by Penny Sparke. Yale University Press, February 2021. 224 p. ill. ISBN 9780300244021 (h/c), $50.00.
Reviewed July 2021
Miranda Siler, MA History of Art and Design/MS Library and Information Science, Pratt Institute, email@example.com
Nature Inside: Plants and Flowers in the Modern Interior by Penny Sparke, professor of design history at Kingston University, helps to fill an interesting gap within design history literature. While the visual motif of flora and fauna has been written about extensively, the inclusion of actual living plant life in interior spaces has been largely ignored, relegated to a matter of happenstance or personal taste. Putting forth the idea that indoor planting has societal meaning, Sparke explores the history of interior plant design within the West’s modern period, private and public, amateur and professional.
The study starts in the seventeenth century, when “plant hunters” used horticulture as a means to further a colonial-imperial agenda through both financial (via trade) and psychological (a quest to “tame” the exotic other) means. These colonial, economic, and psychological effects of nature inside continue as a through line for the rest of the work, albeit in different ways. For example, Nature Inside covers how plants functioned symbolically within a religious and feminized domestic sphere in the Victorian era, but also how they have been used to encourage leisurely financial activity within the twentieth-century shopping mall. The book achieves a delicate balance between describing formal or aesthetic details that have been previously overlooked and layering in a more theoretical analysis about the interactions between plants and humanity.
Nature Inside will be useful to anyone at the university level who is interested in the use of plant life within design history. Written as a sort of chronological survey, each chapter is a useful starting point for exploring this topic during a given period. Occasionally an example is shared without much explanation, but this is helped by an extensive bibliography that provides access to further research. The book is certainly not wanting for imagery, with both photographs taken by the author and contemporaneous illustrations peppering the pages throughout. A plastic sleeve might be recommended to protect the cover, but the pages themselves are thick and sturdy. Sparkle uses clear and concise language, making this an easy read despite a plethora of information.
Overall, Nature Inside would make a great addition to any collection that covers design history. It is not only delightful to read with exceptional images, it is the only overview of its kind on the topic. Interior plant design provides a lens through which to explore humanity’s conceptions of nature and culture within any given context. This idea alone makes it well worth the read.