This image is among the most famous in British post-war art. It has come to define the rise of consumer society in the mid to late 1950s and is an icon of Pop art, although the original collage created in 1956, on which this print is based, pre-dates that phenomenon by several years.
In 1956 Richard Hamilton took part in the This is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. For this group show teams of artists and architects were invited to create discrete zones that accorded with their vision of the future. Hamilton worked with artist John McHale (1922-78) and architect John Voelcker on the second zone, presenting a sort of funfair vision of the future where sensual perception was stimulated and confused and images culled from a range of sources formed an iconography for the modern world.
As part of his contribution to the exhibition catalogue Hamilton made a collage called Just what is it that makes today’s home’s so different, so appealing? (Kunsthalle Tübingen, Zundel Collection) that was also made into a poster. In planning the collage, Hamilton typed a list of categories he planned to incorporate: ‘Man, Woman, Food, History, Newpapers, Cinema, Domestic Appliances, Cars, Space, Comics, TV, Telephone, Information’ (quoted in Richard Hamilton, 1992, p.149). Imagery that fitted into Hamilton’s categories were sourced from a stash of American magazines that McHale had brought back from the United States. He found the work’s title in a caption to an illustration in the cast-off trimmings from the magazines. The finished collage presents all the multiple ways of communicating information available at that time, reflecting Hamilton’s ironic interest in popular culture and modern technology. It shows a domestic interior complete with armchairs, coffee tables, pot plants and lamps. Such domestic appliances as a hoover, a television showing a woman talking on the phone on its screen, and a tape recorder that would have been considered state of the art in the 1950s now appear extremely out-dated. A framed comic strip on the wall, sandwiched between a traditional nineteenth century portrait and a window onto a movie theatre, also belongs to a passed era. Prophetically in the centre of the work, a crowned FORD motorcar logo alludes to cars; it is a similar size to the head of the muscular man, standing in a body-builder’s pose next to it. He holds a giant lollipop bearing the word ‘POP’ at the level of his groin, pointing towards the semi-naked woman sitting in a ridiculously artificial pose on the sofa opposite.
Representations of interiors have preoccupied Hamilton for many years. In 1990 he wrote that the objective of his 1956 collage:
was to throw into the cramped space of a living room some representation of all the objects and ideas crowding into our post-war consciousness: my ‘home’ would have been incomplete without its token life-force so Adam and Eve struck a pose along with the rest of the gadgetry. The collage had a didactic role in the context of a didactic exhibition, This is Tomorrow, in that it attempted to summarize the various influences that were beginning to shape post-war Britian. We seemed to be taking a course towards a rosy future and our changing, Hi-Tech, world was embraced with a starry-eyed confidence; a surge of optimism which took us into the 1960s. Though clearly an ‘interior’ there are complications that cause us to doubt the categorisation. The ceiling of the room is a space-age view of Earth. The carpet is a distant view of people on a beach. It is an allegory rather than a representation of a room.
(Quoted in Exteriors, Interiors, Objects, People, p.44.)
As its title indicates, this print is an upgraded version of an earlier image, already itself a remake. In 1992 Hamilton created an edition of colour facsimiles of the 1956 collage, printed by laserjet, altering the title to reflect on a retrospective view of the past. Just what was it that made yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing?(originally in Tate Collection P78920, now in Tate archive TGA 20071/7) was created using the Canon printer that Hamilton had access to while participating in a series of programmes called QED run by the BBC. For this commission, he had created Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? (Tate P11358), an image that satirises the world of the 1956 collage and contemporary culture in relation to it, using a Quantel Paintbox application to collage digitally for the first time. Having already scanned the 1956 collage, Hamilton then produced the facsimile Just what was it that made yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing? in an edition of twenty-five plus three artist’s proofs of which Tate’s copy is the third. Expanding the possibilities of using digital technology to create art has become a central preoccupation for Hamilton since the 1990s and he is always looking for improvements in ink and printing quality. In 2004 he released a more long-lasting version of the image in an upgraded edition intended to replace the first. Just what was it that made yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing?(upgrade) was printed using an Epson Inkjet printer with pigmented inks by Hamilton’s son Rod at Hamilton’s studio in Oxfordshire and editioned according to the 1992 version. Both versions of the print were distributed by Alan Cristea, London.
Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1992, pp.148-9, reproduced p.149.
Richard Hamilton: Exteriors, Interiors, Objects, People, exhibition catalogue, Kunstumuseum Winterthur, Kestner-Gesellschaft Hannover and IVAM, Centre Julio Gonzalez. Valencia 1990.
Richard Hamilton, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R, Guggenheim Museum, New York, Städlische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich and Kunsthalle Tübingen 1974, pp.24-5, reproduced p.25 in colour.