The body moves within an affective interior landscape, the forms and textures of which are as powerful as they appear mundane
Between body frontier and the city’s door there’s a whole dramatic scene. A domestic landscape flush full of curiosities at every scale. The space is so familiar that it makes room for dreaming – so habitual that physical rhythms have become unconscious, unconstrained: patterns of padding, tos and fros, tracts of wear, thinning and incremental amassment building up to so much static matter of inhabitation. Streams of passage cut between furniture, between hill and crag, jagged chasms slicing between chair and table, bed and desk. Hemmed in at the edge by the walls’ protective shell, this is not one room but an entire territory – a mountainous expanse for the trawling.
The shape of it has formed from an accumulated ergonomics, the weight of the body and its behaviours, its extending habits, gradually breaking into every curve and each topographical line. The body is both the kernel around which this scene has originated and the means by which it is experienced. In Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, the body is the hot core of the perceptual field: not a numb, lumpen physicality divorced from the keen gaze of a perceptive eye but a fully sensate solid. The skin a tense and tingling frontier, an unsmooth membrane of nerve clusters separating soft, fleshy sides from a ragged field of affective objects. It is in a constant state of perception, and the objects and textures that surround it have impact – consciously or unconsciously hitting, pressing, moulding the body even as it exerts its influence back on them.
Source: © Bruce McLean
The design of furniture represents the crystallisation of these bodily forces into a replicable form. Particular postures of recumbence, standing or sitting, are in turn encouraged or enforced by their formations; as certain habits or social codes are set into timber and steel, so their replication is ensured for the future. The question arises of who these structures are for, built, as they usually are, around the conception of a normative body – and there are many for whom these shapes will knock and prod at the body, for whom commonly accepted standards of design present a grinding, everyday difficulty.
‘There are those who incite such a shift with their own body, who travel against the grain’
Points of abrasion tend to come to light when things are put into shift. Such a shift might arise from an altered mental or physical state: by an injury, an excess of sluggishness, or those uncanny hours in the dead of the night when the light of the moon puts forth a new reality. So discovered poor Gregor Samsa, who found in his familiar bedroom an environment entirely unsuited to the flailings of his new form. Kafka’s words tighten around the minutiae of Samsa’s movements and the space he attempts to navigate, drawing a thick cloud around the room in which he is bolstered, and elucidating in sharp detail the travails of his monstrous form. The narrowness of the doorway, the flat plane of the bed, become alien in their sudden impossibility of passage.
Source: Mark Lazenby
There are, nevertheless, those who incite such a shift with their own body, who travel against the grain. They who cannot sit ‘properly’, stretching the long heft of their limbs along the woven floor, or couching backwards, head hanging under wriggling toes. They make an obstacle of themselves, rupturing the flows of cohabitants and resounding their own bulk against the terrain. In 1944, Bruno Munari published a provocation in Domus entitled ‘Searching for Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair’. Equipped with a newspaper and stack of magazines, he has arranged himself into poses of some extremity, subverting as he does so the foundational logic of the chair; its position, structure, design and purpose.
His accompanying text considers a problem of comfort, that despite the great proliferation of novel furniture designs, no matter how original, not one was as comfortable as a cheap and ordinary lounge chair. He puts forward the notion of an ‘improved model’ of furniture, a perfected, ideal item that would solve all further issues if only people would stop caring about differentiating themselves through design. The proposition extrapolates immediately into a broadly ideological one. The idea of the perfect chair, mass-produced and made cheaply available for all, comes to bear with concerns for personal taste and status: without the disruption of the goals of individualism that underlie the desires of proliferating original designs, what role would such a perfect chair even play? Similar products have been produced in the past, with the intention or at least the guise of the machine age’s accessibility, now dwelling only in the homes of the wealthy or elevated on thick white slabs in Modern design exhibits around the world. And, considering again the features of the everyman this chair would be designed for, can such an item be anything other than inevitably totalitarian?
Source: Veit Mette
Liberation is left, perhaps, in designing with a will towards adaptation, in surroundings that soften to be altered. There is undeniable beauty produced by the great depths of attention paid to certain phenomena in architecture, from the grip of the door handle to the rasp of gravel or echo of a certain tile. There’s an accompanying tendency, though, for that agonisingly bespoke architecture to become also irresolute, authoritarian, for its precision to also preclude human interaction. Machine living dictates a certain kind of life, a drive towards efficiency, the divinely curated home enforcing certain patterns of propriety, of sitting up straight and other social strictures. These curations are aspirational – bright and breezy and smelling of stainless steel, they are a signifier of moderate success, good clean health, of an energetic life well put to order and robustly maintained. At the same time, scruff, mess, misaligned objects, unkempt bodies and strange mannerisms become matter out of place. ‘We are pressed into lines’, as Sara Ahmed puts it, bodies shaped by the objects that surround them and their surfaces rewritten by what is in reach. The organisation of the nuclear family is expressed in kitchens and across dining tables; its children pressed to reproduce both the heterosexual line and accompanying divisions of labour.
What constructions of difference, of selfhood, could then be gained by the expressive exertion of the body on its surroundings? Forgetting even structural interventions and other alterations set out of the reach of renters, the home might still be a site of transformation or of self-formation. A living cabinet of personal curiosities, full of troughs and furrows of far-too-large furniture handed on or found on street corners and crammed into the flat; partially reupholstered by untrained hands and collated in an aesthetic of taking what you can get. Cushy and brimming with soft surfaces and stacks of paper, books on books and folded bedding, these arrangements coil around and claim the body as it moves through space. The space between them, the body and its surroundings, is reciprocal here, each acting on, around, and into the other. Working into the walls of his family home in Hanover between 1923 and 1937, Kurt Schwitters made this exchange most literal in his Merzbau: continuously grafting on and cutting away at the structure of the walls, he incorporated materials found, gathered, stolen away from his friends and contemporaries or collected from his own body. Mies van der Rohe lost a drawing pencil to the structure; Hannah Höch found a missing key of hers that had been subsumed.
As the entire structure underwent constant transformation, the alcoves containing these objects could be closed off or reopened at any time – as Hans Richter recorded, the niches these artists occupied by proxy were swallowed by the monstrous growth of the structure. Schwitters explained that they were now housed ‘deep down inside’ the moving morass. Thickened with living matter, the Merzbau was both a dwelling and an extension of Schwitters’ own self. He eventually abandoned the project to flee to Norway in 1937, the original later destroyed by bombing – the only version of it that now remains is a static and hollow replica, reconstructed from the few photographs taken in 1933: a shell rather than a nest.
Lead image: Yayoi Kusama leans against a chair in her New York studio in 1963, surrounded by the many bristling, phallic protrusions that transform her space into a soft, if sickly fleshlike, cocoon. Image © Yayoi Kusama
This piece is featured in the AR June 2020 issue on Inside – click here to buy your copy today