Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 29, 2018
Fredie Floré and Cammie McAtee, eds. The Politics of Furniture: Identity, Diplomacy and Persuasion in Post-War Interiors New York: Routledge, 2017. 214 pp. Hardcover $124.00 (9781472453556)

One of the critic Mario Praz’s (1896–1982) achievements is that he applied art-historical methods to interiors. His writing elevated the status of interiors to positions previously held by painting, sculpture, and architecture. Praz’s books from the 1960s constituted a call that the “minor” arena of decorative arts be taken seriously. Yet, with notable exceptions, his efforts to edge the decorative arts, chiefly furniture, onto an equal plane with art and architecture went largely unheeded. In the opening years of the twenty-first century, that is changing, and one evidence of this shift is the publication of The Politics of Furniture: Identity, Diplomacy and Persuasion in Post-War Interiors. Its appearance in 2017 signals that designed interiors are now subjects worthy of academic inquiry. (The authors briefly mention Praz in their introduction.) Other publications that constitute this still small but fascinating genre are two Bloomsbury books that appeared in 2015: Designing the French Interior and Oriental Interiors.

The global spread of interior-design practice and its academic arm exist in distinct spheres: the Anglo-American sphere, continental Europe, and, being reductive, the regions of the Global South—Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The Politics of Furniture makes clear the benefits of crossing borders, of subject matter, and the academics who write about interiors. Because of language and colonial history, American academic design interacts mostly with the United Kingdom, and this volume’s publisher, Routledge, is located in London. Less prevalent is American design’s interaction with non-Anglo Europe and the rest of the world. The volume under review leaves no doubt about the benefits of shifting the geographic paradigm. A cursory look at the participating authors’ locations promises that readers are in for new authorial experiences: Brazil (three authors), Netherlands (three), Australia (two), Canada (two), the United States (one), and Japan (one). Their subjects unfold across ten short chapters and address regions on all six continents: Central Africa, the Spanish Caribbean, Québec, Belgium, the United States, France, Japan, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Most of the material is new ground.

The title Politics of Furniture gamely if loosely provides a focus to this disparate collection. The subtitle, Identity, Diplomacy and Persuasion in Post-War Interiors, is closer to the mark. While all chapters do feature furniture, the pieces are consistently considered in context, certainly of designed interiors, but also architecture (Eero Saarinen’s US embassy in London) and even urban design (Oscar Niemeyer’s plan for Brasilia; Maurice Houyoux’s Belgian Royal Library). Notwithstanding the introduction’s obligatory statement that the methods of the essays are drawn from a diverse number of fields (“postcolonial studies, tourism studies”), at its core this book fulfills Praz’s appeal that art history include interiors.

What ties the chapters together is the subject of furniture, the brief chronological window, World War II to the 1970s, and, significantly, Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power.” A peek at the index confirms this. As the subject mostly belongs to Western art—here the classic modern furniture of Knoll, Eames, Saarinen, and others—what is exceptional in this global context is the editors and authors’ approach: there is a single mention of Michel Foucault and, notably, no mention of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Taking the latter’s place is the lesser-known Nye’s concept of soft power: one that relies on “the force of attraction instead of instruments of compulsion and control” (4). A related thread reinforcing the publication’s internal cohesion is global capitalism.

The chapters cover “well and lesser-known” designers. The well-known sort includes Saarinen, Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Alexander Girard, Niemeyer, Charles and Ray Eames, and Harry Seidler; Florence Knoll appears in multiple chapters. Some of the volume’s real gems are designers of the lesser-known variety: Claude Laurens and Raoul Guys, French architects and designers in Congo; Henry Klumb in Puerto Rico; Jean-Marie Gauvreau and Julien Hébert in Québec; the De Coene Frères, a Flemish furniture company; and Charles Sévigny and Yves Vidal, a gay French-American couple. Yet one of the most fascinating chapters has the least exotic subject: the selling of Knoll furniture in Paris. Of the book’s subjects, Knoll is the most familiar, yet the authors, Floré and McAtee, uncover a fascinating story, underscoring that when the same pieces of furniture appeared in different parts of the world, the contexts differed—the classic Knoll pieces circulated as part of an elite residential culture in Paris, in contrast to the focus on the corporate realm in the United States. The chapter by the editors has three accomplishments: it presents Knoll in a fresh way; it introduces designers, Sévigny and Vidal, whom American audiences should know and do not (the dining room of their Moroccan home graces the cover); and it underscores that more design historians should consider oral history and interviewing. Some of the people from the post–World War II period are alive, and researchers should talk to them.

An outlier of the chapters, for its geography and its subject, is Yasuko Suga’s essay on furniture made in Japanese prisons; this is where the volume’s reference to Foucault, appropriately enough, arrives. This chapter too is welcome, for it provides a gloss of global coverage, and it forces a big point: that any definition of design’s global modernity must be broad enough to include karaki, the elaborate lacquered storage units covered with exfoliate carving at which the Osaka prisoners excelled.

The book’s first two chapters, on hotels in Congo, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, owe an acknowledged debt to Annabel Wharton, who paved the way for looking at hotel interiors as a subject worthy of serious architectural history with Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture (2001). Chapters in The Politics of Furniture examine hotels in Kinshasa, Brazzaville, San Juan, and Havana, and take the direction set by Wharton to a higher level of specificity.

It has become increasingly difficult for academics to find publishing venues for monographs such as Wharton’s, and in recent years Routledge has aggressively moved into architecture and interior design, a welcome development. This is a reasonably priced academic book, with vertical orientation (7″ × 9 3/4"), and mostly black-and-white photographs, as is standard for Routledge publications. A judicious selection of sixteen colorplates displays the visual richness of the material. The subjects under examination would shine in a coffee-table book, but this volume is a serious work, aimed at academic audiences.

In addition to courageously arguing that it is possible to discuss Western art in a global environment without trotting out Said and Foucault, every chapter emphasizes that the subject of interiors is a field conceptually distinct from either architecture or decorative arts. Two case studies make this argument; they are examples where an architect intended the interiors to be an extension of the building, conceptually and stylistically. The projects are both, significantly, embassies: Saarinen’s US embassy in London and Seidler’s Australian embassy in Paris. Because the architects’ purview included the furniture and interiors, there was an expectation of continuity. An apt quote from Saarinen underscores the desire for a unitary design approach, as he wanted architecture and interiors to “sing with the same method” (169). Yet that did not occur, in these two buildings or with any of the projects in the book. In all cases, the interiors, with modern furnishings taking center stage, mediated or further negotiated the meaning of the architectural envelope; furnished interiors are not the transposition of the aesthetics of one field into another. For the American embassy, the interiors were softened deliberately by eschewing the furniture of Saarinen and Knoll, and instead using those of Edward Wormley and Dunbar. This placated a series of ambassadors who thought little of Saarinen’s building, and wanted traditional furniture. The resulting soft modernism mediated the conflicting agendas of architect and client. A third project that initially seems a similar story, the Australian Chancery in Washington, veers off in a different if equally compelling direction. Designed by the Melbourne architecture firm Bates, Smart & McCutcheon in 1969, the exteriors speak the language of international diplomacy, with a Brutalist slant, while the interiors featured Australian materials and works, all modern. Author Philip Goad describes this as “the typical split of an external architecture of international diplomacy matched with national content internally” (187). This reaffirms a point that theorist Sylvia Lavin made in her book Kissing Architecture (2011), in which she argues that there is an ontological frisson between the inside and outside of a building. It is not always a matter of dissension, although that occurs too, when interior designers do something antithetical to the architecture. The chapters of this volume make clear that this difference takes many lively forms. In the case of the Belgian national library, the architecture derived from classicism and the interiors were modern (with the full participation of the architect). Articles on France and Brazil address modern furniture in the Élysée Palace and antiques in Brasilia’s Itamaraty Palace.

Without a conclusion, the book indirectly points the way to possible future subjects and approaches in design history. Johan Lagae’s chapter on design in tropical Africa relies heavily on a journal titled Habiter en Belgique et au Congo. This is fascinating stuff and begs the question: How many other journals like this were there? They should be studied. The ten chapters as a collective demonstrate that there is a wealth of fascinating interiors projects around the world. One looks forward to them receiving their due. The editors and authors of The Politics of Furniture have set the academic bar high, with a serious collection of essays that were planned, researched, written, and edited with equal parts imagination and rigor.

Mark Hinchman
Professor, Interior Design Program, College of Architecture, University of Nebraska