Soft power. Furniture as mediation

Raven & Wood Agency
Feb 1, 2019 · 10 min read
Elysée Palace, Paris, France, 1971. Interior design Pierre Paulin. © Pierre Berdoy, Mobilier National, Les Archives Paulin

Our designed environments represent our own political views, but also political agendas of designers, makers, companies and governments — at times intentionally, at other times unintentionally. Fredie Floré, editor and co-author of the book The Politics of Furniture, sheds light on how furniture is used as a political tool.

TEXT HEINI LEHTINEN

“Politics in the context of this volume first and foremost relates to what design theorist Tony Fry has described as “an institutional practice exercised by individuals, organizations and states.” “Design,” Fry goes on to explain, “gives material form and directionality to the ideological embodiment of a particular politics.” As such, design is profoundly political. Designed goods, including furniture elements, can be seen as material expressions of power, which inform the way people interact or behave. Their agency is often less overt than that of, for example, political slogans or statements. However, their silent presence is capable of negotiating and manipulating powerful ideological messages.”

— Fredie Floré and Cammie McAtee in ‘The politics of furniture,’ 2017

Look up. What do you see in the space around you? What is the room like? What kind of a building are you in? What kinds of materials are used in the room? What are the windows like? What kind of furniture do you have around you? How is the furniture arranged? Or how about the smaller objects?

Perhaps one of the most important questions is how are you behaving in your environment. How does the environment impact your feel and behave with others?

When we think of the rooms in which we live in — spaces themselves, or furniture, or interior design — we don’t easily come to relate them with politics. It’s convenient to think that our environments are as they are because of functionality or for fun, or for trends that happen to take place at the time.

Whether we want it or not, our everyday surroundings bear intentional or unintentional political meanings. As design theorist Tony Fry states in the quote above, design is political.

Fredie Floré, editor and co-author of The Politics of Furniture, 2017.

In 2017, Fredie Floré and Cammie McAtee published a book The Politics of Furniture. The book discusses the political connotations of furniture that was produced and distributed in the Cold War era or are placed in politically charged interiors such as embassies and boardrooms.

Fredie Floré is an associate professor at KU Leuven in Belgium, where she teaches interior architecture theory. In her own research, she often looks at the ways in which architecture and design take representational roles in society. In an interview, she talks about the soft power of furniture and the different ways furniture can be seen as a political actor.

In your book The politics of furniture, furniture elements are approached as ‘actors negotiating power relations. You refer to design historian Grace Lees-Maffei, who described studying mediation as “to study the phenomena which exist between production and consumption, as being fundamentally important in inscribing meanings for objects.” What does this mean?

To understand the meanings of objects, interior elements or materials, it’s important to look at the different media, including magazines or journals that helped to inscribe these meanings.

For instance, in Flanders in the 1950s, there were several ladies’ magazines, which gave advice to their readers about how to furnish their house. These magazines often had a clear ideological orientation, such as the Catholic inspired Vrouwenbeweging or Bij de haard. They were telling what furniture to buy and how to use it in order to create a proper Catholic family home. As such the magazines helped to inscribe ideological meaning into the objects.

Magazines are only one medium. Obviously advertising, exhibitions, how we speak about objects and so on plays a part as well.

How conscious was this political connection from the magazines’ perspective at the time?

For the women’s organisations that published Vrouwenbeweging or Bij de haard in the 1950s the political-ideological connection was quite intentional. Their advice was related to the post-war housing shortage in Belgium. The women’s organisations actively supported the view of the Catholic party in government on how to address this problem. Through their magazines they gave advice on how to construct and furnish the ideal of the privately owned single-family house with a garden. The women’s organisations also organised exhibitions with full-scale examples of domestic interiors that were believed to express a proper Catholic lifestyle.

This was all quite intentional and clearly directed. Later on, the tone of the home advice slightly changed and the magazines became less directional. It became clear that people had to have a wider range of choices.

Cover of The politics of furniture, 2017. In the cover image York Castle in Tangier, Morocco, in 1963. Interior design Charles Sévigny, photography Robert Freson. © Robert Freson

How is an individual piece of furniture “a mediator of political content,” a term that you use in the book?

There are different ways to link politics to furniture. One way to look at it is to focus on the politics of production and distribution. We can use the history of the American furniture company Knoll as an example.

Knoll was established in 1938 and got wings in the post-war era. One of the elements of the success was the company’s close connection with the American State Department, which at that time was supporting Western Europe in rebuilding its economy. Knoll directly profited from the post-war reconstruction program and successfully launched itself on the European market. Several travelling exhibitions showed Knoll products as examples of ‘good design’ and as ingredients of the ‘American way of life’ promoted by the US. In the context of the Cold War this clearly had political meaning.

A second way to look at the politics of furniture is through a focus on the use or the intended use of furniture. On the cover of The Politics of Furniture there is an image of a dinner table setting. You see a dining table and a set of Tulip chairs designed by Eero Saarinen for Knoll in a room with oriental features. It is an image of York Castle in Tangier. A boy in a Moroccan outfit is setting the table. The act of setting a table is already a political one: who sets the table and who is sitting where, on which chair and with whom?

The same logic applies to boardrooms, where sometimes the furniture itself indicates where the person presiding the meeting should be seated. For example a late 1960s photograph of the boardroom of the Royal Library in Brussels features a chair with a higher back at the head of the table. These design aspects inscribe meaning into objects and have an influence on how we understand and use them. The chair with the higher back for example empowers its user and as such influences what will happen in the room and how people will feel and meet.

There is strength in the design discipline there. However, the relation between design and performance or use is seldom clear-cut. Objects cannot dictate how they should be used, but they do have performative qualities and as such are able to stimulate certain interpretations and actions.

How can these political agendas be researched?

I’m afraid there is no simple answer to this question. For sure mediation analysis is a key element for researching how political meaning is or was inscribed in furnishings. There are many different kinds of media. Studying writings, photography or drawings for example can help us understand how things are or were conceived and perceived, by the designer, the commissioner, the maker, the critic or the user. It’s also important to properly contextualise research, through reading policy documents, investigating socio-economic situations, and questioning to what extent architecture and design are or were seen as policy mediators.

‘Soft power’ is one of the crucial concepts when approaching the politics of furniture. In your book you and Cammie McAtee write the following: “political scientist Joseph Nye described [soft power] as a power that uses the force of attraction instead of instruments of compulsion and control. Borrowing the concept for a discussion on post-war housing, domestic furnishings and appliances, Greg Castillo has explained: ‘unlike hard power, which is concentrated in the hands of those at the source, soft power is dispersed and malleable. The allure of effective soft power lies in its capacity for requisition and reuse by foreign recipients to advance their own interests, but in ways that ultimately benefit the donor nation.’” How would you explain ‘soft power’ from your perspective?

Well, you just cited a good description of the concept. We can take Knoll again as an interesting example of what is meant by ‘soft power.’ In the post-war decades Knoll products were distributed to all parts of the world. They were also shown in travelling exhibitions promoting American culture in several countries in Europe, such as ‘American Home of 1953’ or ‘Design for Use.’ These exhibitions were organised by the New York Museum of Modern Art with the support of the US government. The exhibitions were meant to present the American lifestyle in an attractive way and as such were part of the soft power politics of the US.

Greg Castillo’s quote refers to the fact that the nations who were at the receiving end were able to recuperate and reuse soft politics for their own purposes, but that in doing so they still, ultimately supported the donor nation. We can take the Belgian history of Knoll as an example. The Flemish furniture company De Coene, a highly respected enterprise, had fallen into discredit after the war because of its conviction of economic collaboration with the German occupier. In the mid-1950s, in order to rebuild its identity De Coene, among other things, decided to buy Knoll production and sales licences for the Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). This action contributed to the reestablishment of De Coene as one of the main furniture firms of the country, but it also supported the agenda of the US.

Can you give us an example of soft power of a particular piece of furniture in politically charged contexts?

We can take a French example. When president Georges Pompidou and his wife Claude moved into the Élysée Palace in 1969, they started refurbishing their new home. In line with their love for modern art, they consciously chose to introduce modern furniture in the apartments. They commissioned the young French designer Pierre Paulin to reconceive the private reception rooms. At the same time Claude Pompidou also brought in several pieces of the Knoll collection, including a pedestal table and chairs by Eero Saarinen, which she combined with historical pieces manufactured in France.

As such a key site of French power was modernised, using French as well as American products. The interiors of the Élysée Palace contributed to the image of modern France, but not without reference to one of the superpowers in the Cold War conflict. The new interiors of the Élysée Palace were consciously mediated in the press including a richly illustrated article in the popular Parisian weekly Paris Match.

Was the use of this soft power intentional at the time or have historians read it into the contexts afterwards?

To what extent were people conscious of the political background or power of the objects they commissioned, designed or used? The answer to this question depends on the case. To get as close as possible to the original intentions or meanings, it is important to collect as much information as possible.

Interviews with key witnesses can be extremely valuable. For instance, referring back to the case of the Flemish women organisations, I interviewed a member of one of the organisations who made use of the advice provided in the magazines to buy her first set of furniture. Also memoirs and other personal documents can be revealing. For instance, when working on the research for the book, we tried to trace Charles Sévigny, a very interesting interior designer who worked for the American State Department and helped to introduce Knoll in Paris. We were very happy that we were allowed to consult his private archives and that we were invited to meet him on the occasion of his 100rd birthday.

As a historian you need to build on the available historical information. You can try to reconstruct the meanings of objects as they were perceived at the time, but you can also point to hidden layers of meaning that only revealed themselves later on.

Do you think that the language of furniture — what they mediate through their form — is more consciously considered today than in the mid-20th century?

Since design history and design studies have developed into fully-fledged academic disciplines in the late 20th century, both designers and researchers certainly have more tools to consider and discuss the meaning of objects.

As an example I would like to refer to the interior design of embassies as a form of national representation. We can study the architecture of embassies, but it’s at least as important to look at the interiors in which diplomatic meetings take place and at the objects they house. In a current research project at KU Leuven, we are studying the embassies of middle powers, including the Netherlands.

The Netherlands since several decades are very conscious of the power of design in the construction of national identity. In one of their recently built embassies government employed interior decorators installed a modern version of the period room where a consciously chosen selection of Dutch design objects, including furniture, is on display. Even objects without explicit political meaning are charged with political connotations once placed in the room.

Other governments have a less centralized policy on the interior design of their embassies and in some cases leave much of the decision making to the residing ambassador and his collaborators. However, this does not imply that the furniture elements and objects present in the interiors are without agency or meaning. Once placed in a highly symbolic site or space a wide variety of objects can find a voice or silently manipulate the scene.

__

The interview is a part of ‘Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy,’ a project and a series of talks, articles and interviews by Brussels-based design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spaces of Peace’ looks into crossovers of design, architecture and peace mediation in order to find synergy between the sectors.

RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

Design for connectedness. Essays, interviews and curated projects on spatial health and on design for peace, trust and respect.

Raven & Wood Agency

Written by

Design and research agency. Design for connectedness. HQ in Brussels, Belgium. www.ravenandwood.agency

RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

Design for connectedness. Essays, interviews and curated projects on spatial health and on design for peace, trust and respect.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade