (3) the production and revocation of meaning; and (4) the text’s anti-hermeneutic dimension which makes interpretation easier. See Sybille Krämer, “‘Schriftbildlichkeit’ oder: Über eine (fast) vergessene Dimension der Schrift,” in Bild – Schrift – Zahl, eds. Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp (München: Wilhelm Fink, 2008), 157–76. Dagmar Venohr describes the magazine’s aesthetic structure as an “iconotextual COMPOSITION.” The use of color, typography, and graphic(s), as well as the visual correspondences and contrasts produced by them, must be analyzed in order to decipher the magazine’s “iconotextual NARRATION,” Dagmar Venohr, medium macht mode. Zur Ikonotextualität der Modezeitschrift (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript, 2010), 113f (emphasis in original).

7. “Wir lieben es, mobil zu wohnen,” Schöner Wohnen 6, no. 10 (1965): 38–9.

8. Ibid.

9. In the second episode of their radio show Wohnfrequenz – Zuhörgespräche über Wohnbilder, Anna-Katharina Riedel, and Rosanna Umbach discuss the issue 1/2020 of Living at Home + Holly and how layout, strategies of (re-)presentation, and aesthetic structures of both print and social media are interlinked in its display. See https://sphere-radio.net.

10. The first issue was published in 2019. The magazine is read by German-speaking countries in Europe, but it has an English language version on ePapers.

11. Schöner Wohnen as a thematic archive is discussed in Anna-Katharina Riedel, “Präsentationsfläche Tisch. Angeleitetes Anordnen in Serie auf den Titelblättern der Schöner Wohnen zwischen 1980–1999,” in WohnSeiten: Visuelle Konstruktionen des Wohnens in Zeitschriften, eds. Irene Nierhaus, Kathrin Heinz, and Rosanna Umbach (Schriftenreihe wohnen+/-ausstellen, Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript, 2021).

12. Irene Nierhaus and Andreas Nierhaus, “Wohnen Zeigen. Schau_Plätze des Wohnwissens,” in Wohnen Zeigen. Modelle und Akteure des Wohnens in Architektur und visueller Kultur (Schriftenreihe wohnen+/-ausstellen, Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript, 2014), 9–35.

13. See the documentation in the volume WohnSeiten, cf. footnote 4.

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