Alan Powers enjoys a thought-provoking study of the Bloomsbury group's interiors
Do we need another Bloomsbury book? It seems as if every piece of evidence has been trawled, and, however delightful the people and their products, they have now been consigned to middlebrow nostalgia. Christopher Reed, of Lake Forest College, however, has found more to say in his new book, Bloomsbury Rooms. His lengthy academic survey enlarges the rather parochial frame through which the visual arts of Bloomsbury are normally viewed, in an attempt to establish a wider significance for products that, as he says, have often been dismissed as trivial or derivative.

He sets out to do this by challenging existing categories of modern design, proposing the personal and domestic as an alternative to the heroic and public. This key is needed for unlocking Bloomsbury. To condemn the decorative art of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry as self-indulgence is to miss the whole point. These were people whose selves were constructed through their domestic surroundings in defiance of convention.

In this respect, there is no substantial difference between the writings of Virginia Woolf and EM Forster and the visual counterparts practised by their friends and relations. We may think that we have made a cult of the interior in the recent past, but all such efforts are mere pastiche when compared to these pioneers of self-realisation through paint.

To admit this requires a reorientation of critical standards. The 1996 essay collection, Not at Home, edited by Reed, was a valuable step in this direction, but his new book, apparently spun out of a doctoral thesis, falls uneasily between chronicle and analysis. Readers wanting a general introduction to the Omega Workshops, the impact of the post-impressionist exhibitions and Bloomsbury lifestyles will find much to satisfy them, including a very comprehensive range of illustrations, but this is largely what has been done before.

There is more information and detail on the British context, including an interesting discussion of Vogue magazine in the 1920s under the editorship of the lesbian Dorothy Todd, who was blackmailed into quitting her post, but not before she had provided the best visual record of many Bloomsbury interiors. Reed explores other subcultures of the 1920s, such as the Sitwells, where literature and decoration became fused in what he calls the "amusing" style, before the whole thing was, as he sees it, swept away by spoilsport modernists in the 1930s.

The robust theoretical programme of the opening is obviously implied in all this, but gets swamped in detail and adversarial nit-picking. This seems purposely to ignore recent research on figures such as Le Corbusier that has already broken the stereotypes of instrumental modernism to which Reed clings in order to protect his thesis.

There is a clearly proclaimed gay agenda, without which neither Bloomsbury nor, perhaps, any other kind of interior decoration, can possibly be understood. British authors have suffered under a kind of pre-Wolfenden Report denial about this for far too long, and the result has been that the history of decoration has been sadly marginalised. Sexuality is the source of some of Reed's most valuable insights, but in a book that is so much about the construction of the self, he oddly ignores psychology, either as a historical phenomenon (there were strong links between Bloomsbury and Freud) or as the basis of contemporary critical methodology, thus missing many opportunities to push his arguments onto a more universal plane, and failing to show the way forward where it is most needed.

The idea of modernist spoilsports no longer stands up. Flora Samuel's writing on Le Corbusier, for example, shows that modernism could encompass the whole range of human emotions and cultural history in relation to physical environments, with inevitable contradictions that actually gave it vigour.

Nor was Bloomsbury such an exclusive enclave in British interior style, either in its own time or later, as Reed seems to suggest. Modernism co-existed with the "amusing" style, except in the homes of people without imagination. This pluralism was only killed off in the fictional world of design magazines and official exhibitions. The bizarre combinations of This is Tomorrow were a projection of private subculture into the public realm with a deliberate intention to shock, just as the Omega Workshops had been in 1912.

Books on the decorative arts that make you think are rare, and this one is well worth reading.