Originally, comfort referred only to relations between people, but within modernity it extended to material things and is now associated with a condition of physical ease. Many scientific studies have sought to define absolute parameters of comfort, especially thermal comfort, yet the experience of comfort is enormously culturally variable and is open to change.
The feeling of well-being is associated with a built environment or product. While something that is comfortable is pleasurable, that feeling derives more from the absence of displeasure; it is less about something being pleasing than something providing a sense of ease. Since we are mostly at ease when sleeping—quiet, still, and undisturbed—comfort is superficially associated with bedding materials offering supportively thick, softness, and so on. Comfort is therefore relative, historically, culturally, and personally.
The notion of comfort just described—valuing the experience of finding things around you relaxing—is relatively recent, that is, the past two centuries or so. Comfort was a verb describing social relations before it was an abstract noun referring to material culture. To comfort someone, as it still does today, meant social support, especially in times of distress.
Importantly, religious beliefs were seen as the ultimate source of comfort. It was not that god wanted you to have a comfortable existence—quite the opposite; the temporal existence of mortal life was supposed to be hardship compared with the afterlife’s reward for a life of suffering. This is still evident in more puritanical beliefs that shun certain kinds of technoscience or prohibit them on certain days. Religious belief is a comfort, not because it removes the hardship, but because it explains it. As David Noble states, a radical redirection in Christian theology was required, around the turn of the first millennium, for the project of technology—creating things that would make mortal life easier—to become acceptable as anything other than the devil’s contrivances.
These technologies were developed to make human labor more productive and not to make life more comfortable. Space cooling enabled factory workers to not lose their capacity to work on hot days. Even in the twentieth century, technologies that made certain tasks easier, in that it took less effort and/or skill to do the same task, did not make living more easeful. This is primarily because capitalist economics demanded output increase rather than there being lower inputs.
The expansion in the meaning of comfort, from merely social or religious support to quality of things that helped people in (re-)establishing the practice of living normal lives, came with the creation of the modern bourgeois private sphere as the opposite of work. In Ancient Greek society, the domestic sphere, in which biological necessities were managed, was concealed, that is, kept private. In modern society, the domestic sphere became the location of respite from the necessities of work, a space in which workers could replenish their labor supply. The private realm came to mean comfort, support against the hardships of work. By corollary, being comfortable meant shelter from the stresses of public, economic life, somewhere to relax, and be your authentic self.
To attain this sense of private comfort, technologies previously designed for industry were incorporated into the domestic sphere. A “comfortable home” had “modern conveniences” such as temperature control and lighting systems. In these two examples, the comfort delivered by the systems aimed to be “absence of discomfort.” A comfortable indoor thermal climate consists of temperatures, moisture levels, and air flows that you do not notice, as with lighting levels. Comfort aims at the perfect fit between the built environment and the body.
“Scientifically” determined “standards”—the optimum temperature and lighting levels for maximum reported comfort (or absence of complaints about discomfort) and productivity—accompanied the introduction of built environment comfort-giving technologies. On the one hand, these made subjective notions such as comfort quantifiably controllable. On the other hand, these universally applied standards, irrespective of climate and cultural specificities, such as building types, daily activities, dress, and so on, reinforced the idea that comfort is not noticing the built environment—because it is the same everywhere. By corollary, comfort has a ratchet effect: you may find ways of feeling comfortable in a hot, humid climatic zone, until you experience once a cooler, drier built environment; the latter will then become a new standard of comfort, and you will now feel the heat and stuffiness of the former in ways you did not previously.
The reintroduction of naturally ventilated buildings as part of sustainable development initiatives has started to challenge conventions of comfort because these buildings have unavoidable variations in indoor climate. “Forgiveness” is now a recognized phenomenon in thermal comfort; this means that occupants are prepared to tolerate noticeable changes in temperature, humidity, and so on, within limits. One major factor in forgiveness is “control”; where and when occupants have the capacity to alter their own experience of an environment—for example, by opening a window or closing a shade—they will have an expanded range of what they consider as “comfort.” This fits with the wider recognition that feeling in control is a crucial aspect of comfort: I can be in an environment of optimum temperature with beautiful plush furniture, but I will not feel comfortable if I am imprisoned there.
As a result, in an era of mobile digital devices, time is now an aspect of comfort, in addition to material culture, space, and spatial conditions. Using interactive platforms to give a sense of control over scheduling is a way of becoming comfortable with the time pressures of contemporary urban life.
It is important to not naturalize comfort—that is to say, to presume that there are types or kinds of materials or forms that are inherently more comfortable than others. As the history of thermal comfort indicates, our sense of being comfortable coevolves with the nature of our built environment and its technologies. Furthermore, these are changes in kind not just quantity; we are not on an irreversibly linear trajectory of ever-increasing comfort. Modernist design for instance convinced a significant proportion of the global consumer class to find harder lines, more austere interiors and even more rigid furniture, and more comfortable—things have not just got plusher and softer. Design has the power to change what is considered comfortable.