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Most accounts of how new technology has transformed the domestic realm focus on the provision of comfort, sanitation and labour-saving devices. In parallel, but typically not visible in these histories, there has been a minor strand of development that we identify as trivial technologies of effect. These are gadgets and devices whose utility cannot be separated from wonder and delight. They bring a kind of non-essential utility for private enjoyment, and so occupy a distinct ground somewhere between function and entertainment. In this sense they can be thought of as aligned to the practice of architectural design, which similarly pursues both functionalism and art. The paper explores this category of trivial technology through two significant examples of mechanised houses. The first is the house of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, a nineteenth century magician and noted amateur inventor. From this case, the form of the magic trick provides a metaphor for our analysis of technologies of effect. The second example is the penthouse addition of the appartement de Beisetgui, designed by Le Corbusier. Here we trace the same lineage of devices in the modernist guise. Finally we briefly examine the present-day phenomenon of the ‘smart house’, and other attempts to rekindle wonder in domestic digital technologies through the designs of Bill Gaver. In conclusion, we use the inherent ambiguity and irony of trivial technologies to explore the modernist mantra of the machine a habité in a different light, that is less about satisfying functionalism, and more about producing automated and sensory effects.
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