Instruments of



& poetic


Robert Nelson

All the woes of the world come from

not knowing how to sit restfully in a room

Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Misère de l’homme) 26

Instruments of contentment

Furniture and poetic sustainability

by Robert Nelson 2014

published by Craft Victoria,

31 Flinders Lane Melbourne

ISBN 978-1-921994-19-7

Robert Nelson is Associate Director Student

Experience at Monash University and Art Critic

for The Age.

Design: Andrew Murray

Disclaimer: all opinions and responsibility for factual

content and interpretation are the author’s

and do not belong to Craft Victoria.

Contents 1. A history of contentment

1.1 The poetic history of contentment

1.2 Furniture for sustainable circumstances

2. Sitting and settling

2.1 Chairs

2.2 Beds

2.3 Couches

2.4 Tables

3. Storage and stowing

3.1 Trunks

3.2 Wardrobes

3.3 Shelves

3.4 Cabinets

3.5 Desks

4. Screening and seeing

4.1 Doors

4.2 Frames

4.3 Curtains

4.4 Lights

5. Conclusion

At a glance

Contentment has evaded civilizations for thousands of years. But now the quest

is ecologically urgent because, in lacking contentment, we consume energy

and goods unsustainably.

Proposing the first history of contentment, this book identifies satisfaction not with possessions

but the contemplation of them in poetic terms. Furniture makes for contentment in

two ways: first, it physically creates a context in which we are happy to converse with minimal

energy consumption; and second, each piece of furniture can become an object of contemplation

and affection, in a rich poetic matrix of associations, histories and metaphors.

Examining the functions of everyday objects, this book establishes the ecological value of

furniture in its delivery of contentment and explores how sustainability can be poetically nurtured

by ruminating on design.

Contents summary

1. A history of contentment

2. Sitting and settling

Contentment has an ecological value and this chapter proposes that an interior can create

conditions of delight which save expenditure of energy and the growing need for goods and

services. Alas, contentment is elusive and has long been so, even before the consumerist

age. So the section conducts a history of contentment, distinguishing contentment from

satisfaction and revealing how the conception has changed from a mechanistic passivity to

a psychologically-inflected idea related to a person’s nature. But as much as the concept has

travelled, it remains circular: if you are predisposed to contentment, you experience more of it.

If, on the other hand, we could find a material basis for contentment, we would have a solution

to a somewhat complacent discourse. Defining the term poetic sustainability as contentment

in ideas, the section proposes how the contemplation of furniture satisfies the ecological

demand in an exemplary way.

The link between sitting and contentment may seem obvious; but the history of sitting reveals

rather the opposite, as it was associated with social contexts where power was stressfully

transacted. This chapter traces the rich intuitions about assisted postures, matching the

changes in language with changes in the design and function of chairs, beds and couches.

Because of their centrality to a community of chairs, the motif of tables is also considered.

The section considers in detail the way that design may express or suppress the condition of

contentment, how it can impersonate us or take on a formal language that communicates

sympathetic or mean values.

3. Storage and stowing

4. Screening and seeing

Furniture has a direct relationship to space, because it occupies space and sometimes is

considered to save space. This chapter traces the almost polemical contention between our

resentment of space-occupancy and our enduring affection for the expanding property that

we want to store in it. This stressful condition has environmental externalities, because space

can be expressed, poetically enough, as footprint, both in terms of ground plan and carbon

emissions. The section explores the history and dense phenomenology of furniture such as

trunks, wardrobes, shelves, cabinets and desks.

Not all furnishings are monumental. Many are physically flimsy or almost immaterial,

as with a light, where the physical structure may almost disappear in favour of its function.

So as not to fetishize furniture as object (and position it as yet another consumable) this

section contemplates instruments and membranes that control access and afford either

visibility or privacy, focusing on doors, frames, curtains and lights. The section explains the

ecological work that the poetic is capable of performing. As opposed to an exploitative view

of the environment, a poetic view of the world promotes contentment.

1. A history of contentment

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 9

1 ‘Better is the life of a poor man in a mean cottage

than delicate fare in another man’s house. Be it little

or much, hold thee contented’, Wisdom of Sirach


2 Sideboard, oak, boxwood, iron, designed by Bruce

Talbert (1838–81), made by Gillow and Company,

c. 1873, NGV International, Melbourne, Australia

3 There are many texts commending contentment

from a Christian quarter, some quite old, such as

Jeremiah Burroughs, The rare jewel of Christian

contentment, Fisher, Son & Jackson, 1833; Richard

Allestree, Dorothy Coventry Pakington, William

Pridden, The art of contentment, James Burns,

London 1841, The Englishman’s library, 1883,

and Marjorite Barstow Greenbie, In quest of

contentment, Whittlesey House (McGraw-Hill)

1935; and some more recent, such as Will Samson &

Shane Claiborne, Enough: contentment in an age of

excess, David C. Cook, Colarado Springs, 2009. See

also Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: what the

least religious nations can tell us about contentment,

NY University Press, New York & London, 2008

4 See David Montgomerya, ‘Class, capitalism, and

contentment’, Labor History, vol. 30, issue 1,

Winter 1989, pp. 125–137; and also related to

demographic factors: A Kearns, R Atkinson and

A Parkes, A geography of misery or an epidemic of

contentment? Understanding neighbourhood (dis)

satisfaction in Britain, Urban Affairs Association

Proceedings, 3–6 May, 2006, Los Angeles (2000)

Since antiquity, stoic philosophy has exhorted us to find contentment. After two thousand

years, we are no closer to reaching it; and there is reason to suppose that the more our

bountiful culture plies us with riches and tempts us with opportunities, the further we

slip from attaining the fabled rewards. For 25 centuries, we have been well advised; the

necessary equanimity has been commended to us in persuasive writing and by now we

ought to have grown in wisdom. In biblical times, one could urge: ‘be it little or much,

hold thee contented’; 1 and similar improving advice could still turn up in an inscription on

a beautiful piece of Arts & Crafts furniture, a sideboard now held in the National Gallery

of Victoria. 2 But nowadays, the sermon bores us. Like the topic of sexual fidelity, contentment

is a failed discourse. If told to be contentedand the reverse is likelierwe would

feel patronized.

Neglected or even resented, the topic of contentment could well languish and remain a

stuffy old relic, staunch and churchy, of little pertinence to the contemporary world. 3 Who,

in an age where ambitions are marketed, wants to be lectured about being contented and

perhaps thereby foregoing aspirational opportunities for greater welfare and joy? Yet something

urgent has called this case back from moral oblivion: it is sustainability. If we did not

appreciate that we need sustainable lifestyles, we could continue in the seductive illusion

that eventually capitalism will overcome our dissatisfaction and minister comprehensively

to our desires. 4 But because we can now so clearly see that this strategy is unsustainable in

every senseunsustainable because we cannot actually achieve contentment through

spending and unsustainable because it lays the planet to ruinthe need to revive the

theme of contentment, to understand its psychological origins, its history and material basis

as well as its consequences in the material world, has risen to a new and striking

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 10

5 ‘Les cupiditez sont ou naturelles et necessaires,

comme le boire et le manger; ou naturelles et non

necessaires, comme l’accointance des femelles; ou

elles ne sont ni naturelles ni necessaires: de cette

derniere sorte sont quasi toutes celles des hommes:

elles sont toutes superfluës et artificielles:

Car c’est merveille combien peu il faut à nature

pour se contenter, combien peu elle nous a laissé à

desirer: Les apprests à nos cuisines ne touchent pas

son ordonnance. Les Stoiciens disent qu’un homme

auroit dequoi se substanter d’une olive par jour.

La delicatesse de nos vins, n’est pas de sa leçon,

ni la recharge que nous adjoustons aux appetits

amoureux’, Essais, 2.12.

exigence. We stand before it little prepared and quite as indisposed as the French philosopher

Montaigne was in the sixteenth century, contemplating the extremity of

stoic philosophy.

Desires are either natural and necessary, like drinking or eating, or natural and not necessary,

like concourse with the opposite sex; or they are neither natural nor necessary;

and of this last kind are almost all of those that people follow: they are superfluous and

artificial. Because it is amazing how little is necessary by nature to content ourselves,

how little it leaves us to desire... The stoics say that a man should have enough by which

to sustain himself with a single olive per day. 5

Having decided that we do not need very much out of all that we seek, the perennial and

stressful question remains: how much? Given that western societies spoil us with more

olives than most of us can digest, the key to contentment should be free of anxiety over

material things. But it never is because, even when faced with luxury, the decision of how

much is gratifying and how much is greedy is in itself a cause of anxiety. It may be possible

to approach contentment by not agonizing over such choices but to enjoy them through

contemplation, through pondering things in a somewhat disinterested way; and a simple

argument could be made that contentment is immaterial in the philosophical sense, that its

essence lies entirely in the fabric of the mind, in its very immateriality and freedom from

stuff. But the problem is that contentment is already intimately and inextricably related to

the material world, to an image of goods and mobility provided in plenty, all those things

and energy which give us comfort and luxury and end up organizing our desires. So the

immediate challenge is always to see how much contemplative virtue we can extract from

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 11

the material assets that we have rather than apparently requiring further energy expenditure

or better or newer assets than we already possess.

Furniture and interiors have a role in sustainability discourse which is much larger than

the use of green materials and processes that go to their manufacture. There is also the

life that we lead within our interiors and around and upon our furniture; and because we

consume energy at greatly differing rates according to our circumstances and activities,

the influence that our interiors have upon our behaviour is more ecologically significant

than the manufacturing costs that brought them into being. We might lead a settled and

contemplative life in our interiors; alternatively, we might feel unfulfilled in the same place,

depending on the design or mood, always sensing a need to get out, to travel and kill depression

with shopping, to move off and consume, as if there is no promise of asylum in the

place that we call home. The interior is not a hermitage, provides no sense of delight or relief

in the isolation that it embodies (even when networked) and, consequently, we restlessly

look beyond the house and neighbourhood for excitement and glamour, maybe even for

the comforts that we sense our home to be lacking in. Just as people become self-conscious

about their clothing and do not feel that they can present to the world in their unstylish

garb of two seasons back, so they feel deceived by the way their interiors are set up, fearful

that they are no longer anything to be proud of or to be contented within. Instead of being

a place to repair to, it is a place to escape from and make up for.

Our ability to experience our surroundings as satisfyingrather than a cause for dissatisfactionhas

an impact upon consumption of goods and especially energy in services of

mobility, with their frightening environmental costs. It seems unlikely that furniture and

interiors would not have an influence upon the way we lead our lives; and there are strong

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 12

ecological reasons to investigate the link. Naturally, our reaction is to examine our furniture

in terms of materials, in the hope that we might respond with greener products, more

conducive to recycling or reuse and lighter in energy in their manufacture. But while these

are important technical preoccupations, they do not tell a more urgent story of furniture

and sustainability.

The furniture that we own may or may not be very green; but if it is not environmentally

friendly in its materials or assembly, the scandal of its manufacture is still only a waste once,

whereas if the furniture does not contribute to our sense of contentment, our sense of wellbeing

and the feeling of being settled, that cost goes on in perpetuity. A good chair from

the 1970s, for example may be made with rainforest teak and leather upholstery and, on

account of its materials, it may breach ecological protocols. We are more likely to admire

a more recent chair made from recycled bottles and bags. But if the 1970s chair affords a

degree of comfort and affection that the recycled chair neglects, it contributes to a settled

planet for a very long time; and ultimately, it may be considered a properly green institution,

much greener than the recycled chair that no one wants to sit in for any duration.

Furniture and sustainability are usually put together on the technical side; and of

course, we applaud it if furniture can be made from reused or recycled materials, can itself

be recyclable, especially if it can still have all the comfort and semantic virtues of ecologically

costly furniture. But clever steps in engineering and materials science will not save

the planet if the sustainable products still encourage unsustainable lifestyles. By degrees,

engineers will make progress with materials and processes; but making progress with how

we conceive the design and function of industrial products in relation to our life means cultural

labour for designers and poets.

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 13

6 ‘Zufriedenheit schützt selbst vor Erkältung. Hat

je sich ein Weib, das sich gut bekleidet wusste,

erkältet?’ Sprüche und Pfeile, 25.

Our circumstances make us feel settled or otherwise and lend themselves to different degrees

of leisure, both by their size and their style. If we occupy a large amount of space, our

ecological footprint is graver. We need more heating and cooling, draw more current,

make the city spread out more and therefore create further need for transport. Nietzsche,

meanwhile, reminds us that contentment even protects us from cold, 6 and we can imagine

that a lack of contentment (a) makes us intolerant of high or low temperatures and (b)

goads us to fill up the personal vacuum with retail therapy, more assets and more need for

storage to sort them out. In interiors of a minimalist aesthetic, the fear of clutter might

make the householder especially resentful that the space is so limited, that the threat of

clutter disappoints the aesthetic, that there is not enough wardrobe or shelving; because

the sheer modernist style, while rhetorically repudiating domestic accumulation, is spatially

intolerant and makes the fastidious guardian of tidiness anxious about the volume of

space itself and its stresses in hiding the mess.

Every object that we have presupposes a place to put it; and this means space, floorspace,

footprint, effectively our claim on the earth’s resources. The objects that we have

and cherish are not entirely inert, even though they are inanimate and static. Each aesthetic

entity fits into an economy of space and other objects that it marries or displaces.

Another wardrobe can only come into the house if the house is big enough; so while the

disposable income of the householder may be able to claim the furniture and the contents

to fill it, the disposable space to contain the ensemble may reject it. So the furniture sits in

the imagination first, as if in the resentful dock of the acquisitive mind, where it has to wait

till the spatial ambitions of the discontented householder can be satisfied.

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 14

7 Energy expenditure is difficult to calculate across

many variables. If a family goes out in a car for a

winter’s day of shopping but turns the heating off in

the house, there may even be an energy saving; but

often, as in New York or Paris, the heating remains

on regardless. My argument is not based on these

contingencies but assumes that contentment aligns

with fewer needs, as with less jet aircraft travel.

The spatial pressure belongs to an economy, a balance of interests, each one of which has

environmental consequences. The ill-consequences are the results of our hunger with

possessions, our desire, which industry supplies with reciprocal efficiency; and this copious

luxury, of course, conspires to make our ecological footprint heavier, with more space,

more energy, more sprawl. In certain cases where interior design is affectedly austere, the

hunger is for space itselfwithout possessions clogging it upand space as an abstraction

is fetishized. The furniture within it expresses the autonomous extensiveness of space,

almost as if the uncomfortable couch is a white airstrip with a perpendicular coffee table

adjoining as taxidrome. Uncluttered fashions that are free of ornament are often even

less settling than layered interiors, because they are conceived in a stylish but unhomely

spirit that discourages an affectionate intimacy with the furniture. Much depends upon

the design, because furniture is also capable of proposing minimal contentment through

minimal aesthetics.

An interior that we love and want to be in means that we are not constantly restless,

seeking mobility or a change, gobbling up petrol and consuming the earth’s resources.

When we go outwhich we obviously must doit might be for similar kinds of contentment

that we gained from being at home, rather than for energy-intensive displacement or

thrill. Furniture cannot be understood as an opiate or a tranquillizer but the disposition of

an interior can achieve some restoration of contentment against grand commercial energies

that induce us to spend and waste. I would not argue that furniture should keep us at home

for more time than we currently spend there 7 (in any case, digital technology is more likely

to have that effect) but that our interiors provide a motif of contentment equally for our return.

Especially if furniture can reward contemplation, it can make us more contented

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 15

8 These are questions pondered in my book Moral

Sustainability and Cycling: an Ecology of Ambition

for a Hyperactive Planet, Ellikon, Melbourne

2010, available electronically via St Andrews

Sustainability Institute, University of St Andrews,


9 ‘Je n’ay eu besoin que de la suffisance de me

contenter, qui est pour tant un reglement d’ame,

à le bien prendre’, Essais 2.17

10 On the voice of Brancaccio: ‘Mentre in voci canore

/ i vaghi spirti scioglie / Giulio, tempra in ciel

l’aure, in noi le voglie. / Si placa l’aura e ‘l vento

/ placido mormorando / risuona e van tuoni e

procelle in bando: / un interno contento / n’accorda

anco ne’ petti / e i membri acqueta da’ soverchi

affetti; / e se pur desta amore, / gli dà misura

e norma / col suon veloce e tardo e quasi forma.’

Rime 716

with our own subjectivity, more comfortable, more delighted with the space that we have,

so that we do not need to crave another experience somewhere else, at greater

planetary expense.

Much environmental reform depends upon personal interests that encourage us to conservation

rather than profligacy. Furniture is useful in that dichotomy because it sits at the

intersection of the private and the ecological, the individual and the social. Conceived poetically,

furniture helps make for a more settled world, where we consume less and ponder

more, make fewer carbon-heavy trips and have a richer domestic life or pedestrian life. 8

These are formidable challenges and they take us to the whole imaginative framework of

the spaces that we make for ourselves, how satisfying they are, what kind of mood we can

cultivate within them, how enchantingly they might exist in the psyche, how we might become

more contented in thinking of them.

Montaigne has said: ‘I have only had need of sufficiency to content myself, which is,

however, a spiritual discipline for taking it well.’ 9 And here, in a nutshell, is the problem, for

every explanation of contentment is tautologous in some way. To be contented is to recognize

sufficiency; but that requires a ‘management of the soul’, as Montaigne puts it, which is

itself dependent upon an inner contentment. From a philosophical point of view, it is circular,

with the assumption of a grounded inside of great psychological robustness. From the

sixteenth century, one began talking of an inner contentment, an ‘internal contentment’, as

the poet Tasso calls it, which arises, say, in listening to music performed by a brilliant

vocalist. 10

So contentment is generated as a sensual delight, the immaterial intellectual transport

of music, evokingbut not necessarily satisfyingideas of love and affection, just as it

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 16

11 It is debated as to whether this is a form of coding

or the outcome of life choices. But even when

theorists adopt the more colourful life-choice

option, the results are circular. See Bruce Headey,

Ruud Muffels, and Gert G. Wagner, ‘Long-running

German panel survey shows that personal and

economic choices, not just genes, matter for

happiness’, Proceedings of the National Academy of

Sciences of the United States of America, October 4,

2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1008612107, which makes

observations suggesting that a person is happier if

he or she has a non-neurotic spouse.

12 ‘o di te stesso in te pur ti contenti’, Rime 843.7

13 Pantheon Books, 2006. It has been reviewed with

some scepticism, e.g. Jim Holt, ‘Dream Houses’,

New York Times, 10 December 2006 (Sunday Book

Review), and Mark Lamster, I.D. Magazine, January

/ February 2007.

14 On the relation between these terms, there is

also a scientific literature, in which contentment

is defined as subjective well-being. See David

Lykken. Happiness: the nature and nurture of joy

and contentment, St Martin’s Press, New York 2000,

which was reviewed by Todd B. Kashdan, Journal

of happiness studies, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 331–336. See

also Thomas L Carson, ‘Happiness, contentment

and the good life’, Pacific Philospohical Quarterly,

vol. 62, 1981, pp. 378–392.

yields the illusions of placid breezes on high. If, however, one is not already predisposed to

hearing this beauty, the chances of contentment arising from it will be null; and we could

argue that gaining such contentment is already conditional upon being predisposed to contentment.

The circularity has an inscrutable ‘me’ at the centre. 11 As Tasso would declare in

another poem with emphatic replication of the self: ‘content yourself with yourself within

yourself ’, 12 an almost impossible mannerist concept mimicking an equally impossible ideal

of tantalizing rewards; because if you are contented within yourself, then it follows that

many other things will afford contentment with the minimal outlays that Montaigne commends

to the sympathetic reader.

Contemporary writers have also explored the relationship between the aesthetic and

contentment. Alain de Botton has described the social and personal benefits of beauty in

the built environment. His book The Architecture of Happiness 13 connects the beauty of various

environments with the happiness that they may yield, justifying an assumption of a

causal continuum between beauty and happiness, with contentment somewhere in the

middle. 14 De Botton correctly observes that architecture has a daily impact upon people,

which seldom rises to consciousness; and without doubt, the experience of architecture can

be uplifting and inspiring, just as it can be oppressive and negative. However, the supposition

that beauty makes the difference is dubious, given that standards of beauty are highly

contested and are only absolute by pretension, shading by degrees into snobbishness. Besides,

people who surround themselves with beautiful things and spaces are not demonstrably

more contented than those who possess the things that we aesthetically scorn; and

many who devote themselves to collecting beautiful objects of integrity seek further acquisitions

in an unrequited craving that is antithetical to contentment.

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 17

15 Architectural conditions discussed in my book

The space wasters, Planning Institute of Australia,

2011, ch. 1, ‘Introduction to antisocial space’.

It is nevertheless helpful that de Botton has sought to explore a relation between contentment

and spaces and objects; but commencing with architecturethat shell which so few

people create or condition in its lineamentsis perhaps not so helpful from an ecological

point of view. I would rather begin with spaces and objects which are more available to

choice, more akin to intimacy, more related to the great cycles of acquisition and disposal,

greed and waste, that form the diurnal parameters of consumption and contentment. After

all, de Botton is not interested in sustainability so much as what he calls happiness; and

though there is a relation between the two, it seems necessary first to examine the contents

that one aspires to reach rather than swinging directly into the vessel that contains them.

Beautiful architecture, as in de Botton’s favourite haunts in Europe, is justly celebrated for

bringing joy and assurance to the connoisseur; but those properties are unavailable to the

millions of people who are stuck in cities full of antisocial architecture. 15 Many brasher cities

of the new world are predicated on an automotive footprint, displaying a contempt for

bipedality and hence denying the physical basis of urban contentment. Yet a person who

lives in the sprawling suburban environment of the spatially dissipating communities of

the new world can still cultivate contentment within the envelope of the home. Let us first

ask why contentment is so elusive and then explore the domestic and personal strategies by

which it may be more sustainably achieved.

We are never contented and we seldom ask why beyond the apparently inexhaustible

demand for energy, goods and services, which ultimately load the air with the carbon cloud

of our dissatisfaction. Throughout the first-world countries, we have everything: tasty

food at the table, abundant clothes, places to live with many rooms, cheap books, transport,

computers, red wine, mobile devices, adorable music wherever we want it, pleasant

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 18

16 ‘Individuals want more income. Yet, as society has

got richer, people have not become happier. Over

the last 50 years we have got better homes, more

clothes, longer holidays, and, above all, better

health. Yet surveys show clearly that happiness has

not increased in either the US, Japan, continental

Europe or Britain. This devastating fact should

cause a fundamental rethink of government policy

and of how we conduct our lives.’ Richard Layard,

LSE Magazine, Summer 2003, p. 10.

17 It is commonly observed that we owe progress to

discontent or dissatisfaction; and even theological

arguments have been adduced to support the case,

as with Augustine’s ‘divine discontent’, e.g. in

Hugh Mackay, What makes us tick? The ten desires

that drive us, Hachette, Sydney 2010; however,

I cannot find this commonly cited phrase in either

Confessiones or De civitate dei.

18 Wisdom of Sirach 40.18–21

crockery, home theatre, medical services, education, pets, careers and one another. There

are few untoward deaths or wars per capita and most natural disasters can be contained and

affect few people. So why, with all of life’s commodities and comforts, are we so little

contented? 16

In our culture, alas, it is not legitimate to be complacent and we have been brought up

always to strive for something better, so that no matter how privileged or lucky we are, we

never allow ourselves extensive satisfaction with what we have, lest this reflection of sufficiency

align with complacency. 17 Besides, contentment is relative and, like being rich, the

condition of being satisfied with what we have is dogged by psychologically sly comparisons

without appeal to any absolute. This problem already emerged in antiquity, as can be

seen in the scale of fortunes described in the Bible, where any boon that you might be contented

with can immediatelyand annoyinglybe compared to something still more

favourable. 18

You could well be contented with one blessing but perhaps not when you contemplate a

better one. Just as there is always someone richer, and it would have been possible for you

likewise to have become richer, so you can never be totally contented with your virtues

because there is always more in the world that you might enjoy or that might make you holier.

It is not for competitive reasons alone, as if more striving is always indicated, because

others have striven more successfully and you had better catch up. Rather, to give up on

securing greater assets, sexual capital and services (even blessings) to attain higher levels of

contentment is akin to cowardice, a lack of ambition or fortitude, whence a person might

suffer in self-esteem.

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 19

19 ‘Each person considers the other contented insofar

as the other gains what he or she prizes more than

the other (Jeder stellt den Andern zufrieden,

indem jeder bekommt, was er mehr schätzt als der

Andere. Man giebt jedem, was er haben will als

das nunmehr Seinige, und empfängt dagegen das

Gewünschte. Gerechtigkeit ist also Vergeltung und

Austausch unter der Voraussetzung einer ungefähr

gleichen Machtstellung: so gehört ursprünglich die

Rache in den Bereich der Gerechtigkeit, sie ist ein

Austausch. Ebenso die Dankbarkeit.)’ Friedrich

Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches:

Ein Buch für freie Geister, 92.

20 Literally ‘be enough for you (αρκεισθε τοις οψωνιοις

υμων)’, Luke 3.14

The old saying that the more we have the more we want is justified by the zealous structure

of the western psyche, which has been commercially propagated to most parts of the world

thanks to globalization. Already sensing the inexorable march of capital upon the increasingly

competitive European psyche, Nietzsche attributes an almost deceitful no-win energy

to the basis of contentment. 19 As we all think of ourselves as equals, the greater access of

one person to contentment relative to another person seems galling, even if the other person

values it less than we do. Between Marx and Freud, Nietzsche posits contentment on

material grounds and, in the absence of a guiding spiritual ideal, the scope of contentment

inevitably takes us to a kind of mechanistic pessimism, where contentment is fugitive beside

everyone else’s bid to achieve more of it than you have yourself. Our levels of contentment

are something that we minister to with words of consolation rather than pleasure. To

experience pleasure is to recognize an achievement or good fortune, whereas to consider

yourself contented is to deprive yourself of future striving and greater chances of richer

achievements. The idea that we might be adequately served by life in the status quo is a

kind of dereliction, for we thereby profit neither ourselves nor our community.

Further, even when we are enlightened, the acceptance of our lot strikes us as humble

biblical meekness, as if we have to be grateful for the dispensations that come our way rather

than thinking of our rights. Acceptance strikes us as a spineless failure akin to submission

which accommodates our subjection to other people’s capital and power; and we are

consequently suspicious of all strategies of docility and cultivated gratitude which align

with the exhortation of John the Baptist to accept what you are given ‘and be content with

your wages.’ 20 Contentment, then, is a gospel that no one can any longer easily preach, as it

commends the mild and grateful to eternal ownership and manipulation.

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 20

21 See John Kenneth Galbraith, The culture of

contentment, Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston 1992

22 And we should add self-generated mobility, i.e.

walking. See the lovely apologia for bipedality by

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: a history of walking,

(Viking 2000) Verso, London 2001.

See the charming review by Ken Worpole, who

also recognizes the threat to walking as ‘the

result of the disastrous priorities of 20th-century

urban planning’, The Independent, Saturday

4 August 2001.

So far, in this farrago of mechanistic wishes served by ineffectual luxuries, we have discovered

no happy solution; and unless a sudden wave of environmentalism can deliver us, we

can expect escalating patterns of consumption yielding zero growth in contentment. People

will continue to bemoan how hard their lot is, how impossible life is to live, how little

time they have for anything, how much they pay in tax, for public transport or fuel, how

tough the school fees are, how many emails they have to respond to at night or how early

the alarm rings in the morning. And even from a green point of view, contentment itself

may be suspected as a kind of anti-value, because the quest for contentment is itself restless

and, as something which can never be fulfilled, seems to inspire eternally greater consumption

of energy and objects. 21

The problem is that we expect stuff to minister to usenergy, goods and outsourced

servicesrather than self-generated conversation; 22 and, as noted, this reliance on material

culture struggles to achieve sustainability in the two sense of this valuable word. First, the

contentment that results from our material circumstances proves not to be sustained, that

is, it is not durable but weak and transitory. And second, it compromises planetary sustainability

in the sense that we use the word in ecological discourse; and of course the two

meanings are related, fatefully, by virtue of the environmental waste inherent in things that

do not last and require perennially to be replaced or multiplied. This profligate cycle of unsustained

material promises is, in many senses, the origin of our ecological embarrassments,

in which we live beyond our ecological means and our lifestyle cripples

planetary sustainability.

To wriggle our way out of this oppressive dilemma, I propose an investigation in two

stages. Let us first examine what contentment is, what we think we are missing out on,

Back to Main Contents 1. A History of Contentment 21

what culture has made of contentment, what meanings it has attracted and what its history

is. Second, having gleaned a method for attaining contentment, let us see how our

material circumstances, from the very chair that we sit upon, can be reconceptualized

poetically to make for contentment, rather than promoting a consumerist vortext that

promiseswith whatever hilarity created by industrialized images of happinesslittle but

planetary perdition.

1.1 The poetic history of contentment

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1.1 The poetic history of contentment


23 See The Invention of Sustainability at the

Cambridge website Ecology, Economy and Society



24 Iliad 20.289, 6.16, 13.440, 15.529 and 534,

Euripides, Electra 1300, Sophocles, Ajax 535

and 727

25 Iliad 21.131, Odyssey 16.261, Sophocles, Ajax

824, Electra 322, Euripides, Hecuba 1164, Pindar,

Olympian odes 9.3

26 Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.1.14, and Anabasis

5.8.13 respectively.

27 Sophocles, Ajax 80 and 1242, Aristophanes,

Thesmophorians 248, Herodotus 9.33, Plato,

Axiochos 369e, Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics


28 For αυταρκεια, see Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics

1097b7, Rhetoric 1360b15, Politics 1256b32; for

ικανος, see Herodotus 3.45, Xenophon, Cyropaedia

1.4.12, Plato, Phaedrus 258b and 277a, Republic

365a and Laws 875a.

To the extent that globalization universalizes culture, we read our habits and predicament

as eternal, inevitable and essential. But just as sustainability has a history, 23 so contentment

has a history; and it is not exactly as we might suppose. Contentment was understood differently

in the past; and it pays to contemplate how it was conceived, given that contentment

was served by fewer luxuries in premodern times. For example, contentment in the

preindustrial world was seldom, if ever, related to material welfare but rather to behaviour.

One is contented with how people act and not how much they earn or amass or consume.

In ancient Greece, the conceptions for being contented (αρκεω) are somewhat mechanistic

and tellingly derive from a capacity for strength or being sufficiently robust to ward

off evils 24 or providing adequate help. 25 In the classical period, the idea struggles to reach

the province of will, where we decide through a feeling of ‘enoughness’ that we do not need

more. Rather, the idea of sufficiency is similar to ‘the necessary’. An example is when Xenophon

speaks of the logistical economy in a chain of command, where it suffices for a fieldmarshal

to issue orders only to the brigadier generals, with the implication that it is not

necessary to give the orders to the colonels or those of lesser rank; or another case is where

cowardly soldiers ‘are content’ to allow braver souls to defend them. 26 In general, the word

is somewhat mechanistic 27 and it is difficult to recognize any emotional parameters around

the conception, any element of pleasure or happiness that describes what we mean

by contentment.

The same may be said of self-sufficiency (αυταρκεια) which, because of its reflexiveness,

seems logically to lend itself much more to the autonomous and internal condition of contentment.

Here too, like being fit for the purpose (ικανος), the somewhat mechanistic spirit

of the necessary, of self-reliance or independence, prevails. 28 Sometimes, though rarely, the

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1.1 The poetic history of contentment


29 Philebus 67a, where just before the words are

replicated: it was most sufficiently (ικανωτατα)

proved that neither case was sufficient (ουδετερον


two words arise in the same discussion. An example is in Plato, where neither mind nor

pleasure is deemed to match the idea of self-sufficiency (αυταρκειας), adequacy (του

ικανου) and perfection. 29 The roots of this concept of adequacy are also mechanistic, a

reaching or attaining a destination; and it seems that there is remarkably little transcendence

to the psychological. In fact, there is no physical pregnancy in the terms either, because

they have no firm image built into them. They are mechanistic in the sense of describing

functionality: we do not hear of luxuries or even an abstemious quota of olives.

The discourse is locked into matters of process and does not touch on the calibre of our appetite

or some agreeable feeling in commending ourselves to restraint.

Hellenic antiquity did not build itself around contentment in the contemporary sense,

and might barely have expressed what contentment means. Of course, a Greek could be

described as happy or at peace; and it could be argued that the ancient Greeks were as contented

as anyone else but simply lacked the terminology. Yet it also seems likely that there

is a gap in the vision of a person’s ease with fortunes. It uniquely belonged to the gods to be

truly contented; and then contentment itself is not a sufficient word to describe their bliss,

given that the life of the gods is euphoric and exalted. Between the blessed proprietorship

of delight by the Olympians and the wretched state of humansalways contending, warring

or ravaged by poverty or competing marketsthere is little scope for contentment.

Greek life was perceived as struggle, around which there is little evidence of feeling other

than pessimism, convulsively interrupted by erotic ritual. Why would the Greeks have

coined a term such as contentment, when no one, including the divinities, would call himself

or herself contented? Like the sublime marbles in the British Museum, the Greek ideals

are divinely beyond contentment; and the Greek reality of daily struggle is so beneath

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30 ‘Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let

not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and

our flesh. And his brethren were content.’ Genesis

37.27: they agreed (aquieverunt) in Vulgate, and

they heard or obeyed (ηκουσαν) in the Septuagint.

31 ‘And when Moses heard that, he was content.’

Leviticus 10.20, ‘recepit satisfactionem’ in the

Vulgate; he was at peace in the Septuagint (ηρεσεν


32 ‘And there were destroyed within the space of three

whole days fourscore thousand, whereof forty

thousand were slain in the conflict; and no fewer

sold than slain. Yet was he not content with this

(sed nec ista sufficiunt), but presumed to go into

the most holy temple of all the world’, 2 Maccabees

5.14–16; not sufficing (ουκ αρκεσθεις δε) in the


33 ‘Leur santé mesme est alterée et corrompue

par la contrainte des regimes. Les medecins

ne se contentent point d’avoir la maladie en

gouvernement, ils rendent la santé malade, pour

garder qu’on ne puisse en aucune saison eschapper

leur authorité.’ 2.37

34 ‘αρετον οινω/αιθεσθαι κραδιην’, Greek anthology


35 ‘And so Pilate, willing to content the people (τω

οχλω το ικανον ποιησαι), released Barabbas unto

them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged

him, to be crucified.’ Mark 15.15

36 ‘Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have

learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be

content (αυταρκης ειναι).’ Philippians 4.11

contentment that there was no pragmatic need for a term to describe the psychological

predisposition to find one’s circumstaces adequately fulfilling.

Contentment in biblical antiquity is also interchangeable with satisfaction or sufficiency

and, foreshadowing renaissance usage, is frequently a story of being satisfied with a deal.

The outcome is sufficiently favourable and it is reported that the parties were contented

with the logic of the arrangement. 30 In the King James translation, we sometimes hear of

the terms of the agreement and sometimes the satisfaction is expressed by means of reciprocation.

31 Not to be content is associated from the outset with a kind of enormity, an obscene

excess. Not contented with X, a person goes on to Y, 32 as in the renaissance with the

amusing Montaigne: ‘doctors do not at all content themselves with managing the illness;

they turn health into sickness in order to prevent one from escaping their authority in any

season.’ 33 In fact the roots of the formula are not pre-eminently biblical, as counterparts

can be seen in the playful wit of Greek verse, as with the poet Oinomaos, who says that it

should suffice for the wine to fire up the heart without needing to add Eros and so put

flame to flame. 34 It is notable, however, that it is not the drinker who lacks contentment

with simple intoxication. This impatience is imputed to the wine itself.

The formula of not being contented with something a bit shabby but going on to something

disgraceful describes inappropriate strategies and ambitions for many centuries, as if

unchanged still today; and to pitch sufficiency or contentment at such exorbitant goals is

clearly reprehensible. Similarly, to go around contenting the silly mob can be seen as frivolous,

artificial or weak. 35 Ideally, though, in any society a person should be contented, and

virtue is identified with being contented in whatever condition you find yourself 36 and especially

when conjoined with divinity: ‘But godliness with contentment is great gain. For

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1.1 The poetic history of contentment


37 ‘μετα αυταρκειας… τουτοις αρκεσθησομεθα’, 1

Timothy 6.6–8.

38 ‘Let your conversation be without covetousness; and

be content with such things as ye have (αρκουμενοι

τοις παρουσιν): for he hath said, I will never leave

thee, nor forsake thee.’ Hebrews 13.5

39 Donatello, Pazzi Madonna c. 1417–18. Marble 74.5 x

69.5 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Preussischer

Kulturbesizt, Berlin

40 Robin Balberniea, ‘Containment and contentment’,

Journal of Child Psychotherapy, vol. 23, issue 2

August 1997, pp. 245–253. Balberniea examines

‘the importance of the smile as an emotional nexus

between infant and mother. A series of observations

seems to suggest that the infant is almost

immediately able to appreciate when the mother,

as a special and separate person, is ready to receive

such communication.’

41 ‘Je ne prens pour miracle, comme faict la Royne de

Navarre, en l’un des comptes de son Heptameron

(qui est un gentil livre pour son estoffe) ny pour

chose d’extreme difficulté, de passer des nuicts

entieres, en toute commodité et liberté, avec une

maistresse de long temps desirée, maintenant la foy

qu’on luy aura engagée de se contenter des baisers et

simples attouchemens.’ Essais 2.11

we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out. And

having food and raiment let us be therewith content.’ 37 The reason for this exhortation is

the reassurance that justice and recompense and security lie ahead with faith in God or his

institution. 38

Contentment in our language is etymologically identical with containment (a withholding

or holding in); and much usage from antiquity onward reveals the link in meaning. The

noun contentment does not arise in English till the fifteenth century but the adjective in

classical Latin (contentus) is properly ancient and is used inclusively, describing the condition

of being bound, enclosed, preserved, kept together, restrained, comprising, kept still

and retained. Classical usage might almost be extrapolated in the image of mother and

child in Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna, where the utter contentment in the bond is echoed by

the physical containment of their embrace but also the composition of the little shrine that

they are encased in. 39 So deep is the maternal link between containment and contentment

that it has even been observed with the image of motherhood in scientific literature. 40 In

the ancient language, the verb (contineo) also yields an abstract noun (continentia) which

gives us our word continence, and best reveals the roots: withholding, with (con) plus hold

(tenere). So Montaigne, for example considers it somewhat improbable that a protagonist in

a tale of Marguerite de Navarre can ‘go through entire nights, in all comfort and freedom,

and content himself with kisses and simple caresses...with a mistress craved for a long

time’. 41 For him, this contentment would be a perverse form of containment which goes

against nature. The idea of practicing such forbearance lacks credibility for the genial philosopher.

But the underlying contentment here cleaves to the image of containment,

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42 ‘Ils vous contiendront en cette voie de vous

contenter de vous mesmes, de n’emprunter rien que

de vous, d’arrester et fermir vostre ame en certaines

et limitées cogitations où elle se puisse plaire; et

ayant entendu les vrays biens, desquels on jouit à

mesure qu’on les entend, s’en contenter, sans desir

de prolongement de vie ny de nom.’ 1.39

43 ‘Tesmoing le jeune Caton : Quand je le voy mourir et

se deschirer les entrailles, je ne me puis contenter,

de croire simplement, qu’il eust lors son ame

exempte totalement de trouble et d’effroy’, 2.11

44 Thucydides 1.91, Plato, Sophist 245e, Republic 430c,

402a, Gorgias 493c; we also noted it in the New

Testament (τω οχλω το ικανον ποιησαι), Mark 15.15

especially that effected by rational philosophy. And as we depend upon an internal forbearance,

the precepts of philosophy are necessary for achieving contentment.

They contain you upon this pathway to content yourself with your self, to borrow nothing

but yourself, to stop and hold your soul to limited cogitations where it can please

itself; and having hearkened to true goods, which one enjoys in the measure by which

one understands them, to be contented with them, without desiring either a prolonged

life or name. 42

The word contentment arises twice and both instances propose links with the repeated motif

of holding oneself back (contenir, arrêter, fermir). For the philosopher, there is a huge

challenge about the rightness of this self-discipline, and it occurs to him that sometimes

one would apply it uncritically: ‘Witness the young Cato: when I see him dying and tearing

out his entrails, I cannot content myself by thinking simply that his soul should be totally

exempt from trouble and fright.’ 43 He cannot prevent himself, cannot hold himself

back from the thought, that this extreme self-punishment would exceed the comforts of

stoic philosophy and deeply trouble both the onlooker and the victim.

To be contented in many ways can be described as a kind of temperance; and it appears

as a quite different image to the other Latin word by which we describe the pleasure of rewarded

desire, namely satisfaction, which has stronger echoes of the Greek terms above.

The origins of satisfaction are to do with being filled up (satis), to have had enough; and

when the verb (ficio) is added (satisfacio), we have the concept of satisfaction, an abstract

noun which also existed in classical Latin, in the same way that the Greeks would add the

verb ‘to have’ (εχειν) to the adjective ‘enough’ (ικανος) to yield the idea of something done

to achieve sufficiency or adequate arrangements. 44 To have had one’s fill, to be sated, to

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45 ‘per sodisfare in parte a l’obligo de la mia verso voi

fedelissima servitú’, Bandello, Novelle 4.25; ‘Ma

il mercatante, che voleva denari e non la pace di

Marcone, non le prestava orecchie, ma la sollicitava

che sodisfacesse al debito.’ ibid. 4.26

46 ‘se avarissimi hominis cupiditati satis facere posse’,

Verrius Flaccus, 1.14.44

47 ‘Per l’avvenire adunque il re, in tutto cangiato

di natura, lasciò stare quelle donne con le quali

amorosamente si giaceva, e cominciò molto ad

amar la reina e degli abbracciari di quella in modo

sodisfarsi, che dopoi non si mischiò piú con altra

femina.’ Bandello, Novelle 2.43

48 ‘Il buon Antonello sentendosi meravigliosamente

destar la conscienzia, non aspettando che la

donna finisse le sue parole né … ed abbracciata la

donna che vinta esser desiderava, quella di peso

amorosamente basciandola portò in camera e su

una cassa la distese, ove ben che ella mostrasse un

pochetto far resistenza, quanto gli piacque con lei

si solazzò ed ella con lui, e cacciarono l’orza da due

volte in su con grandissimo piacer di lei…’

49 ‘Antonello che in ordine si sentiva, presala

un’altra volta in braccio ed in camera entrato, su la

medesima cassa la riversò, ed entrato in ballo fece

in poco d’ora tre danze, e sí meravigliosamente a la

donna sodisfece, che ella deliberò non si procacciar

piú d’altro amante, ma attenersi al valente

Antonello col quale conosceva che in Pavia quando

egli ci veniva ed a Selvano quando ella v’andava,

senza sospetto né scandalo di nessuno poteva

trastullarsi. Onde essendo tornati in sala, ella

lungamente con lui parlò e molto restò contenta…’

have had sufficient, presupposes an initial emptiness which has been filled up. It is used in

legal senses, where deeds or creditors or reparations or penalties or elements of a contract

are satisfied. This bureaucratic dimension of the term prevails well into the renaissance,

where authors refer to terms like debts being satisfied. 45

Satisfaction is only loosely linked to existential conditions, the volition to do something

gorgeous, as with the erotic. Instances are rare in antiquity. In Verrius Flaccus, the word

would shift somewhat to include the satisfaction of sexual urges, 46 a voluptuous image

which is sometimes pursued in the bawdy jouissance of renaissance novelle. 47 In a fine tale of

Bandello from the sixteenth century which colourfully involves a piece of furniture, a

young farmer Antonello responds to a provocation by the patroness Madonna Cornelia.

Feeling his consciousness marvellously awakened, not waiting for the woman to finish

her words… [Antonello] hugged the woman who wanted to be won over, and kissing

her heavily, he took her into the room and distended her over a wedding-chest, in which

she showed little resistance, and enjoyed himself with her as much as he liked…with the

greatest pleasure to her. 48

Recalling the appeal of the hard nerve of the libidinous peasant, Madonna invites a repeat

affair and gave the signal for it.

Antonello who felt himself in order took her into the room by the arm another time,

turned her backwards upon the same wedding-trunk, and going to the ball completed

three dances in little time and so marvellously satisfied the lady that she decided no

longer to procure any other lover… she talked to him a long time and remained very

contented. 49

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50 ‘perché oltra averlo provato valoroso cavaliero,

le parve anco che fosse uomo d’ingegno.’

51 See scientific literature on sexual gratification: ‘

As a contribution to a better understanding of the

complex nature of female sexual satisfaction, our

results indicate that sexual intercourse is a far more

important activity and source of satisfaction in

female sexual life than petting or masturbation.’

Susanne Philippsohn & Uwe Hartmann,

‘Determinants of sexual satisfaction in a sample of

German women’, The Journal of Sexual Medicine,

vol. 6, issue 4, pp. 1001–1010, April 2009.

52 ‘Altri, in contraria opinion tratti, affermavano il bere

assai e il godere e l’andar cantando a torno

e sollazzando e il sodisfare d’ogni cosa all’appetito

che si potesse e di ciò che avveniva ridersi e

beffarsi esser medicina certissima a tanto male’,

Decameron 1.1

53 Introduction, ‘Il Bandello a la molto illustre e

vertuosa eroina la signora Ippolita Sforza

e Bentivoglia’

Tellingly, in Bandello’s narration the hot part is described as satisfaction, let us say orgasm,

while the more intellectual afterplay is described as yielding contentment. Madonna Cornelia

found the young farmer to be brainy. ‘She remained contented’, Bandello explains,

‘because beyond him being a valorous knight, he seemed to her also to be a man of wit’. 50

He is a valorous knight in the sense of intrepidly horny, with a strong lance that is joked

about elsewhere. This chivalrous engine yields satisfaction when Cornelia is spreadeagled

over the trunk; but the part that brings contentment is the turn of his mind

during conversation.

When satisfaction is seen in a somewhat existential way, it is linked to the epicurean

rather than the stoic; and up to a point, we still think in these terms. 51 In setting up the philosophy

for his licentious masterpiece of the fourteenth century, Boccaccio describes a dichotomy

between those of disciplined moral containment and those, instead, who give

over to their own satisfaction. Some people require abstemious rules, whereas

others, drawn to the contrary opinion, affirm that drinking plenty and enjoying themselves

and going around singing in rounds and pleasuring and satisfying the appetite for

everything that you can and coming to laugh about it and for joking to be the most certain

medicine against so much evil. 52

Of course there is much overlap between the two terms and sometimes contentment and

satisfaction emerge as synonymous, uttered in the same breath, as in Bandello (con mia

grandissima sodisfazione ed infinita contentezza). 53 But contentment presupposes the opposite

motif to satisfaction. It is not that you cannot fill more inas if your capacity is exhausted

and you are therefore satisfiedbut that you recognize a balance and can contain

yourself in order to reach a nice equanimity. To be satisfied indicates a natural limit, as of

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54 ‘Restò la donna mal contenta del partir de l’amante,

ma tanto ben sodisfatta di lui, che le pareva in

quelle poche ore che era stata con lui aver gustato

e goduto assai piú di piacere che non aveva fatto in

tutto il tempo de la vita sua.’ Bandello, Novelle 1.12 ;

see also the use of the two words in close proximity:

‘Nondimeno tutti quei modi e tutte le vie che piú

v’aggradiranno d’esperimentare per assicurarvi,

a me saranno di contentezza infinita, come quella

che altro non bramo che sodisfarvi’, 1.21; ‘Il

che mi sará di somma contentezza, veggendo

che del sangue mio vogliate sodisfarvi.’ 1.27; ‘di

grandissimo sodisfacimento e contentezza d’animo’,

2.24; ‘Fece Paolo levar i suoi e le robe da l’osteria,

e tenne dui servidori per sé e agli altri sodisfece di

maniera che si chiamarono contenti.’ 2.36

55 ‘faisons que nostre contentement despende de nous;

desprenons nous de toutes les liaisons qui nous

attachent à autruy, gaignons sur nous de pouvoir

à bon escient vivre seuls et y vivre à nostr’ aise.’

Essais 1.39

orgasm or a dog no longer being able to yaffle more food without vomiting (in which there

is no choice, for the dog evidently has no self-discipline when food lies close to the snout).

Contentment, on the other hand, involves an appraisal of various further temptations and a

sober internal agreement between contending desires; it consists in a feeling of confidence

that enough pleasure is accessible, which results in a happy sense of sufficiency that is not

necessarily dependent on consumption. Considering the spread of sources of pleasure

all somewhere in the offing but none of them inviting desperationyou do not feel the

need to consume more than you have, which is a condition of self-containment or


When the two wordscontentment and satisfactionare put together in renaissance

literature but not as synonyms to replicate the single idea, contentment might refer to a

general condition, whereas satisfaction refers to the immediate. For example, a lady is unhappy

or ‘not contented’ that her lover departs but is nevertheless satisfied with the sexual

services that he rendered, ‘so well satisfied that it seemed to her that she had savoured and

enjoyed more pleasure in those few hours that she was with him than she had done in all

the time of her life’. 54 It is, in such contexts, always about supping and getting your fill,

whereas contentment is the broader prospect, which is possibly governed by an internal

containment, true to the etymology.

Philosophers often emphasize this internal containment as a kind of rule over oneself.

‘Let us make our contentment depend upon ourselves’, Montaigne says; ‘let us detach ourselves

from all the ties that attach us to others; gain for ourselves the power... to live alone

and at our ease; 55 and Goethe attributes being inadequately socialized to a lack of contentment

with the self. His Werther complains: ‘The emissary bores me greatly; I predicted it.

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56 ‘ein Mensch, der nie mit sich selbst zufrieden ist,

und dem es daher niemand zu Danke machen kann.’

Werther 2, 24 December 1771

57 ‘die Unzufriedenheit darüber, demselben nicht

genügen zu können, kommt zu allen übrigen Arten

von Unzufriedenheit hinzu.. dann nämlich hätte

er keinen Grund, mit sich in einem besonderen

Maasse unzufrieden zu sein, er trüge eben nur

an der allgemeinen Last der menschlichen

Unbefriedigung und Unvollkommenheit.’

Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, 132

58 Petrarch, ‘cosí ci foss’ io intero, et voi contento’,

Canzoniere 113

59 ‘tutta l’ età mia nova / passai contento,

e ‘l rimembrar mi giova’, 119.23–24

He is a pedantic idiot; pedestrian and officious like a plinth; a man who is never contented

with himself and whom nobody can ever make grateful.’ 56

Making a temple within oneself, which I often sense as I sit in a chair, appears to be

crucial to contentment. Though we are social animals, the psyche does not enjoy comparisons.

Company affords solidarity but also jealousy; and much discontent and resentment

arise from the prospect of people who have escaped your burdens or have secured greater

happiness. Nietzsche says that

the discontent of not being able to satisfy yourself is related to every other type of discontent…

so that a deep understanding arises, with a view to the doctor, who might allay

this and all its causes. This situation would not be experienced so bitterly if people

only compared themselves unconditionally with one another; because one has no reason

to be particularly discontented in simply carrying the general burden of human dissatisfaction

and incompleteness. 57

In the history of contentment, vistas upon the psyche open up, rather like the development

of perspective or modelling. In the first renaissance, the neurotic fragility of contentment

emerges, as if with the kind of febrile multiple arches that belong with International Gothic

altarpieces. One speaks of being contented in the subjunctive tense, that it would be, with

the implication that it is nigh but never: ‘Thus would I be complete and you contented’. 58

Contentment is more likely to belong to the past than the present and the recollection of its

ephemeral times has to serve the lyric poet Petrarch as a prophylactic for the implicit decline

of mature contentment. ‘I passed my whole youth contented, and the remembrance

of it is helpful.’ 59 Now that he suffers unto death, that is, the recollection of former contentment

consoles him. It is the kind of nostalgic indulgence that Montaigne would later

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60 ‘de nous servir pour consolation des maux presens,

de la souvenance des biens passez, et d’appeller à

nostre secours un contentement esvanouy, pour

l’opposer à ce qui nous presse?’ Essais 2.12

61 147

62 ‘Assai contenti lasci i miei desiri’ 163.12–14

63 ‘Un amico penser le mostra il vado, / non d’ acqua

che per gli occhi si resolva, / da gir tosto ove spera

esser contenta’ 178

64 ‘Beato in sogno et di languir contento’ 212

65 ‘I’ mi vivea di mia sorte contento…mille piacer’ non

vaglion un tormento.’ 231

66 ‘movi la lingua, ov’ erano a tutt’ ore / disposti gli

ami ov’ io fui preso, et l’ ésca / ch’ i’ bramo sempre;

e i tuoi lacci nascondi / fra i capei crespi et biondi, /

ché ‘l mio volere altrove non s’ invesca, / spargi co

le tue man’ le chiome al vento, / ivi mi lega, et puo’

mi far contento.’ 270.54–60

67 ‘I’ incomincio da quel guardo amoroso / che fu

principio a sí lungo tormento, / poi seguo come

misero et contento, / di dí in dí, d’ ora in hora,’ ibid.


68 ‘contentate il piacer vostro d’abracciarmi e di

basciarmi, ché io abraccerò e bascerò voi vie più che


discourage, preferring not ‘to entertain lost pleasures, and to serve ourselves as consolation

for present evils the memory of past wonders, and to call to our assistance a vanished contentment,

to oppose that which is pressing.’ 60

In the poetry of Petrarch, contentment is convoluted and confounded with its contraries;

and we see, perhaps inadvertently, how delicate it is. To speak of contentment is to

confront fears and anxieties. 61 Love has a cruel dimension and delivers contentment in duplicitous

ways, where the lover’s frustration gives perverse contentment to the allegorical

deity Amore. 62 These contradictions of being hurt and giving pleasure at the same time

proliferate throughout his poetry and the verse of subsequent centuries. 63

In the early renaissance, we talk about contentment as if merely to highlight the pitiful

or perchance to find the pitiful prestigious because in some sense the ultimate sublimation.

64 Torment is a kind of virtue, like the scars of a warrior. 65 Whatever is unlikely in a

fantasy seems more precious than a reality, for it is florid in ways that reality would make

prosaic. 66 In spite of the frustration, a lack of contentment places the poet in an ideal Platonic

position in which desire is not fulfilled but limping along ‘from day to day, from hour

to hour, miserable and contented’. 67 High on paradox, Petrarch is miserable and contented;

but his pining is far from the only treatment of contentment in the tradition of early

European literature.

In his contemporary Boccaccio, the discourse is much more on the positive side, especially

when the subject matter is erotic. ‘Content your pleasure in embracing me and kissing

me, as I will hug and kiss you more than willingly.’ 68

More than that requires no further words. The lady, who was all burning with amorous

desire, quickly threw herself into his arms; and after desirously squeezing a thousand

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69 ‘Oltre a queste non bisognar più parole. La donna,

che tutta d’amoroso disio ardeva, prestamente

gli si gittò nelle braccia; e poi che mille volte,

disiderosamente strignendolo, basciato l’ebbe e

altrettante da lui fu basciata, levatisi di quindi nella

camera se ne andarono, e senza niuno indugio

coricatisi pienamente e molte volte, anzi che il

giorno venisse, i loro disii adempierono.’ 2.2

70 ‘Il veder questo giardino, il suo bello ordine, le

piante e la fontana co’ ruscelletti procedenti da

quella tanto piacque a ciascuna donna e a’ tre

giovani, che tutti cominciarono a affermare che,

se Paradiso si potesse in terra fare, non sapevano

conoscere che altra forma che quella di quel

giardino gli si potesse dare, né pensare, oltre a

questo, qual bellezza gli si potesse agiugnere.

Andando adunque contentissimi dintorno per

quello, faccendosi di varii rami d’albori ghirlande

bellissime, tuttavia udendo forse venti maniere di

canti d’uccelli quasi a pruova l’un dell’altro cantare,

s’accorsero d’una dilettevol bellezza della quale,

dall’altre soprapresi, non s’erano ancora accorti: ché

essi videro il giardin pieno forse di cento varietà di

belli animali, e l’uno all’altro mostrandolo, d’una

parte uscir conigli, d’altra parte correr lepri, e

dove giacer cavriuoli e in alcuna cerbiatti giovani

andar pascendo e, oltre a questi, altre più maniere

di non nocivi animali, ciascuno a suo diletto, quasi

dimestichi andarsi a sollazzo: le quali cose, oltre

agli altri piaceri, un vie maggior piacere aggiunsero.

Introduction to giornata’, Decameron 3

times, she kissed him and was kissed by him as many times; they got up and went into

the bedroom and, without any delay, fully made love together and many times, nay until

the morning, fulfilled their desire. 69

Again, while a furnished interior forms the backdrop with a serviceable bed, there is no talk

of property. In the fourteenth century, the experience of property can also yield contentment

but only in certain conditions. Perhaps the most memorable instance of this is in the

introduction to the third giornata of the Decameron, in which the damsels and gallant men

of the lieta brigata take their strolls and music and dance in the most magnificent garden:

seeing this garden, its beautiful order, the plants and the fountain with little streams

proceeding from it, pleased each woman and the three men so much that all began to

affirm that if Paradise could exist on earth, they would not know how to give a form to it

other than that of this garden, nor to think what beauty could be added beyond this

one. Walking thence most contentedly around it, making beautiful garlands out of various

fronds from the trees, all the while hearing perhaps twenty types of birdsong almost

singing in competition, they became aware of a delightful beauty of which, outstripping

all others, they had not until then taken stock of; for they spied a garden full of perhaps

one hundred varieties of beautiful animals… 70

The beautiful gentry walk around the gorgeous garden; but they do not own it any more

than we as the public own the Boboli Garden. They are invited guests and their contentment,

though in some sense proceeding from property, does not involve the possession of

the property. Contentment is still on the speculative side of the counter: the sensation of

restful bliss that the garden induces does not depend on ownership. It can equally be the

loan of an asset, the gift of time to enjoy an asset or whatever other kind of contact will

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71 ‘Madonna, io ho inteso che un gallo basta assai bene

a diece galline, ma che diece uomini posson male

o con fatica una femina sodisfare, dove a me ne

convien servir nove’, 3.1.

allow for reverie and delight. It makes sense that contentment produced by something

rhapsodic and comely would not depend upon possession. It is an immaterial condition

produced by an immaterial element within the property. We need only think of music.

My ownership of the score of Van Eyck’s The flute’s pleasure garden which in any case I have

photocopied for greater convenience) does not mean that I own the music. If I play the music

on the recorder with the score in front of me, the music is not owned by me in any exclusive

sense but rather I generate an interpretation of the melodies: I own the contentment

that it generates for me but not the music itself, just as our expensive ticket purchased at the

Palazzo Pitti does not grant us any exclusivity in the enjoyment of the Boboli Garden.

Of course someone owns the beautiful garden within which Boccaccio sets his Decameron

and which inspires so much contentment. Perhaps that person has yet more contentment,

but Boccaccio does not say so. What he does say, amusingly enough, is that the gardener

in another estate, a monastery to be sure, is not at all contented with the pay that he

gets for labouring in the garden. He complains that the young nuns are too fussy about his

work and there is not enough reward in it for him, whence he decides to leave the garden.

So Nuto the gardener, not contenting himself with his wage (non contentandosi del salario)

yields the unenviable position to Masetto. Masetto, however, gets a kind of bonus

package with his employment, because he also attends to the sexual needs of the eight

young nuns and their prioress. This goes on for some time, till, understandably exhausted,

Masetto pleads to the prioress: ‘Madonna, I understand that one rooster is enough to serve

ten hens; but ten men can only satisfy one woman with difficulty, whereas for me, it is necessary

to serve nine.’ 71 The discourse is now about satisfying the women. Erotic desires

seek satisfaction, whereas a salary is sought for contentment.

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72 ‘sic sapientia semper eo contenta est quod adest’,

Montaigne 1.3

73 ‘Qu’on se contente de ma misere, sans en faire une

espece de malice, et de la malice autant ennemye de

mon humeur. Je me console aucunement.’ 1.9

74 ‘Ce qui nous fait souffrir avec tant d’impatience

la douleur, c’est de n’estre pas accoustumez de

prendre nostre principal contentement en l’ame,

de ne nous attendre point assez à elle, qui est seule

et souveraine maistresse de nostre condition et

conduite.’ 1.14

75 ‘Je sens naturellement quelque volupté à payer,

comme si je deschargeois mes espaules d’un

ennuyeux poix, et de cette image de servitude; aussi

qu’il y a quelque contentement qui me chatouille à

faire une action juste, et contenter autruy.’ 1.14

By the sixteenth century, contentment is found in philosophical literature, where it is of

course handled analytically. There are no treatises on the topic, though there certainly are

on pleasure, beginning with Lorenzo Valla’s beautiful text from the previous century, De

voluptate. But it inherently belongs to both stoic and epicurean philosophy to speak of contentment

in contemplating the end of so much striving. ‘Thus’, says Montaigne, summing

up the classical tradition, ‘wisdom is always contented with what exists.’ 72 For Montaigne,

too, there are paradoxes in the concept. As with Petrarch, there are consolations to be had

for the tribulations of life, including the view of others: ‘that one contents oneself with my

misery, without making it a kind of malice, and a malice all the more enemy of my humour.

I console myself somewhat.’ 73 Anticipating Nietzsche, contentment is a prophylactic, especially

when contentment defines appropriate parameters of investment: ‘What makes us

suffer pain with so much impatience is not being accustomed to finding our principal contentment

in the soul, not being sufficiently attentive to it, which is the sovereign mistress of

our condition and conduct.’ 74

Pain is not offset by investment in material things but by investment in things of one’s

mind, which he calls soul. For Montaigne, you can even increase your contentment by getting

rid of money, as when we repay loans. ‘I naturally feel some pleasure in paying, as if I

discharge a burdensome weight from my shoulders and the image of servitude that goes

with it; just so, there is a certain contentment that tickles me in performing a just action

and contenting somebody else.’ 75

It makes for double contentment, which is why the word appears twice in short succession:

contentment of the person who pays plus the reciprocal contentment of the person

who is paid. It goes beyond Montaigne’s own inclination to be a good person and

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76 ‘content de leur devoir’, 2.23

77 ‘et sont les grandeurs, et puissances, accidens

de qualité à peu pres indifferente: je trouve vraysemblable

qu’il aye regardé plus avant, et voulu dire

que ce mesme bon-heur de nostre vie, qui dépend

de la tranquillité et contentement d’un esprit bien

né, et de la resolution et asseurance d’un’ ame

reglée, ne se doive jamais attribuer à l’homme,

qu’on ne luy aye veu jouer le dernier acte de sa

comedie, et sans doute le plus difficile.’ 1.19

78 ‘c’est le contentement qu’une conscience bien

reglée reçoit en soy de bien faire’. 2.16

79 ‘Excusons icy ce que je dy souvent que je me repens

rarement et que ma conscience se contente de soy’,


80 ‘Si les bien-nées me croient, elles se contenteront

de faire valoir leurs propres et naturelles richesses.

Elles cachent et couvrent leurs beautez soubs

des beautez estrangeres. C’est grande simplesse

d’estouffer sa clarté pour luire d’une lumiere

empruntée; elles sont enterrées et ensevelies

soubs l’art. De capsula totae. C’est qu’elles ne se

cognoissent point assez: le monde n’a rien de plus

beau;’ 3.3

contented like those who do their homework: ‘contented with their obligation’. 76 In paying

back a loan, you have less disposable cash but the repayments afford greater peace of mind,

self-reliance and independence. Though this inner self-possession and control of the self is

never assured until the end. ‘This happiness in our life, which depends on tranquillity and

contentment of a noble spirit and upon the resolution and assurance of a regulated soul,

can never be attributed to a person whom one has not yet seen playing the last act of his or

her comedy (which is without doubt the hardest).’ 77 Our happiness depends on contentment

of a spirit which is already noble; and the nobility of the soul is implicitly aligned not

just with tranquillity but regulation, the restraint of reason; and reason is moralized: ‘it is

the contentment that a well regulated conscience receives by itself by doing good’. 78 Montaigne

liked his conscience with healthy self-esteem: ‘I rarely repent and…my conscience is

contented with itself.’ 79 It is easy for him to be content, because he only needs to be himself.

Perhaps as a privileged male in an autonomous condition, he needs no dissemblance

and, like Alberti in the fifteenth century, counsels the fairer sex to guard itself from counterfeit


If well-born women would believe me, they would content themselves with valuing

their own and natural riches. They hide and cover their beauties beneath foreign beauties.

It is a great silliness to snuff their radiance in order to glow with a borrowed light;

they are buried and interred beneath art. 80

As in earlier epochs, there is little talk of property as a point of access to contentment,

though Montaigne sometimes recognizes the material side of his possessions when they

have immaterial contents. This idea occurs to him when he contemplates his personal library,

which in the sixteenth century would have been an expensive collection irrespective

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81 ‘le fruict que je tire des livres. Je ne m’en sers,

en effect, quasi non plus que ceux qui ne les

cognoissent poinct. J’en jouys, comme les avaritieux

des tresors, pour sçavoir que j’en jouyray quand il

me plaira: mon ame se rassasie et contente de ce

droict de possession. Je ne voyage sans livres ny en

paix ny en guerre.’ 3.3

82 ‘La tranquillité sombre et stupide se trouve assez

pour moy, mais elle m’endort et enteste: je ne m’en

contente pas’, 3.5

83 ‘Horace ne se contente point d’une superficielle

expression, elle le trahiroit. Il voit plus cler et plus

outre dans la chose; son esprit crochette et furette

tout le magasin des mots et des figures pour se

représenter; et les luy faut outre l’ordinaire, comme

sa conception est outre l’ordinaire.’ 3.5

of its size. But Montaigne is conscious that the pleasure that he derives from the books is

not always in reading them. They undoubtedly have excellent contents and it is unlikely

that anyone in the renaissance bought a book without reading it, so considerable was the

investment. Nevertheless, once read, a book stands on the shelf and may languish there in

some neglect for a very long time. So Montaigne candidly confesses that the fruit that he

draws from his books is strongly related to their physical presence, the fact that he owns

them or that they lie at his disposal, in much the same way that we could describe any asset.

In effect, I hardly make use of them more than those who do not know them at all. I enjoy

them as the avaricious do their treasures, in the knowledge that I will enjoy them

when I want to: my spirit is settled and contented with this right of possession. I travel

without my books neither in peace nor war. 81

Importantly, Montaigne does not consider contentment an absolute, as if necessarily

Olympian, but writes as if it can be ill-gotten or perhaps a sign of laziness or lack of ambition.

‘A sombre and stupid tranquillity is enough for me; but it makes me sleepy and conceited,

and I cannot content myself with it’; 82 and in saying this, he implies that someone

else with less nerve would indeed be thus contented. He admires other philosophers who

go beyond reasonable contentment:

Horace does not content himself with a superficial expression; he transcended it. He

sees more clearly and further beyond the thing; his spirit stitches and combs the whole

magazine of words and figures for representing; and he makes them something beyond

the ordinary, just as his conception is beyond the ordinary. 83

For himself in matters of fortune and cultural ambition, he expresses contempt for easy

contentment: ‘I find the effort of suffering evil quite difficult; but for the contentment of a

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84 ‘Je trouve l’effort bien difficile à la souffrance des

maux; mais, au contentement d’une mediocre

mesure de fortune et fuite de la grandeur, j’y trouve

fort peu d’affaire.’ 3.7

85 ‘Descrive maravigliosamente i miracoli che fa la sua

donna con la sua bellezza, per la quale tutti i dolori

si convertono in piacere e l’altre passioni nel suo

contrario.’ ‘Se mi doglio talor ch’in van io tento /

d’alzar verso le stelle un bel desio, / penso: ‘Piace a

madonna il dolor mio’: / però d’ogni mia doglia io

son contento.’ Tasso, Rime 16

86 ‘nel languire almen contento’, 29.7

87 ‘Dice che quando vede la sua donna rimane così

contento de la sua cortesia, che si scorda tutti i

tormenti i quali ha sopportati per lei.’ 35

88 ‘Ma se godi del mio male, / o mio bene, / son

contento di languire, / di morire, / s’io vedrò che

poi / il mio morir sia caro a gli occhi tuoi.’


89 ‘di tai nodi sarian lieti e contenti’, 1319.15

90 ‘Mais vivre sans plaider, est-ce contentement?’

Plaideurs 1.7

mediocre measure of fortune and flight from greatness, I have had very little sympathy.’ 84 It

was not an option in the sixteenth century to opt out of culture, to foreswear the great ambitions

that were cultivated monumentally in building, music, poetry, philology, art and

even gardening.

From sober speculations about the investments of the psyche, the sixteenth century

the age of magnificencewould also extend the concept of contentment in ebullient aesthetic

terms. Nobody writes about contentment as a topic but it emerges as a poetic construct.

Upon the template of Petrarch two centuries earlier, Tasso talks of amorous

contentment even in agony. 85 We find the aesthetic side of everything in the paradoxes created

around love, so that one boasts about one’s torments being a source of satisfaction, given

their dedication to the lover ‘at least content in languishing’. 86 As another poem declares

in its title: ‘He explains that when he sees his lady, he becomes so contented with her courtesy

that he forgets all the torments that he has suffered on account of her.’ 87 Paradox is everything:

‘if you enjoy my torment, I am content to languish’. 88 In this economy, your torments

contribute to the pleasures, indeed contentment, of the female, and being tied or

bound promotes contentment similarly: ‘contented and joyful with such knots’. 89 Knotty

contentment is also a game, a poetic game as much as a game in courtship or love. To play,

you need to have the goal of contentment; but as with any goal in sport, most of the time is

spent in valiantly unresolved attempts, and these are themselves capable of yielding contentment.

The frustrations of courtship are integral to the joys; and Racine, in the next

century, asks if living without soliciting as a suitor could ever supply contentment. 90

So far from being an absolute, contentment arises poetically when a person is happy

with being happy. Between a deep philosophy and a platitude, Tasso observes that ‘a

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91 ‘esser dovria contenta / che piaccia altrui quant’ella

a sé già piacque’ 215.10–11

92 ‘Amor, ch’aspro tormento / sei fra’ mortali in terra,

/ e mal sicura tregua e certa guerra, / e terribil

procella e fiero vento, / che turbi i nostri ingegni,

/ e ‘n guisa d’onde movi alti disdegni; / sei fra gli

angeli in ciel senza difetto / contentezza e diletto, /

e tranquilla quiete e stabil pace, / e gioia eterna con

piacer verace.’ 254

93 ‘Era pur meglio, Amor, che i miei lamenti / fosser

senza rimedio / e ‘l mio languir maggiore, / poi che

i gustati miei brevi contenti / medicina è crudel

ch’a’ miei tormenti / raddoppia la cagion del

mio dolore’, 340

94 ‘e par di sua beltà contento e pago’, 881.6

95 Mentre s’adorna in voi l’anima vostra / di valore e

d’antichi alti costumi / e dentro par che tutta indi

s’allumi, / le pure forme non rivela o mostra; / né

tante luci ha la stellante chiostra, / o tante gemme

il mar, la terra e i fiumi, / quanti ella ha bei tesori e

vaghi lumi; / e la sua pompa è senza invidia nostra.

/ Ma se cela virtù, beltà risplende; / e quinci in noi

si desta il pensier vago / a mirar cose ch’a gran pena

intende; / né fu mai prima sì contento o pago / in

ricercar quel che si merca o vende / o d’una in altra

ogni celeste imago.’ 1143

person must needs be contented who pleases others as much as she has already pleased herself

’ 91 and, though a somewhat confusing pattern, the conceit more candidly entertains the

somewhat circular economy of contentment that we perpetually chase, with its simple teleology

and evasive satisfaction beyond the pre-existing inclination to be satisfied. Contentment

is therefore relative. The same stuff, erotic attraction for example, can be the

cause of either contentment or pain, depending upon its distribution and the need for it.

Cupid, who is a harsh torment among mortals on earth and insecure truce and certain

warfare, a terrible storm and fierce wind that disturbs our minds and moves us to high

disdain in the form of waves, you are contentment and flawless delight among the angels

of heaven, and tranquil quiet and stable peace and eternal joy with true pleasure. 92

And again addressing this personification of desire: ‘It would have been better, Cupid, that

my laments were without remedy and my languor greater, since my briefly savoured contentment

is a cruel medicine to my torments which redoubles the cause of my pain’. 93 Apart

from such paradoxes, which are the spice of poetry, contentment can also be seen in somewhat

physical terms and sometimes Tasso uses the formula of contented and rewarded

(contento e pago). The term pago appears to collapse the Latin for having made peace (pacatus)

and the Italian for being payed (pagato). To be satisfied in the sense of pago, you are in

a sense paid-up and at peace, ‘contented and rewarded with her beauty’, 94 and again of Piero

Barbarigo. 95 But while being paid-up appears to be a mechanistic consequence like Montaigne’s

satisfaction at discharging a loan, the rewards that Tasso has in mind are aesthetic

and all about beauty. His contentment is always psychological; it is the mindnot the

thingthat determines how much contentment is gained. By dint of some enormous

strength of personality, the individual turns things around: ‘Because the royal soul is

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96 ‘perché l’alma reale in sé contenta, / l’ira e l’accese

voglie insieme svelse / nel ribellante core, e servo

felse, / ed ora il fren vi stringe e vi rallenta.

/ Quinci celeste carro e sommo duce / ti scorge a

grande onor, perché non prezzi / il lauro o l’ostro

nel pensiero interno; / ma, fra gli spirti al divin

lume avvezzi, / brami corona aver di chiara luce

/ e ‘l trionfo onorar del Padre eterno.’ 910.5–

97 ‘Illustre donna e più del ciel serena, / da chiari

occulti lumi / mille versate ognor gioie e dolcezze, /

e fanno preziosa aurea catena / gli angelici costumi

/ e le vostre celesti alme bellezze; / e ‘n sì leggiadri

modi / per far più sempre un bel desio contento /

non si congiunse mai l’oro e l’argento.’ 1012 ; for the

sky, see also 591.43–45

98 ‘Tout ce que, pour jouir de leurs contentements,

/ L’amour fait inventer aux vulgaires amants’.

Mithridate 2.6

99 ‘Eh bien! Seigneur, allez, contentez votre envie; /

Combattez’, Alexandre le Grand 1.3 and 5.1

100 ‘Contenter votre frère, et régner avec lui’, La

Thébaïde ou les Frères ennemis 1.2

101 ‘Eh bien ! régnez, cruel, contentez votre gloire’,

Bérénice 4.5

102 ‘Veut-il plus d’un trépas pour contenter sa haine?’,

Mithridate 5.4

103 ‘Etes-vous pleinement content de votre gloire?’

Bérénice 5.5

104 ‘Perfides, contentez votre soif sanguinaire!’

Iphigénie 5.4

105 ‘sa cruauté contente’, Athalie 5.2

contented in itself, anger and ignited desires turn themselves together in the rebellious

heart and make it a servant…’ 96 These are traits intrinsic to the person, the indole or character

of the person, as with the chain of praises for Margherita Gonzaga d’Este, duchess of

Ferrara; 97 and it goes without saying that the more illustrious and magnificent the person,

the more he or she is capable of generating contentment. So contentment becomes a sign of

the regal, the stately and majestic soul.

Extending this noble trajectory, the baroque is most interested in grand and powerful

institutional contentment, despising mediocre contentment which may be considered material.

The classical playwright Racine scornfully describes the pleasures of common people.

98 To be heroic, one contents one’s ambition to the point of belligerence 99 or one contents

somebody else to make a pact for achieving power. 100 The supreme quality that one

seeks contentment over is glory: you speak of contenting your glory, 101 as if your glory is a

person, hypostasized with an appetite which must be appeased, just as you can say that a

person has to content his or her hatred. 102 Perhaps the idea of contenting one’s hatred could

be explained in terms of the archaic meaning of contentment, as in containment; hence to

content one’s hatred could be translated as containing one’s impulse to act hatefully, except

that the example means discharging the hatred with a hateful act. And glory? It would be

more normal to speak of being contented with glory or ‘fully contented with your glory’, as

Racine says. 103 But the line in Racine’s Bérénice inverts subject and object. Glory, not you,

is contented. Glory becomes reified as a personification or deity which commands the contentment

ahead of the protagonist.

There are many cases where contentment in the baroque drama might equate with containment,

as in containing one’s thirst for blood 104 or one’s cruelty. 105 The object of one’s

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106 ‘trop content de mes fers’, Bérénice 5.6

107 ‘D’un oeil aussi content, d’un cœur aussi soumis /

Que j’acceptais l’époux que vous m’aviez promis,

/ Je saurai, s’il le faut, victime obéissante, /

Tendre au fer de Calchas une tête innocente, /

Et respectant le coup par vous-même ordonné, /

Vous rendre tout le sang que vous m’avez donné.’

Iphigénie 4.4

108 ‘Contente de périr’, Esther 1.3

109 ‘Pour contenter ses frivoles désirs, / L’homme

insensé vainement se consume: / Il trouve

l’amertume / Au milieu des plaisirs.’ Esther 2.8

110 ‘Cette oisive vertu, vous en contentez-vous? / La

foi qui n’agit point, est-ce une foi sincère?’

Athalie 1.1

111 ‘Une des choses qui fait que l’on trouve si peu de

gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans

la conversation, c’est qu’il n’y a presque personne

qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu’il veut dire qu’à

répondre précisément à ce qu’on lui dit. Les plus

habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de

montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même

temps que l’on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur

esprit un égarement pour ce qu’on leur dit, et une

précipitation pour retourner à ce qu’ils veulent

dire; au lieu de considérer que c’est un mauvais

moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader,

que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et

que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des

plus grandes perfections qu’on puisse avoir dans

la conversation.’ François de La Rochefoucauld,

Maximes 139

contentment matters a great deal in the baroque. The hero can become too content with

her irons 106 and contentment can also be a kind of submission, like Iphigénie’s: ‘with a contented

eye and a similarly submissive heart, I accept the spouse whom you have promised

me’, 107 a bit like being reconciled and content to perish. 108 But it is unacceptable to be satisfied

with a mediocre object of one’s contentment, ‘to content one’s frivolous desire’. To do

so is not sustainable. 109 Similarly, Racine cannot accept an idle virtue as the object of

contentment. 110

But it also belongs to the baroque to contemplate contentment within the terms of

conversation rather than action; and here, we can observe some major changes in the

complexion of contentment as it moves to the quality of a person’s attention. The witty

François de La Rochefoucauld speaks of the insensibility of conversationalists as a

misguided contentment.

One of the reasons that one finds so few people who seem reasonable and agreeable in

conversation is that there is hardly anyone who does not think about what he or she is

going to say rather than responding precisely to that which has been said to him or her.

The most adept and the most complacent content themselves merely with showing an attentive

mein, during which one sees in their eyes and in their spirit a distraction over

what one says to them and a precipitate movement to return to what they want to say;

instead of considering that seeking so hard to please oneself is a poor means of pleasing

others or persuading them, and that listening well and responding well is one of the

great perfections that one can have in conversation. 111

The contentment is wrong-headed, because the poor conversationalist merely patronizes

the other speaker and feigns attention, all the while busting to acquit himself or herself of

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112 ‘Les hommes ne se goûtent qu’à peine les uns les

autres, n’ont qu’une faible pente à s’approuver

réciproquement: action, conduite, pensée,

expression, rien ne plaît, rien ne contente; ils

substituent à la place de ce qu’on leur récite,

de ce qu’on leur dit ou de ce qu’on leur lit, ce

qu’ils auraient fait[ ] eux-mêmes en pareille

conjoncture, ce qu’ils penseraient ou ce qu’ils

écriraient sur un tel sujet, et ils sont si pleins de

leurs idées, qu’il n’y a plus de place pour celles

d’autrui.’ Des jugements 9 (VII)

the desire to speak. Much the same sentiment is echoed by La Bruyère in the same century,

likewise commenting on the contentments of conversation.

People hardly ever find one another to their taste and have only the faintest chance of

approving of one another reciprocally: action, conduct, thought and expression, nothing

pleases, nothing contents; they substitute in the place of what one recites to them,

what one tells them or reads to them, that which they would have done themselves in a

similar circumstance, that which they would have thought or that they would have written

on such a subject; and they are so full of their own ideas that there is no longer any

place for anyone else’s. 112

This pessimism over the interest that one person might find in another accords with everyone’s

experience at some stage; and without doubt, social interaction is frequently frustrating

and unsettling. The contentment that one hopes to gain from discussion is the recognition

of one’s mind and feeling, but this is sadly dependent upon another person’s interest in

accommodating it. This reciprocity either depends upon the unlikely convergence of fascination

in the subject matter or, more likely, a prior investment in supporting the person due

to love or sympathy or joy in the person’s wit. Great attention may be lavished on another

person through sycophancy; but this seldom yields contentment for long because the joys

are neither reciprocal nor sustainable. Once the fawning listener loses the motive to bend

his or her consciousness to that of a superior, the convergence collapses into resentment,

and the ephemeral kindness turns to complaint that the authority figure is boring.

Alas, even when love is involved, it seems that the contentments are fragile. La Rochefoucauld

does not recognize the end of contentment in big deals or high passion; and so

love is no guarantee of anything. He says that ‘It is almost equally hard to be contented

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113 ‘On est presque également difficile à contenter

quand on a beaucoup d’amour et quand on n’en a

plus guère.’ La Rochefoucauld, Maximes 385

114 ‘Il faut peu de choses pour rendre le sage heureux;

rien ne peut rendre un fol content; c’est pourquoi

presque tous les hommes sont misérables.’ La

Rochefoucauld, Maximes posthumes 39

when one has a great deal of love or when one no longer has any.’ 113 Not that this makes

him sanguine about our chances with the mass of humanity who are at neither extremity of

passion. ‘Very little is needed to make a sage happy, whereas nothing can make a fool content;

that is why nearly all people are miserable.’ 114

In surreptitious search for optimism among these bleak baroque perspectives, it takes

very little, La Rochefoucauld says; and undoubtedly the sagacity of such wise people is the

repudiation of vanity, which arguably makes up the bulk of human desires beyond the olive

that Montaigne’s acknowledged as the necessary per diem for stoics. But human nature is

aspirational and the few things (peu de choses) marvellously multiply the hunger. In this

discourse, La Rochefoucauld contemplates contentment in relation to its material supply:

goods, stuff, property, the terms that have been conspicuous by their absence in former

epochs. But here it is. The more we have the more we want; because we fatigue with the

things that we have, as they are incapable of retaining their excitement as new acquisitions.

This so agreeable condition leads us to wish for other goods, and one wants the most

solid among them; one does not content oneself with subsistence: one wants to make

progress, one is preoccupied with the means of advancing oneself and assuring one’s

fortune; one seeks the protection of ministers; one renders oneself useful to their interests;

one can only suffer that someone pretends what we pretend. This emulation is

fraught with a thousand cares and a thousand pains, which are erased by the pleasure of

seeing oneself established: all the passions are then satisfied and one cannot forsee that

one might ever cease to be happy. This happiness nevertheless is rarely of long duration,

and it cannot conserve for long the grace of novelty. For having that which we have

wished for, we do not desist from wishing for more. We accustom ourselves to all the

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115 ‘Cet état si agréable nous conduit à désirer

d’autres biens, et on en veut de plus solides; on

ne se contente pas de subsister, on veut faire des

progrès, on est occupé des moyens de s’avancer

et d’assurer sa fortune; on cherche la protection

des ministres, on se rend utile à leurs intérêts; on

ne peut souffrir que quelqu’un prétende ce que

nous prétendons. Cette émulation est traversée

de mille soins et de mille peines, qui s’effacent par

le plaisir de se voir établi: toutes les passions sont

alors satisfaites, et on ne prévoit pas qu’on puisse

cesser d’être heureux. Cette félicité néanmoins

est rarement de longue durée, et elle ne peut

conserver longtemps la grâce de la nouveauté.

Pour avoir ce que nous avons souhaité, nous ne

laissons pas de souhaiter encore. Nous nous

accoutumons à tout ce qui est à nous; les mêmes

biens ne conservent pas leur même prix, et ils ne

touchent pas toujours également notre goût; nous

changeons imperceptiblement, sans remarquer

notre changement; ce que nous avons obtenu

devient une partie de nous-même: nous serions

cruellement touchés de le perdre, mais nous ne

sommes plus sensibles au plaisir de le conserver;

la joie n’est plus vive, on en cherche ailleurs que

dans ce qu’on a tant désiré.’ La Rochefoucauld,

Réflexions diverses IX. ‘De l’amour et de la vie’

116 Les Caractères, ‘Du mérite personnel’ I7 (VIII)

117 ‘Qu’il est difficile d’être content de quelqu’un!’

Les Caractères, ‘Du cœur’ 65 (I)

things that belong to us; the same goods do not keep their same price, and they do not

always equally touch our taste; we change imperceptibly, without noticing our transformation;

that which we have obtained becomes a part of ourselves: we would be cruelly

touched by losing it, but we are no longer sensitive to the pleasure of retaining it: the

joy is no longer alive, one seeks elsewhere beyond that which one has desired so

much. 115

La Rochefoucauld calls it ‘this involuntary inconstancy’. We are coded, as it were, to move

on, to seek a thrill elsewhere in a further ascension to greater weal. It prevails in spite of

the great appeal of modesty and restraint, which other writers in La Rochefoucauld’s tradition

admired. La Bruyère sees this as an economy, where modesty provides greater force

to any particular notable attribute: ‘modesty is to merit what shadows are to figures in a

painting: it gives it power and relief ’. And yet even this has its paradoxes and may be seen

as affectation or inverted modesty. When we have reason to be proud and contented with

some achievement, we feel a need to dissimulate our glee almost on aesthetic grounds and

by an artificial bid for the principles of taste.

A simple exterior is the habit of common men: it is tailored for them to their measure;

but it is equipment for those who have filled their life with great actions: I compare it to

a negligent beauty but more piquant. Certain men, content within themselves with some

deed or labour which has succeeded, and having heard that modesty befits great men, dare

to be modest and feign simplicity and being natural, similar to those men of average

height who stoop at doorways for fear of knocking themselves on the lintel. 116

Perhaps for that reason, it is very difficult to be contented with someone; 117 and perhaps discontent

and bitterness are assured when we go into life seeking profit and dispensing

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118 ‘Si vous observez avec soin qui sont les gens qui ne

peuvent louer, qui blâment toujours, qui ne sont

contents de personne, vous reconnaîtrez que ce

sont ceux mêmes dont personne n’est content.’ Les

Caractères, ‘De la société et de la conversation’,

59 (IV)

119 ‘Un homme fort riche peut manger des entremets,

faire peindre ses lambris et ses alcôves, jouir d’un

palais à la campagne et d’un autre à la ville, avoir

un grand équipage, mettre un duc dans sa famille,

et faire de son fils un grand seigneur: cela est juste

et de son ressort; mais il appartient peut-être à

d’autres de vivre contents.’ Les Caractères, ‘Des

biens de fortune’, I (I)

120 ‘La cour ne rend pas content; elle empêche qu’on

ne le soit ailleurs. Les Caractères, ‘De la cour’,

8 (VII);

kindness to others seems to be unreciprocated and at our expense. Philosophers are liable

to turn cynical in the popular sense, and with some very shrewd observations: ‘If you carefully

observe people incapable of praise, who always blame, who are never contented with

anyone, you will recognize that these are the very people with whom no one else is content.’

118 Such misanthropic people are disagreeable because they cannot share any warmth,

cannot be supportive and therefore inspire little affection in return. Perhaps by attracting

mostly scorn, they themselves become yet meaner and we enter a downward spiral. In that

freefall of spirit, material assets would be to little avail, for instead of making others content

with you, your fortunes would only add to their horror of your coldness. And so it makes

sense that when La Bruyère contemplates capital and the power to acquire material assets,

he does not rate them as a factor in achieving contentment.

A very rich man can eat fancy dishes, can have his soffits and alcoves painted, can play

in a country palace and another in town, have a large staff, put a duke in his family and

make his son a great lord: this is just and his privilege; but perhaps it belongs to others

to live contentedly. 119

The acme of the social hierarchy is no place to seek contentment and is more likely to be a

source of frustration: ‘The court does not render anyone content; it prevents one from being

so elsewhere.’ 120 Yet in a sense, one is always elsewhere, the universal alibi in a lack of

contentment; and this can also be expressed as the inverse, namely that one could be contented

irrespective of one’s station:

It is not left to chance how a kind of charm is attached to each of these diverse conditions,

and which has remained with them to the point that poverty has stripped them of

it. Thus the great please themselves in excess and little people love moderation; these

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121 ‘Il ne laisse pas d’y avoir comme un charme attaché

à chacune des différentes conditions, et qui y

demeure jusques à ce que la misère l’en ait ôté.

Ainsi les grands se plaisent dans l’excès, et les

petits aiment la modération; ceux-là ont le goût de

dominer et de commander, et ceux-ci sentent du

plaisir et même de la vanité à les servir et à leur

obéir; les grands sont entourés, salués, respectés ;

les petits entourent, saluent, se prosternent; et

tous sont contents.’ Les Caractères, ‘Des grands’

5 (IV)

122 ‘Si je compare ensemble les deux conditions

des hommes les plus opposées, je veux dire

les grands avec le peuple, ce dernier me paraît

content du nécessaire, et les autres sont inquiets

et pauvres avec le superflu. Un homme du peuple

ne saurait faire aucun mal; un grand ne veut

faire aucun bien, et est capable de grands maux.’

Les Caractères, ‘Des grands’ 25 (V)

123 ‘Si, content du sien, on eût pu s’abstenir du bien

de ses voisins, on avait pour toujours la paix et

la liberté.’ Les Caractères, ‘Du souverain ou de la

République’ 9 (IV)

ones have the taste of dominating and commanding and those ones feel pleasure and

even vanity in serving and obeying them; the great are fawned over, saluted, respected;

the little people fawn, salute and bow; and all are content. 121

But this chirpy reciprocation is an equilibrium of absurdities, and the term contentment

is intended ironically. When put to the point, the philosopher sides with the greater psychological

or spiritual fortunes of the little people, and considers them not only more contented

but more benign.

If I compare the two most radically opposed conditions of man as a whole, I mean the

nobles with the people, the latter seem to me contented with the necessary and the others

are restless and poor with superfluity. A man of the people would not know how to

hurt anyone; a nobleman wants to do nobody any good and is capable of enormous

harm. 122

Sadly, history is testament enough to the rapacity and malevolence of the wealthy; and

their avarice is indeed the motivating principle of strife and war. Expressed more positively,

one could project that eliminating such forces would make a pacifist world. ‘If, content

with one’s own, one had been able to abstain from seizing the property of one’s neighbours,

there would always be peace and liberty.’ 123 The satirical genius that moved the enlightenment

is already active in the grand siècle. It is a critique of frivolous pleasures, unsustainable

and superficial, that do not yield contentment because vain.

Argyre pulls off her glove to show a beautiful hand and does not neglect to show off a

little shoe which proposes that she has a small foot; she laughs at things funny or serious

to show her fine teeth; if she shows her ear, it is because it is well formed; and if she never

dances, it is because she is little contented with her figure, that she has become fat.

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124 ‘Argyre tire son gant pour montrer une belle main,

et elle ne néglige pas de découvrir un petit soulier

qui suppose qu’elle a le pied petit; elle rit des

choses plaisantes ou sérieuses pour faire voir de

belles dents; si elle montre son oreille, c’est qu’elle

l’a bien faite; et si elle ne danse jamais, c’est qu’elle

est peu contente de sa taille, qu’elle a épaisse.

Elle entend tous ses intérêts, à l’exception d’un

seul: elle parle toujours, et n’a point d’esprit.’ Les

Caractères, ‘De l’homme’, 83 (IV)

125 ‘Une femme galante veut qu’on l’aime; il suffit

à une coquette d’être trouvée aimable et de

passer pour belle. Celle-là cherche à engager;

celle-ci se contente de plaire. La première passe

successivement d’un engagement à un autre;

la seconde a plusieurs amusements tout à la fois.

Ce qui domine dans l’une, c’est la passion et le

plaisir; et dans l’autre, c’est la vanité et la légèreté.’

Les Caractères, ‘Des femmes’, 22 (V)

She understands all her interests with the exception of one: she always speaks but has

no wit at all. 124

Quite an assassination of some exhibitionist air-head, then! To be little contented with

one’s waistline is dumb as far as La Bruyère is concerned. He has little time for what he

calls frivolity (légèreté) and, while we suspect that some of his intolerance is caused by the

demanding and disempowering template for women during his age, the terms of contentment

turn upon conversation, a person’s investment in the attention of other people. The

contentment that a person finds is not necessarily admirable and, like concepts of rigour,

the value of contentment is relative to the quality that it applies to. In the case of a woman

who is merely contented to chatter aimlessly for the sake of pleasing other people, the trait

is considered mediocre. The standard of sufficiency disappoints the ideal.

A gallant woman wants one to love her; it suffices for a coquette to be found lovable and

to pass for beautiful. The former seeks to engage; the latter contents herself with pleasing.

The first passes consecutively from one engagement to the other, the second many

amusements all simultaneously. What dominates in this one is passion and pleasure,

whereas in the other, it is vanity and frivolity. 125

Men, on the other hand, have the advantage of only having to please themselves, one could

argue in the baroque as now. It is unlikely that a concept like contentment would not be

gendered throughout so many centuries of patriarchy; and indeed the standards and motifs

are different. So when it comes to describing the bonhomie of a male, the rough genius is

natural and winsome.

Ruffin begins to be going grey but he is healthy: he has a fresh face and a lively eye

which promise him twenty years of life yet; he is gay, jovial, familiar, indifferent: he

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126 ‘Ruffin commence à grisonner; mais il est sain, il

a un visage frais et un oeil vif qui lui promettent

encore vingt années de vie; il est gai, jovial,

familier, indifférent; il rit de tout son cœur, et il

rit tout seul et sans sujet: il est content de soi, des

siens, de sa petite fortune; il dit qu’il est heureux.’

Les Caractères, I23 (IV) [ ]

127 Which is not to say goods or possessions but

numerous tangible factors related to wellbeing

within a vocational life. See Katharine Y.

Kolcaba, ‘A taxonomic structure for the concept

comfort’, Journal of Nursing Scholarship, vol. 23,

issue 4, December 1991, pp. 237–240

laughs for all his heart and he laughs all alone and without a subject; he is content with

himself, with his own folk, with his little fortune: he says that he is happy. 126

To be reductive, contentment is another word for happiness, the causes of which are whatever

gives us pleasure. Pleasure is what makes us happy. Happiness is the ability to find

pleasure. As noted, it is a theme of mediocre circularity, ultimately taking us to obscure

biological mechanisms of reward or yet more obscure sublimations and deferrals of libidinal

release. This is the single greatest explanation for all human action (as in Freud’s pleasure

principle) and it remains, in spite of much theory, little more than a platitude.

Given the slim chances of finding a key to happiness, it is not surprising that we place so

much emphasis on adorning the lock. We look to what makes us happy in the material

world. 127 And to be fair, one could indeed expect a linear relation between comfort and

contentment and perhaps then a reciprocal relation between comfort and consumption.

My physical comfort is surely closely linked to my sense of wellbeing and therefore, endued

with richer psychological comfort, I will feel fewer needs or feel them less pressingly and

hence be dependent upon less energy and fewer goods and services. Unfortunately, however,

our comfort is not so seamlessly linked to our contentment; and still less do high levels

of comfort lead to low levels of consumption. If anything, the richer we are and the

more comforts that we enjoy, the less we are likely to be contented with what we have.

Our economy is built on providing comforts but not contentment; in fact, if we

achieved contentment, the economy might stall: retailers would make fewer sales, manufacturers

would have to reduce production, employment would decline and investors

would panic. There is international anxiety over any slump; and all economic policy is

geared to stimulating growth. We know at what ecological cost.

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128 Tempest 2.1.10

129 ‘Come, sister; I am press’d down with conceit- /

Conceit my comfort and my injury.’ The Comedy

of Errors 4.2.66

130 ‘Comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife: / ‘Tis

holy sport to be a little vain / When the sweet

breath of flattery conquers strife.’ The Comedy of

Errors 3.2.26

131 ‘How mightily, sometimes, we make us comforts of

our losses!’ All’s Well That Ends Well 4.3.77

132 ‘I do pity his distress in my similes of comfort’

All’s Well That Ends Well 5.2.26

133 ‘This is a very scurvy tune to sing at a man’s

funeral: Well, here’s my comfort. [Drinks]’

Tempest 2.2.57

134 Twelfth night 1.5.239

Comfort, in the sense of material adequacy, is itself a recent invention. As with contentment,

it was always exclusively associated with human action and meant, more or less, consolation.

Comfort is a kind of remedial treatment for grief, something gestural that offsets

the injury of misfortune. As Shakespeare’s Gonzalo says to Alonso, we have to ‘weigh /

Our sorrow with our comfort’; though this kindly ministry of balance does not persuade

the grumbly Alonso, who, as Sebastian notes, ‘receives comfort like cold porridge’. 128 In itself,

this act of comforting can be somewhat fraudulent, deceiving a person from within, 129

though usually well intentioned, even if a little vain, 130 sometimes heroically ironic, 131 and

ultimately slippery. 132 Perhaps for that reason, it is quite possible to reject comfort as somehow

hollow and indeed no better than drowning one’s sorrows in alcohol. 133

Comfort, for most of the history of ideas, is an act rather than a condition of one’s circumstances,

much less anything to do with possessions, and this compares very much with

contentment. At most, it might embrace a quality of belief, as in ‘A comfortable doctrine’,

meaning a teaching that procures consolations. 134 This perhaps helps us understand more

about contentment and its relatively tight parameters in the proverbially lavish baroque. In

spite of the magnificence of the renaissance and baroque courts, there is still very little relation

between contentment and property. The overwhelming sense in which renaissance

and baroque contentment is defined is in action rather than property, even if this shades

into the terms of conversation, where a person’s nature strongly comes into play and where

it is acknowledged that a wise person may have a predisposition to contentment. In this,

the epoch was correct. Material assets do not yield contentment; and it leaves us pondering

the monuments that remain the great tourist attractions of Europe: what was their

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135 Le smanie per la villeggiatura 1.1.

136 ‘Mi contento del puro puro bisognevole, e niente

più’, ibid 1.10

purpose? If their purpose was not to grant contentment to the owner (which seems nowhere

contemplated) perhaps their purpose was to inspire envy in the aspirant.

But the force of change was upon Europe and it did not take the form of philosophy but

rather capital. It has been observed that the organizing theme of the nineteenth century

English novel is money. Already in the plays of Goldoni, one can sense the profile of money

gaining ground over heroic action. It belongs to the comedy to think of the self-interest of

the players and to create maximum scope for clashes and strife, and servants and bourgeois

are constantly counting their cash. This focus on money takes over literature and reflects

the wholesale change of culture throughout the industrial revolution, where apparently all

human action is determined by the agency of capital as opposed to ancestral titles and the

rather less dynamic institutions of religion or patrician humanism. Goldoni hates exorbitant

expenditure on goods and services and his plays satirize all forms of vain lavishness,

like expensive holidays, which he lampoons in three plays. In Crazes for country holidays,

the servants perceive the folly of competitive consumption, where one family feels the need

to outdo another in showing off its seaside leisure, which reaches to a feeling of mariagability.

The holidays themselves provide no contentment for the bourgeoisie (non si contenta

mai) 135 because there is always another dress to be bought in rivalry with someone else.

Alas, great delusion surrounds extravagance in countless twisted justifications. One spoilt

and canny lass says to her father that she is contented with only that which is purely purely

necessary, 136 meanwhile demanding everything which is beyond the family’s means.

With his searching critique of waste and foolhardiness, Goldoni is arguably the first

writer to identify consumption with travel for leisure, and to see both as antithetical to contentment.

For him, being unsettled leads to consumerist foibles: one fills in the void with

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137 ‘Eppure l’argomento de’ Malcontenti potrebbe

essere utile molto alla società, prendendo di

mira un pregiudizio che tanto si è dilatato. Il

villeggiare, che fu introdotto per l’utile e per il

comodo de’ Cittadini, è arrivato oggidì all’eccesso

del lusso, del dispendio e dell’incomoda

soggezione. Pazienza che vi si adattino i nobili, i

ricchi, gli oziosi; ma le persone di basso rango, e

quelle che in città scarsamente vivono, e tanti che

il bisogno loro vorrebbe che agl’interessi della

casa e della famiglia badassero, tutto lasciano,

tutto pospongono alla magnifica villeggiatura.’

Goldoni, I malcontenti, preface

138 As in the foreword to Il filosofo inglese.

extravagant pleasure-trips to a holiday house, which entail expenditure of another order

compared to remaining in town. The argument is also pursued in The malcontents, whose

message, he says, ‘could be very useful to society, focusing on a widespread prejudice. Going

to the countryside, which was originally intended for use by citizens, has today reached

the point of excess and luxury, of waste (dispendio) and difficulty’. 137 Though hedonistic

travel is a consequence of lacking contentment, its allure is also an invitation to extravagant

and unsustainable economic practices which themselves deny the prospect of

sustainable contentment.

But even in parsimonious England, which Goldoni admired by contrast to decadent Italy,

138 capital does not afford much contentment because, rather like the biological destiny of

any organism, it exists in order to replicate itself. If you have capital, you have a job to do,

namely to make more of it; and this responsibility to the creation of money itself also organizes

labourboth your own and that of your societyand has mighty moral consequences.

If each investment is to be reckoned, as it must, money is also distilled anxiety

rather than contentment because, as the congealed labour which Marx famously called it,

money is the pure juice of competition and every bit of it can only be spent at the expense

of further earning capacity. In this total economy, then, where money sums up such a vast

array of decisions in the social and private sphere, it is not surprising that the very concept

of contentment is put under pressure and is more evasive than ever.

Nietzsche shrewdly intuits the changes, which he writes about as the precursor to

modern sociology, comparing the feeling for labour and contentment in the capitalist and

industrialized north of Europe as opposed to the dolce far niente of the south, which one

imagines was possibly also a repository of classical nostalgia as it was during humanism.

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139 ‘Fleiss im Süden und Norden. Der Fleiss

entsteht auf zwei ganz verschiedene Arten.

Die Handwerker im Süden werden fleissig, nicht

aus Erwerbstrieb, sondern aus der beständigen

Bedürftigkeit der Anderen. Weil immer Einer

kommt, der ein Pferd beschlagen, einen Wagen

ausbessern lassen will, so ist der Schmied fleissig.

Käme Niemand, so würde er auf dem Markte

herumlungern. Sich zu ernähren, das hat in einem

fruchtbaren Lande wenig Noth, dazu brauchte er

nur ein sehr geringes Maass von Arbeit, jedenfalls

keinen Fleiss; schliesslich würde er betteln und

zufrieden sein. - Der Fleiss englischer Arbeiter

hat dagegen den Erwerbssinn hinter sich: er ist

sich seiner selbst und seiner Ziele bewusst und

will mit dem Besitz die Macht, mit der Macht

die grösstmögliche Freiheit und individuelle

Vornehmheit.’ 478.

140 ‘Denn der entrüstete Mensch, und wer immer

mit seinen eignen Zähnen sich selbst (oder,

zum Ersatz dafür, die Welt, oder Gott, oder

die Gesellschaft) zerreisst und zerfleischt, mag

zwar moralisch gerechnet, höher stehn als der

lachende und selbstzufriedene Satyr, in jedem

anderen Sinne aber ist er der gewöhnlichere,

gleichgültigere, unbelehrendere Fall. Und

Niemand lügt soviel als der Entrüstete.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse 26

Diligence arises in two quite different ways. The worker in the south is not diligent

from the profit motive (earning instinct) but because of the continuing needs of others.

So long as someone comes along who needs a horse shod or a wagon to be mended, the

smith is diligent. If no one were to come along, he would idly hang out at the market.

Nourishing yourself is not very pressing in a fertile land; so he need only contribute

work to a slight degree and in any case no diligence; and finally, he could be contented

begging. The diligence of an English worker, on the other hand, has the profit motive

behind him: he is conscious of himself and his goals, and with property power, with

power, the largest possible freedom and individual pre-eminence. 139

Destiny is mapped out in this new work schedule. Contentment, one could say, belongs to

the old world in the south, whereas the new world has nothing but aspiration in perpetual

search of fulfilment; because contentment is not natural but would be an end to an eternal

striving. Modern man, we could say, fits within a grid of management and, though there

are rewards on offer, the terms of contentment lie outside the matrix. Even when the

nineteenth century acquires the righteous vein that we know from the various schismatic

enthusiasms of the reformed church, the existence of the moral is unrelated to the goal of

contentment; and Nietzsche again draws upon the idyll of the ancient contented south to

make the contrast with the puritanical gut-churning north:

the indignant person, and whoever tears and shreds himselfor, as substitute thereof,

the world or God or societycan be counted as moral, standing higher than the laughing

and self-contented satyr; but in every other sense, he is more ordinary, indifferent,

the uninstructive case. And no one lies as much as the indignant. 140

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141 ‘Es giebt Moralen, welche ihren Urheber vor

Anderen rechtfertigen sollen; andre Moralen

sollen ihn beruhigen und mit sich zufrieden

stimmen; mit anderen will er sich selbst an’s

Kreuz schlagen und demüthigen; mit andern will

er Rache üben, mit andern sich verstecken, mit

andern sich verklären und hinaus, in die Höhe

und Ferne setzen…kurz, die Moralen sind auch

nur eine Zeichensprache der Affekte.’ 187.

142 ‘Sokrates selbst hatte sich zwar mit dem

Geschmack seines Talentesdem eines

überlegenen Dialektikerszunächst auf Seiten

der Vernunft gestellt; und in Wahrheit, was hat

er sein Leben lang gethan, als über die linkische

Unfähigkeit seiner vornehmen Athener zu

lachen, welche Menschen des Instinktes waren

gleich allen vornehmen Menschen und niemals

genügend über die Gründe ihres Handelns

Auskunft geben konnten? Zuletzt aber, im Stillen

und Geheimen, lachte er auch über sich selbst:

er fand bei sich, vor seinem feineren Gewissen

und Selbstverhör, die gleiche Schwierigkeit

und Unfähigkeit. Wozu aber, redete er sich zu,

sich deshalb von den Instinkten lösen! Man

muss ihnen und auch der Vernunft zum Recht

verhelfen,man muss den Instinkten folgen, aber

die Vernunft überreden, ihnen dabei mit guten

Gründen nachzuhelfen. Dies war die eigentliche

Falschheit jenes grossen geheimnissreichen

Ironikers; er brachte sein Gewissen dahin, sich

mit einer Art Selbstüberlistung zufrieden zu

geben:’ 191.

In the end, the whole category of the moral is tinged with the socially arbitrary, including

when it promises contentment; because morals are developed to flatter people who have

the rights to a moral platform.

There are morals which are supposed to justify their author to others; other morals are

meant to calm and make one feel contented; with others, one wants revenge or to hide

from others; with others to be transfigured and distinguished as lofty and remote: this

moral serves its creator in helping to forget… in short, morals are also only a sign language

for affections. 141

For genuine contentment, which Nietzsche does indeed consider, we have to return to the

self-contented satyr of antiquity, by which the philosopher no doubt meant Socrates, who

was famously identified with a satyr on account of his upturned nose (σιμα) and the laughter

that he turned upon both his society and himself for never being able to justify intellectually

what is felt by instinct. This necessarily touches upon contentment.

Socrates himself… sided with reason over instinct… laughed at the awkward inability

of pre-eminent Athenians to give adequate grounds for their actions. In the end, however,

he laughed at himself for having the same difficulty and inability… one has to follow

instinct and persuade reason and help it with good grounds. This was the proper

falsehood of the great mysterious ironist: he brought his knowledge into contentment

with a kind of self-deception. 142

How far we have travelled may be mapped with reference to how Montaigne contemplated

the death of Socrates, likewise impressed and awed at the majestic serenity of the philosopher

and similarly giving the spiritual achievement the name of contentment:

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143 ‘Et qui de ceux qui ont la cervelle tant soit peu

teinte de la vraye philosophie, peut se contenter

d’imaginer Socrates, seulement franc de crainte

et de passion, en l’accident de sa prison, de ses

fers, et de sa condemnation ? Et qui ne recognoist

en luy, non seulement de la fermeté et de la

constance (c’estoit son assiette ordinaire que

celle-là) mais encore je ne sçay quel contentement

nouveau, et une allegresse enjoüée en ses propos

et façons dernieres?’ 2.11

And who among those who have a brain so little steeped in true philosophy can content

themselves imagining Socrates, free of fear and passion in the circumstance of his prison

and his irons and condemnation? And who could not recognize in him not only the

firmness and constancy...but also I know not what new contentment, a happiness enjoyed

in his last propositions and actions? 143

The description is all on the surface, all candid and genuine. There is no irony or selfdeception

to achieve the lauded contentment; whereas Nietzsche sees the layers of belief

peeling away and making new pulp to be fashioned as a joyful triumph over circumstances.

The history of contentment in many ways follows the logic of the ironic Socratic

self-deception, but arguably to the reverse effect. The rise of mass-markets brings massentertainment;

and the role of this vast production is in many ways to proffer contentment.

Contentment is industrialized but on the basis of fictions rather than realities. Our history

reveals great shyness over identifying contentment with social station but especially property;

and in most senses this failure is fulfilled in the great equivocation of commercial society,

in which we earnestly promise contentment through energy expenditure, goods and

services; and these promises are laced with illusions and wish-fulfilment in which no one

really believes.

Our brief and incomplete investigation of the history of contentment could be summed

up. From the functionality of Greek sufficiency and the deals of biblical times and many

recommendations of modesty, the literature of antiquity positions contentment as a thing

of good process, honour, fortune and grace. In the renaissance, we extend the concept to

rich scenarios of love, with copious overlap with satisfied desire, and we find contentment

poetically folded into agonies and paradox. In the baroque, we witness grand tensions

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1.1 The poetic history of contentment


around the concept as it impinges upon glory and a profound interrogation of contentment

in relation to privilege and ambition. In the industrial period, the concept approaches

complacency, and we see contentment as a philosophical ideal increasingly alienated by

material pressures and displaced by the restless profit motive throughout capitalism.

Through this cursory history, we might also sum up the four general conclusions that

have emerged. First, contentment is not an absolute but exists in different epochs by markedly

different parameters. Second, in no epoch before our own is contentment strongly

related to property or levels of consumption. Third, where privilege is contemplated, an

inverse relationship with contentment is suggested. And finally, contentment is most

likely to be reached with a philosophical outlook upon paradoxical circumstances, copious

poetic ironies and the implicit absence of greed and ambition that might foreclose on

poetic speculation.

1.2 Furniture for sustainable circumstances

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1.2 Furniture for sustainable circumstances


We could examine many popular strategies of contentment, like television, but the point

of this study is not that furniture or any other instrument should medicate us out of activity

nor that we should commit our energies to a furnished graveyard in the home. If

we were more contented, we would certainly have the opportunity to find greater conversational

relish in our domestic circumstances, just as our furniture and interiors are

conceived directly to minister to our contentment. How might furniture entertain us,

grow in our imagination, reward contemplation, promote conversation and almost conduct

a conversation of its own? Furniture and interiors are highly expressive as well as a

great repository of memory; and even if the furniture is new, it belongs to a function that

is old and which therefore recalls experiences with a mavellously inscrutable ancestry.

This historical wealth and availability to poetic constructs is an inexhaustible resource for

building contentment.

Contentment is a poetic condition because it depends less upon the objects that we surround

ourselves with than the reflections that we make upon them. The condition of the

poetic is not confined to poems. It arises every day when we are given over to the thought

of things rather than the possession of things; and when we do possess things, the thoughts

that we might entertain about them are sustainably interesting and are not immediately exhausted,

whence we are destined to condemn our possessions in the hope of better. Rather,

it is possible to celebrate the old stock in renewed recognition of their larger connectedness

to the most admirable and necessary values.

In modern economies, which seem by their frantic levels of consumption to be the least

contented, everyone has furniture. Most have a chair, table, wardrobe and bed and many

have several. These items are sometimes prestigious but mostby the very definition of

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144 La poétique de l’espace, Paris 1958. This fine text

deals with spaces rather than design. Furniture is

explored within it through subjective evocations:

the phenomenological relish in the experience of

things essentially displaces the taxonomic and

historical labour of definition. While legitimate

and imaginative, Bachelard’s ontologie directe

with its scorn for scientifc method (les pensées

scientifiques...sont toujours des pensées liées.

L’image...n’a pas besoin d’un savoir, p. 4)may

ultimately not satisfy us in seeking contentment.

The tied or linked thoughts are also the ones

of greatest poetic pregnancy; and the more

taxonomic linkages, the better.

prestigeare not: they are ordinary and, while perhaps inspiring some excitement at the

point of acquisition, are conceived in terms of convenience rather than contentment and

seldom rise in the imagination with a lively supply of poetic cues. Yet for all their modesty

as items of the everyday, furniture and interiors provide the context for contentment

and are capable of assisting contentment hugely and in two principal senses: first, they

physically create a context in which we are happy to do very little but think and converse

and, second, they exist as objects of contemplation themselves, with rich associations,

histories and memories. They are, from the practical to the psychological, instruments

of contentment.

To see furniture in this light may seem obvious and even compelling, given the urgent

planetary need to achieve higher degrees of contentment or satisfaction of greater efficiency;

however, furniture and interiors have never, as far as I can see, been talked about in this

way, and the topic may seem as eccentric to scholars as it would seem esoteric to designers

or manufacturers. Having grappled with the fugitive theme of contentment and established

its oblique relation to property, this book is an attempt to capture the twin senses in

which furniture rises to contentment: first, to be an adorable physical vessel for conversation

which makes us feel happy to be physically still but mentally active; and second to be

an object of poetic contemplation, in which we find metaphors and connexions within the

common objects that go beyond the semantic compass normally attributed to them and

extending to great historical and imaginative conditions.

The method followed in this study, however, cannot be restricted to the poetics of objects

alone, as if an extension of phenomenological discourses from the 1950s, like those of

Gaston Bachelard 144 or even the more recent ecologically and politically attuned work by

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145 Jane Bennett, The enchantment of modern life,

attachments, crossings and ethics, Princeton

University Press, Princeton NJ 2001; Vibrant

matter, a political ecology of things, Duke

University Press, Durham and London 2010

Jane Bennett, who coined the term object-power. 145 As we are already observing in the

sketch of contentment, our phenomena are historical. So we must historicize poetic intuitions

in the same way that history gives so many cues to the poetic, else our conjectures

would be anachronistic, with little but fantasy to sustain them. But second, our subject

matter concerns design. It is not enough to talk of ‘chair’ as if a lexical construct, because

there are almost as many different chairs as there are bottoms to sit upon them; and the differences

of design count signally toward the objective that they supposedly serve in making

us contented. Various kinds of furniture and interiors, alas, do not content us: they set up

images which are in many ways alienating, inscrutable, slick, ungrounded, placeless, intimidating,

stylistically sharp but archly unlovable. We feel in many a stylish interior that we

cannot live up to the couches. It always remains for us to ponder what promotes contentment;

and so an analytical phenomenology must be pursued, lest the discussion of design

appear simply as a declaration of personal taste or hope.

Throughout this analysis, we have work for the poetic: it is to propitiate sustainability

through contentment in ideas, which I am calling poetic sustainability. If there is a way of

looking at the world that makes it more interesting, it is valuable like science, because the

ability to explore our environment through language can continue indefinitely and democratically.

If the world is curious and we can enjoy both its explanations and its enigmas

in a constant unfolding of consciousness, we experience poetic sustainability. Everything

that we look at or feel or need to interact with is in some sense more than it is, because as

well as its material presencewhich may be complicated enoughit is built with metaphors,

histories, adulterated archetypes, imagination and copious dreams. When we contemplate

how these richly concatenated marvels inhere in material traditions, we become

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146 Like Christopher Wilk, Western furniture: 1350

to the present day, Victoria & Albert Museum,

London 1996

aware of paradoxes, beautiful thoughts, surprises, fresh vistas, intuitions about how one

adjusts to society, other people’s ambition and how our assumptions have been conditioned

by history.

The aim of this text is not to poeticize furniture for an autonomous refreshment of

language, though that project would be worthwhile for other reasons. We live in an age

where poems are read by a minority, whereas furniture is used by the masses. To create

another poem which exploits domestic circumstances may contribute much to literature

but perhaps little to sustainability. Poetic sustainability, on the other hand, means a richer

consciousness cultivated outside literature itselfin design, in criticism and conversationwhere

a cue of poetic calibre prompts a speculative curiosity that might continue

indefinitely. There is no limit to how our circumstances are interesting: the commonest

objects satisfy curiosity as much as the most exclusive. Objects of design, with their huge

communicative richness, are a great resource of poetic sustainability and yield contentment

of an ongoing kind.

Because this study concerns sustainability and the poetics of contentment in relation to

furniture, the field is new and untilled, in which existing literatureas vast as it may be in

so many areashas seeded to a limited degree. There are plenty of books on furniture, especially

historical writing about furniture. 146 There is also no shortage of practical industry-literature

about furniture looking good; nor do we lack exhortations to make furniture

comfortable, stylish, commercially feasible, practical, lasting and ecologically sound. No

one will take issue with these views; and because they are unassailable, we tend to think

that nothing more needs to be said about furniture. Our consciousness is circumscribed

by respectable clichés: there seems to be no truth about furniture which is not tautologous

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1.2 Furniture for sustainable circumstances


in some way (such as good furniture must look good, or good furniture ought to be comfortable

and lasting) and which was not obvious long before it was stated and boring

long after.

Perhaps for that reason, furniture has failed to attract a healthy body of theory. While

a respected subject for study in historical terms, furniture has eluded philosophical discourse

which might promise connexions with other things that matter, like the values in

our lifestyles and ecology. Unlike art and architecture, furniture is seldom seen as a vigorous

area of intellectual life. It is frequently discussed in platitudes; alternatively, when considered

in its historical context, furniture is understood to have had a development as with

any other phenomenon, from footware to warfare: it underwent an evolution which may

be traced in stylistic and technological changes characterizing each epoch. Research into

the circumstances of its productionthe economic factors, social conditions, ritual imperatives

and technical limitationsis scrupulously pursued by scholars who provide us with

a richer view of the material. But in all this historical investigation, we still lack a theory of

the poetic appeal of furniture which might help explain its contribution to contentment.

Design, in its expression of function, is itself a poetic construct. The poetic element is

the mustering of various qualities or associations in relation to function: each design is a

critique of function, the comment upon function or the elegance with which function may

be served, perhaps the pomp which it accords an established function or the enthusiasm or

irony with which it projects a new one. Design seldom ascends to the poetic through artificially

approaching the aesthetic virtue of abstract sculpture.

Some designers are inspired by sculpture, to be sure, and aspire to perfect their forms

in order to establish the autonomy of the object, just like a free-standing sculpture. Yet, in

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147 cf. Bill Bryson: ‘Houses aren’t refuges from

history. They are where history ends up’,

At home: a short history of private life, Doubleday:

London 2010, p. 5.

the context of design, this aspiration to sculptural autonomy must still always constitute

a comment upon the function. It may signal a lean-and-spare sheerness, a love of reduction

and neatness which is suitably conferred upon the function; alternatively, the abstract

treatment may arrogantly ignore the function and so signal nothing in particular about it.

In all events, whether expressive or not, the design deals with the function; and the poetry,

if we can call it that, is the intelligibility with which formalist qualities symbolize a coherent

notion of function. Symbolism is closely identified with function. Symbolism is a

codified outward manifestation of an idea and, in this study, the key idea to be symbolized

through an object is function.

As we look into relatively ordinary things with relatively ordinary functions, we find a

whole theatre of connexions in the social sciences, the history of art and architecture, language,

literature, philosophy, psychology and semiotics. There is no modesty about the ordinary:

its empire is everywhere. 147 To recognize the poetry of this formidable topic, we

might consider those familiar objects of furniture as a new curiosity for their function, to

familiarize ourselves with them afresh and draw upon the origins of our own consciousness,

so much more comprehensive and inexhaustible than any book can represent.

We are talking about the values of furniture in an age which is fairly supersaturated in

furniture. No age has had so much furniture as ours. To be sure, poor families and individuals

lack adequate furniture; and those entering the rental market often have to improvise

storage units with cardboard boxes and salvaged items. Throughout the prosperous

economies of the first world, however, it seldom takes long to amass plenty of furniture. In

fact people tend to accumulate volumes of furniture till it becomes a nuisance; and when it

physically encumbers their lives, they stop buying more or gradually purge the household

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1.2 Furniture for sustainable circumstances


of the older or less agreeable piecesor the pieces that come from the other side of the

familyin order that they can continue to acquire the next irresistible piece. Most firstworld

households seem to have as much furniture as space will allow.

These pragmatic circumstances discourage what we need in theory, namely to develop

deeper intuitions about the functions that furniture performs. So the structure of this

book batches the sundry contents of your household into four categories whose functions

deserve to be analysed from first principles. We do this through languageto recognize

the action behind the implement, the verb behind the nounand then through the objects

that serve and minister, poetically or otherwise, to our contentment or impatience.

2. Sitting and settling

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148 Chairs are physically tussled over: ‘Presto, le

sedie. Date qui, una sedia qui. (Prende una

sedia con forza.)’ Leonardo in Il ritorno dalla

villeggiatura 2.8

It seems provident that the history of language unites the idea of being settled with sitting.

Today, the words are different in meaning though clearly related; and originally, they were

the one word or at least proceed from a common root, to sit and to settle. Even the word for

chair has a kinship with the verb to settle (as in the archaic meaning of a settle as a piece of

furniture or settee or the German word for chair, Sessel). It would suit me to posit all virtue

in the dense unity of being settled and sitting, as if they were essentially cognate. Magically,

the goal of individuals, families and communities becoming more settled appears

achievable through institutions of sitting. It is as if objects like chairs could miraculously

solve the greatest ecological challenge, namely for the planet to reduce its consumption of

energy in favour of something so simple as the comforts of a chair.

Alas, it is not so simple. First, chairs themselves were often light and mobile items, procured

when needed for an occasion and whisked away with despatch, as we can still see in

the eighteenth-century comedies of Goldoni. 148 Second, the concept of being settled did

not always enjoy the metaphoric or psychological senses that we know todayas when we

speak of a settled personalityand the idea of being socially settled, in the sense of being

contented, is hard to find in premodern European cultures. The link seems far from essential,

as the common origin of the terms might at first suggest. Third, the concept of sitting

is not exclusively related to humans but belongs to a set of basic and general verbs that apply

equally to inanimate objects, as when we say that a jug sits on a table; so the word is by

no means uniquely circumscribed by human circumstances and only reaches the psychological

by metaphor. And fourth, the very idea of sitting when it does apply to human action

is itself highly institutional and is far from natural, even though we sit down at the

slightest signal to relieve our fatigue, almost like a reflex that answers a moment’s peace.

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149 Achilles Painter, white-ground lekythos, Eretria,

c.450 BC, National Archaeological Museum

(Α1818); Ethiopian Painter, Attic red-figure

lekythos, c.450 BC, Regional Archaeological

Museum Antonio Salinas, (NI 2091); Red-figure

lekythos, Eretria, c. 470–460 BC, National

Archaeological Museum, Athens (n°1304);

Gravestone of Ampharete, c.410 BC, Acropolis

Museum, Athens; Gravestone of Hegeso, c.400.

BC, National Museum, Athens.

When we scrutinize the origins of sitting in European traditions, we find ourselves digging

under the very foundations of European civilization, for the words cluster around the most

imperial institutions.

Vague and essential at the same time, the twin ideas of sitting and being settled propose

a condition of not moving, and this stability connotes being established. It is not a coincidence,

because it arises in other languages and is not just a freak of English. Since antiquity,

the word ‘seat’ was used to describe a settlement, a town or especially a capital, where

the concept of centrality at once explains the fixed condition of drawing in resources

rather than running around producing them and shifting them to marketand the literal

seat, the throne, of centralized power.

It is possible that our word for chair (which is derived from Latin and in turn Greek) is

intimately linked to the word for sitting or settling, as some etymologies relate the word

‘set’ to the Greek word for seat (εδος). In all events, the ancient Greeks had a strong and

specific notion of a chair, lexically and practically. We know that they built excellent

chairs: we even know that they sat in them with urbane postures, which we can appreciate

through vase painting and relief sculpture. 149 Yet while Greek language has a technical

term which uniquely designates a type of chair (κλισμος), it is useful to examine the more

general term for sitting, since the notion of sitting or a seat is prior and, in many ways, more

interesting. In particular, the words which can indicate either chair or seat refer to a colourful

range of phenomena and metaphors which transcend physical realities.

Various words in Greek designate a sitting place, seat or stool. The best examples can be

taken from those descriptions in which an action is represented. Thus, in the Homeric epic,

as the ambassadors arrive at the warrior’s tent, Achilles left the lyre on the seat upon which

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150 Iliad 9.194.

151 On the Setting of the Joints 7.

152 Oedipus the King 866.

153 2.314.

154 Iliad 5.360, 367.

155 Ibid, 24.144.

he had been sitting. 150 The word for seat (εδος) is specifically the object on which the man

had been seated (ενθα θαασσεν). Although the word is used by writers of later periods, it

became archaic. Plato and Aristotle, for example, do not use it unless they are actually

quoting Homer or Hesiod. If Hippocrates describes a straight-backed chair (εδος

Θεσσαλικον) in one of his medical texts, 151 the term describes a peculiar traditional form, a

regional style or genre of chair. Another use of the word describes a seated statue of a god,

as in Sophocles. 152

From this date, the term shows its tolerance and lack of accuracy. In a similar sense, the

seat could describe a temple as in Philo. 153 The tradition in which the word ‘seat’ could

mean a place is at least as old as that by which it could mean a chair. The word seat is used

in the sense of abode, dwelling-place, especially the dwelling-place of the gods. In the Homeric

epic, the wounded Aphrodite implores Ares that she may return to Olympus, the seat

of the immortals. 154 The mountain is sometimes expressed as the Olympian seat: 155 it is not

a geographical construct; it has special importance as the site inhabited by the gods. The

name reflects the identity of the place; and this naming derives from the action of being occupied.

We still use a similar word in English as when describing the seat of power (meaning

the parliament or place of management or government) and think of this as metaphor;

however, it is by no means clear which came first, which is an extension and which is intrinsic.

So too does one speak of the cradle of civilization (meaning the Mediterranean or

Egypt etc.). We think of these meanings in English as purely metaphoric. The concrete

nounsseat or cradlehave little native pregnancy but are used with a kind of colourful

licence to express remoteness in an organizational structure. For the ancient Greek, however,

the word had no prior concrete meaning: the seat in the landscape was no more

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156 Ibid 4.406.

157 Odyssey 13.344.

158 Theogony 117 (my dactyls).

159 De architectura 8.3.23.

160 Iliad 11.648.

remote than the seat in the washroom. For the archaic Greek, the seat in the landscape

meant the quality of its being inhabited. It could thus betoken the abodes of men. 156 This

would bring to the cold and abstract notion of place that peculiar warmth and sense of belonging,

appropriately symbolized by the 10 years of the Trojan war and the 10 year ordeal

of travel for Odysseus, seeking to return to ‘the Ithacan seat’. 157

In Homeric diction, a seat expresses the idea of staying put. Many seats, unlike architecture,

are easily transported. Their design may facilitate folding, stacking and removal.

However, so long as one actually sits in the seat, one does not walk: one is immobile and

remains within the context of the seat. This quality is naturally attached to the features in

the landscape and, with a history of waves of migration and upheaval, the archaic Greek

conceived civilization in terms of a seat, a stable hub for accommodation of the folk who

belong to a community and cultivate the land around it. Hesiod uses our term in the sense

of a foundation, a base:

Chaos, indeed, was the first to have come into being; but after broad-bosomed Earth,

the most certain foundation for everything, followed. 158

The ‘certain foundation (εδος ασφαλες)’ is really just ‘secure seat’. The same sense of the

word arises in an epigram quoted by the Latin author on architecture, Vitruvius. 159 As in all

aspects of culture, the Graeco-Roman architect sought the sure foundation (θεμελιος) and

the stable (μονιμος). In the language of Graeco-Roman architecture, every element is a

seat for every other. The formal vigour of the orders demonstrates the concept well. The

classical seat was no less visual for being so pregnant in architectural connotations of stability.

The very noun could even signal the act of sitting. The word is used in archaic times

as an expression for staying put: this is no time to sit idle. 160

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161 Ibid. 19.77 (also my dactyls).

162 Odyssey 8.6.

163 Ibid. 3.31.

164 In Pindar, Olympian Odes 5.8, Sophocles, Ajax


165 Isthmian Odes 7(6).44.

166 Olympian Odes 7.76.

The ancient Greeks developed a similar word for a sitting place, seat, chair, stool or bench

(εδρα) for which evidence is also found in the earliest texts. It could also apply to the physical

objects upon which one sits. Again, the best examples can be taken from those descriptions

in which a coherent action is represented. Thus, in Homer:

now Agamemnon, the king of the warriors, spoke to them also straight from his seat

and without getting up in the midst of the meeting. 161

We also read how the Phæacians sit upon stone seats in the Odyssey. 162 The word could

hardly be more concrete. It can even be used apparently in contrast to a description of location.

Thus, in the same poem, Athena and Telemachos seek Nestor and ‘arrive at the

place and the seat (αγυριν τε και εδρας) of the menfolk of Pylos’. 163 The chain of instances

in which ‘seat’ means a location rather than a chair is long and need not be traced in detail.

We encounter the word meaning a harbour for ships 164 and, with expected commonness,

the seat or abode of the gods, as in the brass-paved seat of the gods in Pindar. 165 It is also

noteworthy that when this early classical poet uses the term to describe the abode of humans,

it means much more than house or even home. For Pindar, a seat is the establishment

of the famous. The clearest example is when he exploits the fabric of myth (a narrative

structure which, particularly in ancient Greece, relates names to places) and mentions

the dwelling-places named after the people who lived there. 166 Thus Cameiros, Ialysos and

Lindos were the names of the cities as well as those of the three brothers who made them

their respective seats. If one spoke of the seat of Pindar, the poet, for example, Pindar’s seat

is no mere location. It implies majesty, a grand logic of inherited belonging.

There is always some implication of order and authority in this conception. It is apparent

in Plato’s idea of the lawgivers determining the appropriate seats or sites (εδρας

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167 Laws 849e.

168 Ibid. 904b.

169 Bacchic Women 928.

170 Meteorology 356a4.

171 7.37.

172 Republic 516b.

173 Plato, Timaeus 67b, 72c, 79b.

174 Rhesus 8.

175 Republic 517b.

176 18(2).105.

177 Philebus 24d.

πρεπουσας) for setting up market stalls. 167 Similarly, Plato is concerned that the king establish

what kind of seat or position (ποιαν εδραν) a person must inhabit and then in what regions

(τινας ποτε τοπους). 168 The ‘seat’ is not the person’s location in physical terms alone

but station or status. And if the matter is not simply administrative, it nevertheless carries

the authority of natural order. The seat of anything is the peculiar location to which it is

proper, to which nature or human order decrees that it belong. As for Euripides, nothing

should be out of its right place or seat (εξ εδρας). 169 For Aristotle, too, the planetary body

must keep its place (εχειν εδραν), literally hold its seat. 170 Herodotus had already described

the sun being eclipsed from its seat 171 and Plato seeks ‘to look at the sun and observe its nature,

not its appearances in water or in an alien seat but the very sun itself in its own

place’. 172 The seat means ‘material’ rather than position but is perhaps best rendered as ‘medium’

or even ‘context’.

So, too, the organs of the human body have their seat. 173 They cannot be elsewhere. But

the classical language allowed both physical and abstract notions to be located under the

term. When Euripides speaks of the seat of the eyelid, he literally means the eye. 174 When

Plato speaks of the seat of vision, he means the faculty of sight. 175 Normally, the instrument

is expressed as the seat of the faculty, as in Galen’s seat of digestion 176 meaning, no doubt,

the digestive tract. But the other extreme, noticeable in Plato, is the expression of an abstract

concept as the seat of other abstract concepts. Thus the philosopher speaks of ‘the

seat of more or less and emphasis or gentleness’ 177 meaning a province of argument, an area

in which description must proceed in terms of degree rather than absolutes.

Another word, also noted above, was developed among the ancient Greeks which, from

time to time, specifically designated a chair. A preposition was added to the conception

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178 Cf. Dante’s line possibly acknowledging the

etymology, ‘dove siede la chiesa’, Purgatory 12.101

(though this is not the etymology for chiesa).

179 2.714e.

180 On Interior Suffering 47.

181 History of Animals 633b8.

182 Categories 6b11, Parts of Animals 689b21.

183 Camillus 28.

184 Republic 407b.

185 Sylloge inscriptionum græcarum 845.

186 Matthew 23.2.

187 Paradise 32.42

above to form the word (καθεδρα) from which we get our cathedral, the seat of the

Church. 178 The word came to mean chair rather late in Greek literary history, as in Plutarch

179 where the term is opposed to that for a bed (κλινη). For centuries, however, the term

had designated quite different things. For example, the word is intended to indicate the

sitting part of the body, the posterior, in another of Hippocrates’ texts 180 and, for Aristotle,

the conception above (εδρα) meant the rump of an animal. 181 Aristotle uses the more elaborate

word (καθεδρα) to designate a sitting posture. 182 And Plutarch, far from his chair (as

opposed to a bed) mentioned above, uses the word in an abstract way when he speaks of

‘idleness (seatedness) and leisure (καθεδρα και σχολη)’, more literally sitting and leisure. 183

There is also an adjectival form of our earlier term (εδραιος) which Plato uses to express the

sedentary habit of rulers as opposed to generals. 184

Plato’s use of the word in relation to a profession leads us to one of the most potent associations

of any item of furniture, namely the image of the chair indicating the status of

chairperson or even professor. Today, we still speak of a professor occupying the chair in a

department; indeed we even call him or her the chair, just as the Italians and Spanish call

their professor catedratico. The first example of our word meaning a professorial chair has

been found in an inscription at Eleusis from the third century A.D. 185 Nevertheless, the idea

of the chair bestowing authority upon a teacher must have been sufficiently current for Jesus

to have used the word to mean ‘position’ when he attacks the pretence of ‘the scribes

and the Pharisees [who] sit in Moses’ chair’. 186 For Jesus, the chair is abused by hypocrites.

Great honour is owing to the station but not its occupants. We all know chair-keepers who

sit, to quote Dante, by no merit of their own. 187

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188 Politics 1292a9.

189 Herodotus 4.88.

190 Rhetoric 1361a35.

191 Ajax 780.

192 Tusculan Disputations 3.27.65 and De officiis


The prestige of the chair is memorably enshrined in the notion of the foremost seat, presidency

(προεδρια), as in Aristotle 188 where the word also means authority in general. While

retaining a literal, concrete meaning of the front seats in the assembly or the chair of

state, 189 it could be extend to meaning ‘precedence’ or position, as, again, in Aristotle. 190 Our

own word ‘president’ is a modernized Latin graft of the same construct, sitting foremost

(præsidium). Indeed the Latin language developed many composites of sitting which have

survived in the modern languages, as in assiduous (assiduus) or insidious (insidiosus, cf. the

Greek ενεδρα, εφεδρα) or resident, residue (resideo) and so on. Our word session, for example,

simply means sitting, a meaning familiar to all who listen to parliament or who go to

court, where judges sit on the bench during session. The meaning of sitting in the formalized

sense of session is also seen in Greek of the fifth century, as in the session of council in

Sophocles. 191

The Romans more or less adopted the logic of the Greek diction. Thus, their seat (sedes)

can mean either a chair or a location. But not forever could the hard-headed Romans sit on

things so uncertain. They also described the item of furniture as sedile, which appears to

have been unambiguously physical in meaning, even though it could designate a chair,

bench, stool, seat, etc. And, because the Romans were specific about the physicality of the

construct, they could become more specific about the psychological dimension of sitting.

Thus, while we were able to find in Greek a word to correspond to our sedentarythat is,

an expression of people’s occupationLatin offers not only sedentarius but a condition of

bringing emotional tranquillity (sedatio), as in Cicero, 192 an image that is echoed in baroque

poets like Giambattista Marino and which ultimately leads to our contemporary sedation

by pharmaceutical means.

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193 1 Chronicles 17.14

194 1 Kings 8.13

195 Psalms 119.89

The ancient history of the concepts of seat and chair reveals an institutionalized view of sitting.

When you read ancient literature, you never sit intimately with the people described.

You are at the council: you are at some spiritual or political locus with its concourse of

decision-making men. The seated posture tends not to be described beyond the social context.

The manner of sitting is seldom evoked but just the bald fact which, despite its wealth

of symbolic importance within the culture, somehow lacks immediacy. It is different in

Hebraic antiquity, however, where we also notice the strong relationship between seat as

institutional government and seat as a place to rest the buttocks.

There are many occasions where the two ideas are tangibly related by language: the

place where you stay and the throne whence you centralize power. 193 In a world where all is

swept away in currents of invasion and plague, the conceit of abiding forever is the most

heavenly promise, the place forever: ‘I have surely built thee an house to dwell in, a settled

place for thee to abide in for ever.’ 194 In looking at the antique relief sculptures of the Abyssinians

at the British Museum, with their relentless ranks of armies, we are reminded of the

sense of devastation that pressed itself into the surface of those regular rhythms that we

would otherwise like to imagine conducting the simpler premodern life on a steady course.

The opposite is the case, as waves of incursions swept the earth and the concept of being

settled is fragile, unless endorsed by heaven. In paradise, one is settled forever by a gesture

of language: ‘For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven.’ 195 What is settled is the word;

and only the word is capable of settling anything. Translated to the secular, then, the blessings

of heaven are essential: the will to peacefulness and gentleness, contentment fulfilled,

from which lofty perch you might even experience a degree of self-satisfaction and giggle at

all inadequacy. ‘He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in

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196 Psalms 2.4

197 Colossians 1.23

198 1 Peter 5.10. Paul, on the other hand, is suspicious

of the aggrandisement of the lofty role-model

in church: ‘Who opposeth and exalteth

himself above all that is called God, or that is

worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the

temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. 2

Thessalonians, 2.4

199 Just like walking, in fact: see the lovely Rebecca

Solnit, Wanderlust: a history of walking, (Viking

2000) Verso, London 2001. This book, with

its powerful apologia for bipedality, also has

environmental implications. See the charming

review by Ken Worpole, who also recognizes the

threat to walking as ‘the result of the disastrous

priorities of 20th-century urban planning’,

The Independent, Saturday 4 August 2001.

200 Exodus 18.14

201 Numbers 32.6

derision.’ 196 Even indulging such superiority, the challenge of life remains to bring the divine

paradigm of internal serenity down to earth.

Religion, of course, has a major stake in the settled condition of both varieties, physical

and psychological, given that all institutions of orthodoxy are in constant battle with

change, with what it sees as the fickleness of change, of its faithless people thinking otherwise

or forgetting their dogma, as Paul says: ‘If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled

(τεθεμελιωμενοι και εδραιοι), and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel,’ 197

where it is the people, not the faith, to which the words apply, because they are either settled

in their faith or not. 198

If contentment has a history, so does sitting. 199 The biological essentialism that distinguishes

the seated posture among humans from that of the beasts should not distract us

from the cultural basis that informs sitting in different guises from epoch to epoch. An element

of this is technological, which remains to be explored; for there is little doubt that no

one in premodern times could sit in the kind of comfort that has availed with design from

the 1920s onward. But there are also moral or conventional factors that historically conditioned

how sitting occurred and how it was perceived.

Like contentment, sitting can sometimes be deplored on account of its inaction, indolence

or complacency. It sometimes happens that the idea of sitting still while others anxiously

attend upon you is questioned, as with the father in law of Moses: ‘why sittest thou

thyself alone, and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?’ 200 And Moses

himself uses the image of remaining in your seat as somewhat contemptible and cowardly:

‘Shall your brethren go to war, and shall ye sit here?’ 201 Far from an absolute, sitting is

greatly defined by context. In all ages, sitting was governed by protocols, was seen as a

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202 1 Samuel 9.22

203 Psalms 26.5

204 Wisdom of Sirach 9.9

205 Mark 14.32

206 Pericles, Gower’s prologue to Act 5, I King Henry

IV 3.1 respectively

207 Luke 12.37

208 John 6.10

privilege and was integral to power relations and their symbolism. In archaic societies, the

order of seating was as much a part of diplomatic etiquette as today. 202

There was always a sense of intimacy with the persons with whom you sat. If you sit

with somebody evil, some of the undesirable character is induced upon you; you are guilty

by association: you ‘sit with the wicked’, because sitting implies complicity. 203 If you merely

talk to them, you might be untainted; but if you go so far as to sit with them, this might

suggest the greater scope of collusion, as if supping together. When pairing the opposite

sex, the same motif can be seen as dangerously close, and one could be tainted with adulterous

temptation: ‘Sit not at all with another man’s wife, nor sit down with her in thine

arms, and spend not thy money with her at the wine; lest thine heart incline unto her, and

so through thy desire thou fall into destruction.’ 204 The sitting is already construed as untoward

intimacy, compromising the independent decency of a faithful upright person, who

knows how to keep familiarity within parameters. Sitting in this context involves hugging

(‘sit down with her in thine arms’) and sitting down may slide toward lying down.

Frequently, sitting is a euphemism for waiting, 205 which is baroque usage, as in Shakespeare’s

‘sit and hark’ or ‘sit and hear’. 206 Sitting becomes notable when it answers an invitation

to sit. The significance is not in the physical sitting per se but in the transaction. If

someone asks me to sit, I am not simply resting my body somewhat but entering into a relationship

our carrying out my part in an established relationship. Sitting always sounds like

that in old and well-known texts. 207 So strong is the invitational element in sitting that the

expression for sitting down is described not as inviting or bidding but making. One makes

someone sit down, which in contemporary usage conveys a sense of compulsion. 208

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209 Canzoniere 37.38.

210 Ibid. 279.5 Petrarch may have been drawing

upon the Hebraic notion of sitting, which is both

more passionate and more coincidental than the

Hellenic. Consider the celebrated Psalm noted

earlier: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and

wept’, Psalms 137 (136 in the Vulgate which was

set to music so often throughout the renaissance

and baroque ‘Super flumina Babylonis illic

sedimus et flevimus’).

211 1.121–23.

212 ‘Esse dentro a’ dilicati petti, temendo e

vergognando, tengono l’amorose fiamme

nascose, le quali quanto più di forza abbian che

le palesi coloro il sanno che l’hanno provate:

e oltre a ciò, ristrette da’ voleri, da’ piaceri, da’

comandamenti de’ padri, delle madri, de’ fratelli

e de’ mariti, il più del tempo nel piccolo circuito

delle loro camere racchiuse dimorano e quasi

oziose sedendosi, volendo e non volendo in una

medesima ora, seco rivolgendo diversi pensieri,

li quali non è possibile che sempre sieno allegri.

E se per quegli alcuna malinconia, mossa da

focoso disio, sopraviene nelle lor menti, in quelle

conviene che con grave noia si dimori, se da

nuovi ragionamenti non è rimossa:’ Boccaccio,

Decameron, Proemio

It is only in the late middle ages and early renaissance that the act of sitting is appreciated

in that casual non-governmental dimension which is as proper to it as the formalized social

dimension. Emotional states of an individual are described together with simple actions,

such as walking, sighing, sitting. Particularly in the amorous poetry of agonized leisure

and gentle pining of dolce stil novo, the image of sitting down is represented with emotional

colour. Petrarch describes the torment of his love never quitting him, wherever he goes: his

harsh exile weighs him down ‘if I sleep or walk or sit’. 209 The context of sitting is far from

the physical (since it is combined with sleeping and walking) but represents the moment of

oppressive emotion relentlessly accompanying the poet. Elsewhere, the place is described:

‘there, where I sit, thoughtful with love, and write’. 210 So little is said; and yet the sense of

the poet’s sitting is tender and sympathetic. In the Triumph of Death, the poet describes

one of Laura’s companions: ‘among so many sighs and throes, she sat quiet and cheerful,

already culling the fruits of her good living’. 211 None of these descriptions involves any

emotion intrinsic to the act of sitting; but each introduces an emotional contingency in a

given circumstance. It is difficult to imagine ancient authors capturing the plain act of sitting

within such an intimate perspective.

The early renaissance opens up a world of intimacy which occasionally even brings us

into the interior of feeling and its physical circumstances. In the Proemio to Boccaccio’s

Decameron, for instance, the author describes the sentiment of women who sit in their tiny

rooms and wrestle with suppressing or realizing their amorous passions in the powerful

institutional context beyond their bodies. 212 These lasses, some of them apparently already

married, are couped up in their little chambers, tussling with fantasy and sitting in boredom.

We have a picture of their circumstance and also their state of mind, which errs to

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213 Pericles 3.1

214 Coriolanus 2.2.80; see also ‘sit idly in the sun’,

Troilus and Cressida 3.3.233

215 Pericles 2.3

216 Loves Labour Lost 4.3.79

217 Coriolanus 5.2.74

218 Tempest 1.2.389–391

the melancholy unless its burden of frustration can be displaced with new ideas, novelties,

prospects or conversations (nuovi ragionamenti). If sitting is equated with idleness, it is

worth noting that the idleness (ozia) is a cornerstone of poetic exploration, in which one

has leisure to pore over oneself, to indulge in the introspective. Throughout the renaissance,

the idleness of poets was celebrated and considered close to productivity, for in doing

nothing else one can do what only arises without pressure or ulterior teleology. It is

definitely idleness as leisure and not the laziness that Shakespeare would later have in mind

in his ‘While I sit lazy by.’ 213 But then Shakespeare is also somewhat unsympathetic to sitting,

as in the line of Coriolanus when asked ‘Pray now, sit down’. He impatiently snorts: ‘I

had rather have one scratch my head i’ the sun / When the alarum were struck, than idly sit

/ To hear my nothings monster’d.’ 214 Shakespeare recognizes the idea that you can overstay

in a chair, which is a kind of tomb of action: ‘Come, gentlemen, we sit too long on trifles,

/ And waste the time, which looks for other revels.’ 215

Sitting may be sublime and illustrious, and much in baroque literature explores the

magical privilege: ‘Like a demigod here sit I in the sky’, 216 commanding and exalted among

those whose attendant chairs pay tribute, where a man ‘Had princes sit, like stars, about his

throne,’ or where ‘The glorious gods sit in hourly synod about thy particular prosperity’, 217

in which, with baroque hyperbole, the sitting of the gods expresses their unlikely obligation

and service. But so too sitting may be miserable, depending not on the chair but the exhaustion

that causes you to slump into it. Then the sitting can equally be about despair:

‘Sitting on a bank, / Weeping again the king my father’s wrack, / This music crept by me

upon the waters, / Allaying both their fury and my passion, / With its sweet air’, 218 as per

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219 Psalms 137.1

220 2 Henry IV 5.3.28–29

221 Henry V 2.prologue.8

222 3 Henry VI 1.1.84

223 ‘Ma, benché fusse d’un tal regno erede, / non

s’appagò dela materna sede’, Adone 20.411

the classical Biblical formula ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,

when we remembered Zion.’ 219

There is also much anxiety in sitting, though the chair is clearly designed for relief. We

still ‘Shall sit and pant in your great chairs of ease,’ because we carry our anxiety from the

field to the chair. There is also a care in sitting: ‘sit, and attend’, which has an air of service

and menace; and the exhortation to sit is often nervously repeated’Now sit down, now sit

down: come, cousin’where the replication of the verb expresses some energy between

the bossy and the servile, like a wringing of hands where a resolution is less than imminent:

‘Sweet sir, sit; I’ll be with you anon; most sweet sir, sit. / Master page, good master page, sit.

Proface!’ 220 Even the metaphoric condition of sitting seems to presage something, perhaps

waiting or anticipating: ‘For now sits Expectation in the air;’ 221 and, as we have seen from

the previous chapter, any fears for not sitting securely will obliterate contentment, as when

you might no longer occupy your former throne: ‘And shall I stand, and thou sit in my

throne?’ To which York says: ‘It must and shall be so. / Content thyself.’ 222 The higher the

chair, the more anxiously one sits in it, the more ambition and therefore discontent, the less

likely an air of repose or hope of satisfaction. As the Italian poet Marino says: ‘but though

he was heir to such a kingdom, he was not satisfied with the maternal seat’. 223 Either in the

chair or prized from it, it is a challenge to ‘sit fast’; and very occasionally, one might have to

sit in a condition of total indignity and console oneself that with the meagre contentment

that others have endured the same torment:

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224 Richard II 5.5.23–30

225 Marino, Adone 1.152

226 ‘Cangia il cor, cangia l’alma albergo e sede, / in

altrui vive, in semedesma more’, 8.116

227 ‘sedar gli affetti’, 2.62

228 ‘gli tremi dal’interne sedi’, 13.237

229 ‘dove ricca sedea d’illustri fregi / la città, che dal

ferro il nome tolse’, 4.28

Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves

That they are not the first of fortune’s slaves,

Nor shall not be the last; like silly beggars

Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame,

That many have and others must sit there:

And in this thought they find a kind of ease,

Bearing their own misfortunes on the back

Of such as have before endur’d the like. 224

Baroque poets adore the concept of seat as refuge or hermitage (albergo e sede), 225 home and

seat, house and home; but this was also an age that recognized change, mutation, movement,

the unlikeliness of anything remaining still for long, whence a certain melancholy

paradox in things that remain in memory: ‘the heart changes, the soul changes its home

and seat: it lives in another but dies in its own’. 226

For things to have a seat and resist the anxious perturbations of life is an ideal, to be settled;

and this possibly explains the origins of artificial contentment, sedation, which takes

its origin from the seat. Marino talks of settling the passions as sedating the passions, 227 by

which he does not mean medicated relaxation or being settled by pills; however, the outcome

is the same and the image is the person sitting. It is then as now to attenuate ‘the

tremors of the internal seat’. 228 Or again it may be the whole city of Ferrara, basking in its

ornaments ‘where the city sits amid illustrious friezes’. 229 Naturally, sitting is a commodity

of the idyll, where the idea of having a chair is unnecessary, because nature gives you

enough furniture and the more natural the better: ‘Here does nifty youth procure the soft

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230 ‘Procaccia qui la gioventute accorta / per

l’amene campagne ombra soave; / chi le mense

apparecchia insu le sponde, / chi fa letto o sedil

d’erbe e di fronde.’ 5.69

231 ‘Sotto un’ombrosa ed odorata loggia / de’ suoi rami

intessuta ella sedea, / a cui di rose in sen purpurea

pioggia / scherzando ador ador l’aura scotea.’


232 ‘Non men come reina e come dea / la sua

bella consorte ha soglio e scettro. / Da duo

pescidestrier conca eritrea / tirata inalza un bel

sedil d’elettro;’ 17.115

233 ‘La dea del mar tra ninfe e tra garzoni / sovra un

carro di chiocciole procede, / quei forma han di

sirene e di tritoni, / questa ha di verde limo algosa

sede’, 19.373

234 ‘Sotto questa tribuna è l’altar grande / incortinato

d’un trapunto estrano / e di crespo broccato

intorno spande / a quattro volti un padiglion

sovrano; / e vi si può salir da quattro bande /

per dodici scalin d’avorio piano, / cinti di seggi

e balaustri aurati / dov’han poscia a sedere

i magistrati. / Quivi in trono eminente e di

pomposo / barbaro drappo intapezzato ancora /

siede d’oro forbito e prezioso / la statua dela dea

ch’ivi s’adora;’ 16.55–56

shade, who prepare the table on the bank, who makes a bed or seat of grasses and leaves.’ 230

Or much later in the same poem: ‘she sat beneath a shady and scented loggia made by the

knitted branches, from which the breeze playfully ruffled down from time to time a purple

rain of roses’. 231 When we create fantasies, we never surpass nature but seek to institute culture

in nature, to create pompous seduction; and in this folding of culture and nature, the

concept of the seat is always dynamic and conflicted, moving and uncertain, like the gushing

waters of a fountain which nevertheless have their seat amid feigned images, which Marino

loves to transport us to with copious currents of metaphor: ‘Not less like a queen and

like a goddess, his beautiful consort has the throne and sceptre. On the Eritrean basin

drawn by two fish-riders, a fine seat of amber was borne aloft’; 232 and in a further canto, ‘The

goddess of the sea among nymphs and lads, sallied forth upon a chariot of snails, these ones

in the form of Sirens and Tritons, this one in the form of a seaweedy seat of green slime.’ 233

The role of art is extreme in the baroque, as each vision is like scenography: ‘beneath

this tribunal is the great altar, curtained off by a strange embroidered quilt and with frilly

brocade the sovereign pavilion extended its four façades; and there you can climb up four

levels by twelve little stairs of smooth ivory, girt by seats and golden balusters which the

magistrates had for sitting’. 234

Not all chairs are to be settled in; and the baroque discovers this in Marino’s dolphindrawn

slimy fountain. But there is one seat which historically took on an unprecedented

technological development, namely the moving chair, the coach and car. It also began to

be talked about in terms of social status in the baroque, as when La Bruyère describes the

discrimination (or lack of it) among women of the Parisian court. They are attracted to a

given man: ‘they inform themselves neither about their contracts nor their ancestors; they

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235 ‘Paris, pour l’ordinaire le singe de la cour, ne

sait pas toujours la contrefaire; il ne l’imite en

aucune manière dans ces dehors agréables et

caressants que quelques courtisans, et surtout les

femmes, y ont naturellement pour un homme de

mérite, et qui n’a même que du mérite: elles ne

s’informent ni de ses contrats ni de ses ancêtres;

elles le trouvent à la cour, cela leur suffit; elles le

souffrent, elles l’estiment; elles ne demandent pas

s’il est venu en chaise ou à pied, s’il a une charge,

une terre ou un équipage:’ Les caractères, De la

ville I5 (VIII)

find him at the court and that suffices for them; they suffer him and esteem him: they do

not ask if he came by chair (coach) or on foot, if he has a charge, an estate or a staff’. 235

The seat upon which such men may have come to court is indeed the ancestor to the

motor car, which is a seat, a proper seat, unlike the stool or perch which is the bicycle saddle.

The car seat finally ‘unseats’ the connexion between sitting and being settled. The motorized

carriage has nothing settled about it but is the instrument of mobility par excellence,

one of the principal means by which western culture celebrates its unsettled condition and

its exorbitant consumption of energy. And of course, when we consume, we very often do

it sitting down, most alarmingly when consuming prodigious jet-fuel in aeroplanes. There

is no necessary connexion between chairs and conservation, sitting and being settled. Like

all the objects and institutions which we are now to consider, their potential for servicing

the settling of humans is only realized when they can afford autonomous contemplation;

and that is the exercise which we shall now explore. It is not the chair per se that gives us

rest. It is rather the idea of the chair, the prospect of sitting in it and then enjoying the way

that it performs its ministry in connexion with so many variants of sitting. This poetic

connectedness keeps the chair working, so to speak, even when we are not sitting in it,

which may indeed be most of the time; because most chairs are unoccupied for most of the

time, and when they are fully committed, there is a horrible physiological reason for it. The

agency of the chair and its power of invoking a settled condition is entirely dependent upon

the contemplation that we bring to it; and this is the poetic field that we want to investigate

in relation to the furniture.

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236 Premature versions of some of the texts that

follow were developed alongside my teaching

program in industrial design in the early 1990s

and distributed to students as Toward a philosophy

of furniture, later developed as Frameworks of

furniture, Centre for Industrial Design, Monash

University, 1996.

My favourite armchair, which is little but a light frame that supports my body, is the haven

where I think and work. To say that I am attached to the chair is a weak pun but a strong

metaphor. The chair gains my affection because it gives me comfort and signals the metaphorical

licence (which I suppose is also a kind of comfort) for me to exclude the more

chaotic stimuli of my thoughts and concentrate on the ones that I believe I can organize for

myself. When I go to this chair, my purpose is not primarily to sit but rather to think and

read and write; and if I lay aside the laptop or book, the chair allows for conversation. But

with all my fondness for the chair, I have to recognize that the love of this practical object

is rather ghosted by the love of the things that I do within it. Like a magistrate who sits on

a benchand whose mission is not to sit but rather to judgemy sitting is for the sake of

something else, a whole occupation that I cannot do in any other circumstance but which I

imagine to be of a higher order than just sitting. Sitting is always contentment in deferral,

because when we sit we also do something else (e.g. think), and we usually sit in order to do

it. Sitting is seldom an activity or inactivity that we do for its own sake but rather for headspace

or conversation.

In the 20 years that I have been conducting this research on furniture, chairs have

evolved, not so radically in their physical lineaments but rather in their function. 236 During

the 1990s, it was still possible to think of a domestic armchair as a kind of asylum. Adding

to the hermetic condition of a family home, the chair provided a supplementary inner sanctuary

where only the sacred thoughts of my research or my next lecture would ever be authorized

to enter. The chair was a miniature cloister with that is almost unthinkable today,

as the other instrument that we bring to the chair to do our work entails the whole noise of

the world. Nowadays, our devices are equipped to be in contact with every other

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computer; and when I sit in the chair, my privacy is penetrated and hemmed by global contact.

So the higher order which I once came into contact with by means of the chair is now

the rough and tumble of communication that takes my mind way beyond the confines that

I have long cultivated for the purposes of research. If anything, though, this new complexity

of the jobs served by the chair only adds to the potent mystique of sitting and the indispensable

instruments that support it.

Among other objects of furniture, the chair is a prestigious structure which owes its

glamour not just to its many opportunities for stylish design, nor even to the welcome

comfort that it offersfor we do not like to stand for longbut because of its symbolism.

The chair occupies a basic and central place in material culture as the literal support for a

watchful state of rest, the condition of sitting itself, which we have talked about in its relation

to being settled. Sitting is an action (or inaction) that humans do like no other creature,

where our lower leg bears no weight but its own. Consequently, in sitting, we clever

bipeds are settled like no other creature. It is just as well, because our needs are greater,

full of anxiety not over predators nor, for the most part, an empty stomach, but because we

struggle with rest itself; we are anxious because we tell ourselves unconsciously that we

should not be contented: we should be working or achieving or relaxing in some superior

degree. We are nervous dialectical animals, at once highly socialized and yet competitive

and agonized, in constant struggle with ambition or a sense of entitlement. It is hard for us

to sit contented.

In fact, it is hard for us to talk of sitting at all; and in the previous section, we observed

that even the term for seatthough paradoxically a byword for all that is firmly

establishedis ambiguous. Chairs are no firmer; and even our very own bottom can be

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misinterpreted as a seat. I remember as a child finding the expression offputting whenever

a person’s bottom (or buttocks) was described as his or her seat. I had no idea, of course,

that this image was so ancient and derived not from sloppy language or metaphor but a

kind of essential unity of the hind and its support in the impoverished posterior vocabularies

of European language. The motif persists in idioms such as ‘to fly by the seat of one’s

pants’, where the seat is not what supports youfor the trousers hang on the body rather

than vice versabut the form of the bottom itself. As a child, this euphemism of saying

seat instead of bottom annoyed me, and I remember being gratified to think that no one in

my household ever used it but preferred to say ‘bottom’ or ‘bum’, which is indeed the anatomical

region that deposits itself in the seat but is definitely not the seat itself.

Reflecting on this conceit has since caused me to scruple. The gluteal muscles and upper

thighs are in no sense a ‘bottom’ for the body, for there are still legs that dangle beneath

that pelvic platform. Ironically, the only way that we can see the bottom as the lowest part

of the body is either to amputate the legs or to imagine the person as sitting on the floor,

because a standing person conspicuously has legs that prop up the pelvis from way below;

and even when seated in a chair, the lower leg will undoubtedly want to dangle down some

distance below the bottom to reach the ground. The bottom only gains its title by virtue of

a very low seat that makes the hind the nethermost part in our imagination.

Language defines sitting but so do chairs. Few manufactured items are as morally prescriptive

as a chair. A chair defines your posture and largely determines how you sit. It affords

space for a certain range of positions and makes others uncomfortable. Before it is sat

upon, the chair bespeaks the attitude of the person to be seated: it asserts a predetermined

disposition of sitting. You might be grateful or resentful. It depends on whether the design

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of the chair matches your intentions. A chair might serve you somewhat patronizingly.

Your choices have been envisaged. The design of the chair has foreseen your desires and

will satisfy them as the designer knows best. Your interpretation of the chair begins with

this consciousness. The will of the designer is expressed as a prescription for your posture.

The chair is sent into the world to teach you how to sit.

Similar points can be made with most items of design. All design objects express an

idea of how people should behave. The architect, in particular, virtually decrees how much

certain activities are to take place by granting them the room. You accept that designers

have the right and the responsibility to make such decisions. You do not begrudge them

the privilege of influencing your behaviour: in fact, you are always impressed if the vision

of designers is enlightened. But still, the design of chairs is special. Few items condition

our persons so directly, so physically, as a chair. The chair seems to condition not just your

behaviour but your very being. An architect insinuates his or her vision of the ideal life by

encouraging you to do this activity or that activity, to spend more time in the family room

than the kitchen; but the designer of a chair displays an expectation of your bearing, a prescription

for the way in which you care to hold yourself upright.

You know well the moral force of posture, how your position in a chair can be construed

as flattering or insulting, how it can convey rapt attention or indifference. The metaphors

for attention in our language demonstrate how deeply the image lies in our consciousness.

To ‘sit up’ is an expression for being alert, for taking notice of whatever is going on. Against

that, the expression to ‘sit back’ is used to denote relaxation, an assumption of comfortable

ease which shades off into complacency. To be serious about resolving things, we speak of

conciliation as ‘sitting down’ and working things out. Even the choice to be seated or

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237 Categories 6b11, Parts of Animals 689b21.

remain seated in a certain situation (regardless of posture) can count as bad manners, a

gesture of arrogance or insolence. Sitting is an inherently expressive act, loaded with the

symbolic meaning of social and political conventions. When posture is added to the

scheme of meaning, the communicative power of the chair must be recognized as considerable.

So intimately are the concepts of chair and posture connected that the ancient philosopher

Aristotle used the normal Greek word for chair (καθεδρα) to designate a sitting

posture. 237 For Aristotle, it seems, the word neither means chair nor posture exclusively but

rather the recognizable and meaningful placement which both share.

The designers of chairs (they need a name: what should we call them? archairtects?)

create the context in which a given posture is expressive or inexpressive, an intended message

or a natural condition struck by default. A person whose back is inclined on 45º will

appear to slouch in a chair designed for sitting up straight. On the other hand, a person

whose back is inclined on 60º will appear natural and comfortable in a chair designed to

accommodate such an angle. No one would consider the posture slouching but rather

relaxed or comfortable. The designer does not invent the posture but the semantic context

of the posture: the designer creates the meaningful framework by which a posture becomes

a gesture.

Seated people are constantly moving. Despite the view that sitting is essentially a

matter of staying put, many chairsnotably those of the second half of the twentieth centuryphysically

encourage movement: swivel chairs in offices, for example. Not only do

they enable the seated person to revolve in an arc but, because they are normally mounted

upon castors, they also facilitate scooting. The personnel who pilot these rolling caroussels

may use the movement to great expressive effect, perhaps dramatically shoving against the

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desk to propel themselves vigorously toward a client. In a home office, one may need to

perform manoeuvres which straighten out the buckling of the carpet beneath the chairodrome.

The design of chairs can accommodate the practical and symbolic extremes which

you least associate with these typically undynamic objects.

A chair is the context for expressive acts and is itself expressive. The design of chairs

facilitates expression by the person seated but is also expressive on its own. In particular,

there are two senses in which the expressiveness of the chair asserts itself.

The first is conceived as a representation of the person seated. It could be called impersonation.

The chair appears to enact a gesture of sitting: it seems to indicate an expressive

manner of sitting. It depends upon an obvious anthropomorphic analogy with the human

form which the chair is designed to support. Thus the legs correspond to the feet of the

sitting person, the backrest equates with the person’s torso, the bottom indicates the thighs

and the armrest the arms and hands. Many are the chairs which invite such an interpretation,

since their forms naturally suggest the proportions of the bodies which they accommodate.

When empty, the chair embodies the presence of a seated human. The balance of

structure and upholstery may assist the evocation of a human, almost suggesting the relationship

of skeleton and flesh. This mode of expression can be labelled impersonation or

the ‘figuratively expressive’ and it can be contrasted with the architectonic or the ‘formally


A chair can be seen as impersonating the seated human; but it can also be seen as a kind

of building in its own right, a temple, a ‘seat’ in the archaic sense, with its own architectural

presence independent of the form that it sometimes supports. To recognize this architectonic

autonomy, I propose the term ‘formally expressive’, that is, making an evocative

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238 1 Henry IV 2.4.415

239 All’s Well that Ends Well 2.1.132.

statement as a form in its own right, as the house rather than the person who inhabits

the house. You might think of an armchair from the 1930s done in a neo-Jacobean style

(because Jacobeans only had the upright variety): it does not imitate a person so much as

establish an architectonic volume in space, with bases and sundry grooves and bevels, walls

and columns. The formally expressive is also related to the choice of materials. While the

chair does not resemble a person, the action of sitting can still be reflected by the masses

and substance of the chair. Typically, the softness in the padding suggests the comfort of

retirement: the ampleness of cushions suggests the absorption of one’s cares. Depending

on height and angles, the casing of solid wall to the sides of the chair might suggest defensiveness

and paranoiac withdrawal.

These two perspectives are assumed whenever you make judgements on the symbolic

or expressive capacity of a chair. Every feature can be cross-referenced according to the

variations which the two perspectives encompass. This separation is seldom clear-cut,

since the proportions of all parts have meaningful consequences in both perspectives. It is

seen in the very scale of the chair. A particularly large or small chair involves connotations

on the formal and representational plane. It might suggest grandiosity in relation to a

mighty institution (such that one says: ‘this chair shall be my state’ 238 ) or it might suggest

that the person to be seated within it is very tall or fat. In that regard, most chairs are neutral,

following the nice line in Shakespeare: ‘it is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks’. 239

But while all bottoms have two cheeks, not all chairs have the same shape at all, not even

the elements of the seat proper, the legs, the backrest and the armrest. Not all chairs have

all elements.

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The seat proper is the only feature which all chairs have in common. Even so, the seat may

or may not be well-defined and set apart from the other elements. An example where all

the elements are merged is the beanbag, so much so that you may consider that this giant

poof is not strictly speaking a chair. On the other hand, a log or railway sleeper which

serves as a bench (again, perhaps the bench is not strictly speaking a chair) provides an

example of a seat constituted of no element other than the seat proper. Between these two

unsatisfactory extremes, the seat has infinite variation. They can be thick or thin, broad

or narrow, deep or shallow. They can be rigidly defined in relation to the backrest or their

support; alternatively, they may appear to be of the same nature (as in the continuous sash

of a canvas deck chair) or simply exist as an extra layer of a bulky base (as in the cushion of

the traditional club chair). If the seat is angled back, which offers optimum comfort, the

knees are higher than the pelvis. The ideal inactivity is a decisive remove from the standing

position. The person’s legs and pelvis seem somehow jambed into the location, which holds

the body delightfully.

Legs have apparently never been considered essential for a chair or, at least, a stool. The

thrones of antiquity had walls which solidly linked the seat with the ground. The slab-ended

stool of the middle ages and renaissance had, at best, tiny feet suggested by the excision

of a chunk of wood in the centre of the vertical planks. Club chairs tend to eliminate the

leg, supporting the structure on a large base with castors at the bottom. Umpteen modernist

designs (e.g. Featherstone’s in the 1970s) employed foam rubber construction which

entirely dispensed with legs and any other support extrinsic to the spongy mass supporting

the body. Indeed the notion of a chair having legs implies that it has a structure composed

of differing materials. Legs suggest a framework; and often this is a dominant feature of

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the design. Thus, the legs might be understood as posts which support a separate member,

a lintel, so to speak, mimicking trabeated assembly in architecture. The relationship of the

leg to the frame can be expressed with architectural muscularity: the leg or column can

be asserted by complementation through a forceful entablature. Alternatively, a strong

tradition dating back to the thrones of ancient Egypt exploits the imagery of legs and paws

of beasts, especially goat’s legs (the so-called cabriole) and lion’s paws. The peculiar advantage

of the theriomorphic (animal-like) as opposed to the architectonic is its animation, the

wild and picturesque suggestion of life, the appearance that the furniture can spring across

the room. Such symbolic imagery belongs to both perspectives discussed above. It might

suggest the condition of sitting as an achievement of poise, as of a creature balanced in rest.

Equally, it might suggest the presence of a seated person by inducing upon the chair the

qualities of human nerve and tendon by analogy to those of beasts.

The backrest does not evoke an animate presence in such a literal fashion but, as the

key vertical element meeting your regard, it is nevertheless an important index of the

expressive quality of a chair. The backrest need not be an emphatic member, as when the

design of the chair approaches that of a stool. The backrest can project or recede in terms

of material or proportion. As with the seat, the backrest can be thick or thin, broad or narrow.

In addition to being variably tall or low, the backrest is also frequently a punctured

plane, sometimes only a frame or screen-like affair, as is conventionally applied to kitchen

or dining-room chairs. The extent to which the backrest involves the sense of a frame varies

enormously. For example, the backrest might either continue the line of the seat or

the line of the rear leg. Though often cued by practical construction, these variations also

create strongly expressive effects. The tall and narrow backrest without upholstery but a

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crisp grid suggests discipline and severity. In regard to our two expressive categories, the

suggestion belongs primarily to evoking the conditions of a moodthat is, the rigidity and

regularity of the structure metaphorically evoke stiffness and unyielding uprightnessbut

it also belongs somewhat to that figurative realm of impersonation in which you might imagine

an exceedingly puritanical and formal character sitting at table with books pinched

under the arms so as to restrict movement.

The armrest is the most gestural of the four elements, directly expressesing the position

of the arm and sometimes the hand as well. This level of impersonation is in contrast, say,

to that of the legs, which might coincidentally express the position of the seated person’s

legs but perform a function which presupposes no necessary alignment with, or reflection

of, the sitting person’s legs. The armrest, however, is predicated on a logical and practical

correspondence with the human limb, because that is its unique purpose. Hence, when the

armrest emphatically surges forward, it suggests the extroverted claiming of space, perhaps

an audacious arrogation of territory habitually sought by the extroverted or even pugnacious,

as if literally demonstrating a ‘forward’ personality. By contrast, the armrest which

emerges only slightly from the backrest will tend to suggest the shunning of the space in

front of the chair, a withdrawn action of self-confinement performed variously by the modest

or the nervous. Such gestures of presumption or shyness do not result from a literal

conditioning of the anatomy. For example, a high armrest may appear to encase the sitting

person behind a protective wall or rails; but the effect on the person’s anatomy is indeed

the reverse: a high armrest usually causes the arms to spread laterally, so that the elbows

project beyond the chair. A lower armrestwhich you might expect to suggest greater

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opennessinstead allows the elbows to cleave more closely to the body and so causes a

less bombastic gesture.

Armrests are arguably the most expressive part of a chair just because they are the

most unnecessary. Anyone can sit without an armrest. For some purposes, it even seems

in bad taste for the chair to have armrests, as in a dining-room chair or kitchen chair. The

action of the forearms is assumed to be engaged with the table surface. It therefore seems

clumsy and illogical to want to pin down the forearm or elbow upon any point of another

structure. The relation between table and chair would seem stiff and uncomfortable. You

would not want to be too close to the table. Most actions in eating would have to be performed

with the elbows avoiding their support, so that either the arms would have to be

uncomfortably outstretched or, if you are sufficiently formal or skinny, to be tucked in between

the body and the armrest. Similar observations can be made of office chairs. It has

been well understood in the twentieth century that the armrests of the office chair need to

be short in order not to encumber the person’s access to the desk or to become bruised by

bashing the edge of the desk. Normally, they are only conceived for giving support to the

elbow rather than the whole forearm.

Armrests indulge us. The humerus is assumed to hang too heavily on the shoulder.

Support from beneath the entire body is not enough. You need to be propped up from

the sides as well. You want to be cradled not only around your backside but to have every

extremity sustained against the onus of gravity. Given the indulgence of providing this

support, great expressiveness in posture is possible. A person can rest the head against a

fist or can roll the head over one shoulder, inclining the whole body in that direction. The

armrest affords stability in a great range of asymmetrical postures. Thus, while ‘boxing in’

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the structure and making it appear more rigidly frontal than a chair without armrests, the

seated person has a richer context for irregular poses.

Despite their highly gestural presence, armrests are frequently conceived as integral to

the structural framework of the chair. The design of chairs is more likely to establish a link

between the armrest and the legs than the armrest and the seat and backrest. To be sure,

the armrest can belong to the same fabric and rhythmic structure as both the backrest and

seat. This is true, for instance, of moulded plastic chairs. To an extent, it is also true of club

chairs, in which the distinction between the seat, backrest and armrest is negated by the

sameness of fabric. But in both cases, the armrest is nevertheless integral with whatever

structural properties emerge elsewhere in the design. In chairs with a visible wooden

frame, the armrest typically articulates the horizontal and vertical argument of support

which bears, so to speak, the logic of the whole chair.

The presence of a visible frame can have two symbolic consequences. On the one hand,

the articulation of legs and base can enhance the notion of support: it can represent the act

of sitting, since the one element is seen to sit upon the other. In this way, the frame has an

architectural presenceas of classical buildingswhere the forms acknowledge the gravitational

bearing which one part has on the other. The upper surfaces have something dynamically

beneath them: there is stuffing in the cushions and the cushions themselves rest

upon a base, albeit a mattress with springs. In turn, this will rest upon a platform and the

platform will rest upon the legs. The independence of the frame thus enhances the complementary

relationship between each part and, as in classical architecture, the result may

have monumentality. This use of the frame belongs to the classical tradition, that tradition

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so thoroughly predicated upon the majesty and architectural solidity of entablatures, columns

and bases.

On the other hand, however, the frame can assume a tensile genius and perform the

opposite symbolic function. The frame can exist as an independent network of horizontal

and vertical members which enables fabrics to be stretched between the bars. The motif

could be described as ‘slinging’ rather than sitting. It may have begun with hammocks and

deckchairs; but slung fabric gained enormous prestige in the twentieth century through

Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair. All connotations of support from underneath can be removed.

There is no need for any sense of volume to be attached to the surfaces upon which

one sits. There is no room for the motif of the cushion, either integral to the chair or even

placed somewhere within the context of its suspended planes. How gratuitous does a cushion

seem in this context! A cushion is alien to the suspension frame and would seem in bad

taste upon such a tensile platform. The elegance of a suspended stretch of fabric is assumed

to lie in its lack of rigidity. Whereas the traditional means of support had always required

a solid platformwhich then had to be softened by layers of fluffthe stretch of fabric

slung between two horizontal bars would accommodate the lumps and bumps of buttock

and elbow by automatically ceding to all points of pressure while giving even sustenance

throughout. What bliss in the tension! Here is support without mass, softness without

flabbiness, yielding without artificial mollification, tautness of line without hardness of surface.

The formula is ingenious if only it can be made to produce comfort.

All suspension chairseven those which are comfortablelook uncomfortable. But

because the reason lies in the symbolic, it has long escaped designers and the design-loving

public alike. Suspension chairs look uncomfortable because the tenuousness with which

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the fabric is stretched out seems inevitably to cast reflections on the condition of sitting

upon it. Whereas the traditional means of support had signalled secure accommodation

on top of a well-bolstered mass, the new means of support signal a precarious transfer of

stresses from one tensile material to another. The design celebrates a feat of nimble engineering.

Alas, that virtuosity in meshing the new materials could never allay all anxieties.

It could never reassure the poor old businessman or intellectual, referred to affectionately

by the painter Matisse, who needs a good painting and a good armchair (bon fauteuil) after

returning from a hard day’s work?

The two extremes have infinite variations between them. If the backrest and seat of

the suspension chair are always predisposed to sag, the concave curvature nevertheless

remains a feature common among chairs with ample padding and upholstery. Fundamentally,

all features can be straight or curve inward or outward. The legs, the backrest, the

seat and the armrest can all curve one way or the other. Indeed, even the cushion can be

conceived in two ways: it can be seen either as a convex shape whose bouncy bulk always

bulges outward at the point of greatest thickness or as a wad of receptive substance capable

of being depressed and expressing its accommodating nature by concavity. It is a question

of elasticity; and in chair languagewhere a human is involvedthe drama of forms

projecting or receding has positive and negative associations, amounting to a difference

between ‘sitting upon’ the chair or ‘being couched within’ the chair. In addition, the curvature

of one part may or may not agree with that of another part. A cupped seat may be

juxtaposed to an aerodynamic backrest or vice versa. Furthermore, the curvature of either

element can function across the chair, along the central axis of the chair or, indeed, it can

do both, creating a spherical effect or a bowl-like effect. Some of these possibilities are

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240 See Gisela Richter, The Furniture of the Greeks,

Etruscans and Romans, Oxford 1974.

more logical than others, depending on the relation which any element bears to a given part

of the anatomy.

In short, what can a chair not do? The variety of these common but complex artefacts is

rich and bewildering, even in a description within the simplest parameters. If the borders

between chairs, couches, beds, benches and stools were also to be considered, too many

words would be needed. Can you ever generalize about the nature of the chair? Can you

say: a chair is best if it expresses this or that? Can you imagine a chair in its essential function

and form without merely cursing through hundreds of variants, hundreds of historical

developments and changes through technology?

From earliest times, the chair has distinguished itself among other items of design in its

tensile construction. While the solid and monumental thrones of ancient Greece and

Rome have been mentioned, the development of light wooden chairschairs much as we

know them todaytook place in antiquity too. 240 The form with curving legs and arching

back was given a name whose etymology indicates a bending or reclining action (κλισμος)

which we have already considered. To some extent, the form seems derived from Egyptian

precedents. The Egyptian royal chairs were not quite so curvilinear and lacked the graceful

poise of the later Greek examples; but the Egyptian chairs had also acknowledged the

gesture of a nimble stance by incorporating animal’s feet at the base of the leg.

In abstracting this theriomorphic motif, the Greeks created an item which could figuratively

pounce, which was animated with tension, as of the nerve and tendons in the legs of

beasts. But at the same time, the Greeks refined the shape to take advantage of the nature

of the material, wood. Thus, the arching of the back in profile and the curve in plan were

fashioned in a way that respected the inherently light and strong quality of timber. While

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the mainstream aesthetic of the ancients was conditioned by the architectural sensibility

attached to marble, by massivity and the carriage of weight through emphatically rigid

post and lintel motifs, the chair bears witness to another area of Hellenic tradition: this

might be characterized as the rhapsodic-feline rather than the majestic-authoritative of

architectonic form.

As well as building the Parthenon and the Erectheum, the Greeks devoted themselves

to the non-architectonic beauty of the human form. We might think of their ceramics: the

shapes of their vessels were codified and earnestly respectful of horizontals, well built-up

in logical stages upon the potter’s wheel and embellished with handsome painted designs

whose patterns emphasize disciplined architectonic form. But when you look at the scenes

represented upon them, you see humans and animals painted inside the geometric borders

in a different aesthetic idiom, a love of slender limbs and feet, a delight in lithe and

flexible bodies in asymmetrical actions, a fascination of the curves of the flesh, perchance

revealed beneath flinging veils, a relish in one foot not resting its heel on the ground. Nor

is it any coincidence that the Greek vase painters did not develop modelling in their twodimensional

art. If not restricted to purely decorative ornament, their vision was devoted

to the nimble and tensile qualities of bodies; and the restriction to drawing in outline and

silhouette was no limitation but the perfect expression for the qualities sought.

The chairs of the ancient Greeks reflect this organic-linear sensibility. They are objects

which might well be represented in schematic outline. Uncomplicated, elegant and

smoothly defined, they suggest the tautness of a lithe human body, that balance of delicacy

and strength which we know to have been the ideal for both aesthetic and athletic prowess.

The chairs of the Greeks have a certain gymnastic poise: they are not merely ‘animal’ but

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reflect the desire for perfection in equilibrium (ισορροπια) and the harmonious. They may

be compared with other items of wooden construction among that brilliant people, particularly

the musical instruments represented in a good number of lyres. The chairs of the

Greeks always look as though they might have been designed to accommodate gut strings

and to resonate when moved or ‘plucked’.

The whole history of civilization may be represented through the chair. Significant

parts of our past did not cultivate chairs; and the lack of sophisticated chairs in such epochs

is telling. Such, apparently, were the middle ages. You look in vain for those scenes upon

the Greek vases. Slab-ended stools seem to have been standard furniture for sitting. And

while chairs were certainly cultivated much more during the renaissance, they appear to

have been commonly arranged in combination with stools, reflecting the hieratic order

of personages in the room. Disappointingly, moreover, the design of renaissance chairs is

often less imaginative than that of the stools. Whereas the stools might have employed a

handsome tensile X-motif for the legs, the chairs were typically ‘box-like’ with straight legs

linked by horizontal stretchers. All joins were at right angles and the backrest resembled

a wall.

The later stages of the baroque brought about developments in the rhythmic outline of

chairs and, above all, in the use of upholstery. Some softening of the hard wooden form

had been practiced in ancient Greece by means of a cushion for the seat; but the idea that

the chair is essentially a surface for sitting upon had somehow never informed the design

in its structure. The surface was now privileged as a soft and yielding realm of comfort: the

whole chair could become a kind of cushion, with little structure being apparent if not the

legs. Backrest, armrest and seat would be married by a single design of fabric and, in the

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2.1 Chairs


absence of wooden definition, the chair seemed to become an envelope for its own rhythmic

internal volumes.

Especially in the eighteenth century, legs and outline would corroborate the effect,

spilling out, springing up and heaving lavishly. The confidence and caprice of the age

called for the display of elegance and virtuosity; but this transcended merely stylistic attributes.

The function of the chair was destined to change. Not only were chairs used

for eating and writing but certain types were designed and used solely for sitting in areas

especially designated for sittingthe ultimate purpose of a chairwithout any need to

conspire around a table or serve at a bench. Now, in the eighteenth century, the chair

would find unprecedented autonomy in the modes of intimate address and the gentle airs

cultivated in the coteries of literati and savants through the worldly salons of Europe. The

chair no longer insisted on upright posture but suggested an ample horizontal abandon in

that restful lounging that we expect today. The distinction between lounge-room chairs

and dining-room chairs had emerged.

Many technological developments underlie the subsequent history of chairs, from the

invention of the coil spring in the nineteenth century to the application of polypropylene

since World War II. Behind these developments, the perceived requirements for chairs

with increasingly specialized uses drove demand. One of the most difficult tasks for a

design historianas for an art historianis to determine whether the vision for new

commodities caused the technological advances or whether the advances in technology

inspired the new designs and art forms. The spectacular proliferation of chairs makes us

speculate: kitchen chairs, waiting-room chairs, lounge-room chairs, garden chairs, office

chairs, class-room chairs, seating for the theatre and so on, none of them interchangeable.

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You will never sit in them all. Within any single category, many variations can be observed.

The number of quite different garden chairs, for instance, is bewildering. They may be

constructed in metal or wood, with or without canvas or cushions, may be folding, solid

and rigid, may be clattery or soft, upright or recumbent and so on. The same may be said of

lounge-room chairs and office chairs.

And because the development of so many chairs characterizes most activities, we have

developed a veritable language of chairs (chairese?). Each age may be scrutinized by the

type of chair which it provided for this or that activity, rather in the way that architectural

space has always given an indication of the social and moral priorities of the culture which

created it. Indeed, architecture, being the context for chairs, may be considered the basis

of our language: it provides the grammar and syntax, the rules of composition. The chairs

themselves constitute a kind of vocabulary. Each is a discrete unit of meaning which is

conditioned by its happy or infelicitous combination with other items of furniture. People

may display a kind of illiteracy in placing a cowering padded chair beside a looming diningroom

table or a hungry dining chair beside an oppressed coffee table. But only the proliferationin

both number and varietyof such items of furniture has created the scope for

such semantic richness, with all its attendant risk of paradox and maladroitness.

Because of the variety of chairs, it may appear difficult to conceive of the language as

universal. The chairs do not constitute a language so much as speak one: they are the actors

who represent the character of the interior or the people inhabiting the interior. In

some cases, the chairs are the key protagonists in a room; in others, the chairs are hieratically

convoked around a table which assumes authority. In all events, even if gravitating

around a table, the chairs are the active participants in the interior: they either serve the

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2.1 Chairs


seated people directly or, in the absence of people, the chairs act as silent proxies, abiding

even in the dead of night and awaiting the cleaner in the morning or the working person

when he or she returns at night. These understudies still recite their lines tirelessly, forever

signalling their identification with the human form.

Today, we live in a world of chairs. They are everywhere and we wonder what has gone

wrong, what destitution and impoverishment do you behold, if a room lacks chairs. They

occupy some part of almost every architectural space ever devised, if not the staircase or

the lift-well. You have to go into the country to avoid them. Sure, many people do: they

like to sit on a mossy bank and get a damp bottom, as in the evocation of Marino in the previous

section. But this rustic affectation is an exception proving the rule. Chairs are seen

as essential to life: they have an importance which is conceived as transcending the cultural;

because their ergonomic status attaches itself to the fundamental verities of human

nature, both psychological and biological. People are assumed to be incapable of standing

for long periods. Our chairs have made us very dependent upon support for the bottom:

our feet are most expressive if they are relieved of the weight of the body and can fidget.

You paradoxically see the seated person as more active than a standing person, less

anomalous in a professional situation than a standing person, less apt to seem indisposed.

Like an organ player capable of using the pedal keys as well as the hands, the seated person

can devolve greater psychological attention upon a task and exercise adroit manipulation

by virtue of relief from the standing position. This is not only true of obviously businessoriented

situations, such as being at a desk or conference table: it is equally true of people

at a party, since new arrivals in the room are seldom psychologically comfortable until

they have managed to find a seat whence they may gesticulate, laugh and slap the armrest.

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Unless of course they get stuck with the wrong company; and what tactical crisis lies there!

Action seems more natural and less presumptuous when it proceeds from a chair: it seems

authorized by the person’s status, the right to the space as established by the chair.

While standing may signify either an honour or an indignity, sitting is always comfortable:

it always ‘sites’ you, locating your action in a context most associated with comfort.

But the final irony with chairs, the detail which makes them among the most fascinating

items of furniture, is the typical contrast with these psychological or social perceptions on

the one handlet us call them ‘the symbolic’and, on the other hand, the appearance and

structure of the chair, the ‘formal’ dimension. As noted, the development of the chair has

traditionally favoured tensile construction. This item which bestows so much authority

upon the seated person, which brings him or her a sense of place in the room with heightened

dignity, is itself very movable, usually rather light, a kind of toy, a clattery appendage,

a prosthetic for the posterior, something either hollow of stuffed with fluff, either sprung

with thongs or coils and wrapped around in fabric.

Whereas other items of furniture acquire presence by dint of massivity (for example,

the chest, the sideboard, the wardrobe, the bed), the chair has little natural architectonic

gravity. Ancient thrones aside, it cannot evoke the renaissance palazzo, the tower, the landmark,

the sarcophagus: it is forever a complex formeven if not incoherentwith an evocation

only of the human frame, the nervous interjection in discourse, the lethargic sprawl

of the television addict. With few exceptions, little use was made of the classical language

of form which roots the object to its site, which formally establishes place in the manner

of classical architecture. The chair may be majestic or severe; but these qualities do not

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accrue by dint of architectural monumentality: they arise either through abstract formal

rigour or reference to a disciplined gesture.

The enormous prestige of the chair among designers relates to the sculptural purity

with which the stabilizing-dignifying function is realized without mass. The chair calls

for a purity of means, no borrowing from traditionally volumetric objects, such as buildings.

Even though you still want chairs to act heftily, to suggest the might and authority of

the seated person, you do not readily want to resort to an idiom foreign to the thing itself.

There is little scope for cornices, columns, brackets and so on, which already Pugin made

fun of. The chair must always be that vessel in the room into which you pour the human

body, that static contraption which props you up. It is rare for the design of chairs not to assume

autonomy within the interior on account of their lack of formal correspondence with

anything else in the room, if not the table especially designed to accompany them or the

curtains which employ the same material as that of the upholstery. In the rest of the room,

you should look in vain for the prodding diagonals, the eccentric curves, the bulky but light

and spongy volumes.

Consequently, the prestige of the chair among designers also relates to its autonomy, as

if superbly anomalous in a given context. If a philosopher wants to cite an object, it will be

a chair, the thing par excellence, just as K would do in art. But for us, the chair is a capsule

of evocation which respects itself first and only thereafter establishing relationships beyond

itself. Every chair in whatever context brings with it its prior existence on the drawing

board: it is never wholly absorbed or appropriated by the interior as is the cabinet, the

wardrobe, the central table or the sideboard. Such items have a pertinence to the interior in

their very orientation, since they usually attach themselves to some fixed point in the room

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241 2 Henry IV1.2.38.

242 Henry VIII 4.2.3.

whence they look out with custodial pride. This includes the table in the middle of the

room, which assumes an axial importance in defining the space of the room. But the chair

always has an air of having been conceived through its own 360º, a sculptural construct

beyond time and place.

Yet this abstract thing, apt to assume arbitrary placements in the interior, must deliver

a flattering measure of fixed and established purpose to the seated person. Even though

you no longer wish to celebrate throne and sceptre, the need for pomp does not go away.

Quaintly or otherwise, a chair must elevate; and we still find plenty that offer middle-class

barons and baronesses the coronation of their tranquillity and serve their entertainment.

The chair must make us all impresarios: you must feel potent and impressive; and the chair

should express the expectation to the point where it constitutes a kind of authority for

believing it.

The ironies of the chair must be its inspiration. A dichotomy emerges between public

and domestic, between the chair of state and the seat upon which one casually experiences

day-to-day emotions, with no expectation of mighty consequences. The extremes are expressed

by Shakespeare who, on one hand, is absorbed ‘in that chair where kings and

queens are crown’d’ 241 and, on the other hand, simply commands: ‘reach me a chair: so,

now, methinks I feel a little ease’. 242 In both cases, the chair is a haven of privilegewhether

at the level of practical convenience or as a symbol of supreme assurance.

No matter how normal or common chairs are in today’s interior, there is something

alien about them. They are neither a container nor really a contraption but something in

between: they are an instrument of relaxation, a prosthetic to float the buttocks, a vehicle

to liberate the knees. The prestigious armchair is a hallowed temple, an object-in-space

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that creates a kind of sacred grove around it, with more sculptural independence than the

wardrobe or cabinet. But chairs defer more than any other piece to the human body: they

are the true pedestal of the human sculpture. They speak so much for the solitary human,

mounted within it and forming a strange articulated cell together with the body. Like the

body, they are a parley of weights, all joins and curves tipping gravity and muscle back and

forth with nervous comfort.

While it is true that you think of chairs as normal and common, they can hardly be

called natural. No other animal sits in the way we do upon chairs. The quadrupedsto

whom we most forcefully give instructions to ‘sit’really only squat on their hind legs. To

perch square upon the buttocks seems a uniquely human invention. Small wonder, then,

that the device which we contrive to facilitate the action strikes you as a little artificial.

When quadrupeds sit (or squat) they too rest in a condition between lying and standing:

they have the same balance of alertness and relaxation, the same ability to move promptly

or to slouch further. But the animals can take their sitting anywhere: the posture is all there

is; the locus does not define the behaviour. Oddly, dogs love chairs, even though they need

them not. They do not recognize the leverage to thigh and spine for informing a posture

but only the station, the site, the concept of a ‘seat’ without ergonomic consequence. It

is where humans and all their human smells abide. Nor do they really sit in the chair but

slouch or curl up to sleep. Dogs, if you let them, would obtain the same relish by sleeping

on your bed. They recognize the privilege of elevation.

Chairs define (and therefore also restrict) the meaning of space in an interior. In Japanese

and Korean tradition, the absence of chairs provided multi-functional spaces and

allowed the floor in each room to be colonized freely. Modern people are only likely to

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perform certain acts if the authority of furniture grants the mandate. The chairs tell you

where it is proper to sit. It is indecorous to seat yourself where there are no chairs. Of

course, chairs can be moved: they do not have total permanence and always have much less

permanence than wardrobes and so on; but there is always some audacity involved in shifting

a chair, especially an armchair. You are rearranging a whole tradition there. Especially

in a house which is not your own, the shifting of chairs is impertinent or provocative, literally

to the point of abrasiveness.

But with whatever rigidities, chairs cannot now be deleted from the domestic statutes.

Authority is now so vested in these items that they have unprecedented ubiquity. The

cheaper and more common they are, the more pervasively do they command and instruct.

We do not resent their empirefor it kisses our behindand we trust that in its future

development, we will be yet better served.

2.2 Beds

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243 Just so, Plato touchingly informs us, did Socrates

lie down for the last time, having taken the poison

in the cell. After telling the men not to bewail

his fate but to be brave, ‘he walked about and,

when his legs were heavy, he lay down on his back

(κατεκλιθη υπτιος), for that is what the watchman

advised’, Phaedo 117e. Earlier in the dialogue,

Socrates had sent his wife away, the distressed

Xanthippe, so as not to perturb the flow of ideas:

he sat on his couch [or bed] (ανακαθιζομενος εις

την κλινην) and rubbed his leg, ibid. 60b. The

status of all Greek beds as a hybrid of our bed and

couch is discussed later.

244 There is some semantic strain in defining a bed

either to include the bedclothes or not. Some

would like to see the bed as essentially the

structure, perhaps including the mattress but

probably not the pillow and certainly not the

bedclothes. Designers of beds would argue that

the bedclothes are not their affair and that their

contribution should ideally be universal enough to

accommodate a large variety of ‘interpretations’

in the bedclothes. To such designers, it seems a

simple matter: just as the design of a shoe does not

include the sock, so the bed does not involve the

bedclothes. Yet the situation is not so simple. A

bed does not become the thing that it is until used

for sleeping. It seems mechanically reductive

to want to expropriate the bedclothes from the

institution that demands them to achieve its

functional identity. It seems almost as wrong

as not wanting to acknowledge the presence of

cushions on chairs or to see their upholstery as

not integral to them.

Could there be an arena more personal than the bed? It is a soft platform, which we experience

with greater intimacy than any other piece of furniture. Not only do we lie directly

upon itwithin it, in factbut every part of our bodies comes into contact with some part

of it. Unless we are very stoic and are accustomed to lying flat on our backs, 243 we bury our

heads in the pillow: our face plunges into the yielding fabric and we are enveloped snugly in

a pouch of textile. Upon no other piece of furniture would anyone want to rest his or her

face. It is the special privilege of the bed to accommodate us so completely; nor does any

other piece of furniture cover us up, acting like clothes, the protective layers that bear directly

upon our bodies. 244 There is an extraordinary proximity between bed and person that

makes the bed an institution of intimacy.

The special status of the bed as a piece of furniture is expressed philologically by our use

of its very name. ‘Bed’ expresses a state, not merely an object; and so we have no need for

the definite article. No one would ‘go to chair’ in the way that they ‘go to bed’ every night.

To be sure, some other objects share a similar status. For example, there is an expression

‘go to table’; but it is now archaic and, in any case, well represents the point. The notion of

‘table’ in the archaic phrase meant the dinner: it even designated the condition of being

gathered to eat the dinner. Bed is a state. We need no article. We just say ‘how nice it is to

be in bed’. There is no need to say ‘the bed’ or add a personal pronoun’my bed’or to

specify ‘this bed’: bed is generalized, representing the situation, abstracted from notions of

place or possession.

Bed as a state does not even need to be expressed with a dative, though it normally is.

We normally say ‘in bed’ or ‘to bed’ but these prepositions are not absolutely necessary.

While it is perhaps normal to say, particularly in a narrative context (e.g. after a hard day’s

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245 Again, our consciousness may be checked by

common language: we say that we are ‘in’ bed

rather than ‘on’ bed; and, if we want to use the

preposition ‘on’, we have to say ‘on the bed’, a

phrase whose article somehow indicates distance

and impermanence, perhaps the temporary

placement of a book or cat rather than a sleeping


work): ‘how nice it is to be in bed’, it is equally correct, in a more conceptual context, to

say: ‘bed is a nice place to be’ or ‘bed is something that I love’, meaning the ‘condition of

lying in bed’not this particular bedis a nice experience or I love being in bed. In all

events, no one ever says ‘chair’ without an article, the article being, of course, the telltale

sign of specificity, an inhospitality to the generic. In the way we use the very word, ‘chair’

resists being understood as the condition of being in the chair, that is, being seated. Nor,

really, does the word ‘seat’ offer any grammatical parallels with ‘bed’. Bed is not just a piece

of furniture but an experience.

There are undoubtedly deep social and psychological reasons for this, in effect, an elevation

of the symbolic status of the bed relative to other objects of furniture. It may have

something to do with the fact that any preposition is somewhat equivocal as an accurate

description of our physical position relative to the bed. We are on the bed, on top of it, in

the sense that it is essentially a horizontal plane that supports our outstretched bodies

above it (obviously never below or to the side etc.). But it is more normal to consider ourselves

in the bed, that is, under the covers. Even in tropical climes, some slight form of covering

is normally available which justifies the allusion to enclosure. 245 Since no other piece

of furniture wraps around us, the action of the bed distinguishes itself as complex, a conjunction

of factors, and is more easily characterized as the resultant condition rather than

any of the details in physical terms.

But the key difference between our conception of bed and other pieces must relate to

the constellation of attitudes and associations that the condition evokes. Bed is somehow

less artificial than categories of pieces such as chairs, shelves and tables. Anthropologically

speaking, it is infinitely fundamental. Whereas pre-literate folk could proceed higher

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up the food chain without tables, shelves and chairs, they could not exist without a place

for sleeping. At all times, we have needed where to lay our head. A spot on the ground may

suffice, just as dogs might use; but even those canines who have followed us for scores of

millennia select their spot carefully, sometimes preparing it with some scratches on the

soil. The evolution of the bed follows from this animalistic stage, going from the blanket

a piece of covering which protected the sleeper from below and aboveto the structure

which lifted the sleeper from the earth and depended on a separate item, a blanket, to

insulate from above. Beds are quite the primary piece of furniture. In a rented room, you

might be able to do without chairs because you can sit on the bed; but you could never really

sleep on a chair, and the bed is needed (even if only a futon) to spare you from sleeping

unpleasantly on the floor.

The bed is proverbially linked to the abode. It is perhaps the only part of the house that

rivals the key architectural featureswalls and roofin epitomizing the domiciliary state.

‘To have a roof over one’s head’ is a popular locution that makes the roof your own, rather

than the roof over the town hall or a factory. But so is the phrase ‘bed and breakfast’, only

this is applied specifically to the hotel, the transitory abode of travellers. Thus: ‘where will

you get a bed in Venice?’ Perhaps such phrases stem from the practice of renting the bed

cheaply in a dormitory: the phrase reflects the reality that the payment does not cover the

room so much as the bed itself. The room, after all, is being paid for equally by everyone

else who happens to be staying at the same hostel. Only the bed is the site specifically procured

by the individual, just as today’s breakfast is not eaten by anyone but the person paying

for it. So the holidaymaker buys bed and breakfast, not roof and table.

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It is equally true of people whose lives do not revolve around a family. You might think that

‘bed’ has most meaning for settled folk and least for bohemians and tear-away bachelors.

But for such people, ‘bed’ has special significance, for they really only live at home when

they are in bed. They go out to work and go out for dinner. Holidays consist of travel and

days spent at home are rare. The nightly sojourn in bed is the only typical time spent at

home. Lying in bed is a domestic compulsion that prevails in spite of all affectations. There

is no other item of furniture so critical to the physiological economy of the individual. Not

even the eating table has such a catholic empire because, while people can strictly speaking

eat anywhere, they can only sleep in a bed or some substitute, like a couch. In affluent westernized

countries, it is a universal circumstance, regardless of your mood. The bed caters

for the involuntary sloth that aggrieves the limbs, just as it attends the racing ideas of the

sleepless mind.

But if the key difference between our conception of ‘bed’ and other pieces relates to

the constellation of attitudes and associations which the condition evokesrather than

just the circumstance of lyingwhat is so peculiar about the condition of being in bed?

As with most categories of furniture, the use to which pieces are put varies. A chair can

be used for watching television, eating with others politely or indulgently around a table,

conducting a meeting to discuss important business, sitting at a desk or a counter referring

people as to where to go to find lingerie, directing a film, placing one’s clothes after work

when one is too lazy to fold them up and put them in them back in the wardrobe. What

hope is there of finding some community of associations in all this?

Beds are the context for sleeping. Sure, you can sleep elsewhere; and there is certain

prestige in doing so on a towel, for example, at a sandy beach in the sunshine. Less

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246 The moral standard does not cover all forms of

lying down for all purposes. Many forms of lying

down are considered agreeable on picnics and so

on, especially when they involve conversation.

It is interesting to speculate, however, that the

ancients enjoyed the horizontal state much

more freely. When philosophers discussed, it

seems to have been optional to remain vertical

or horizontal. Consider Phaedrus’ invitation

to Socrates in the idyllic landscape scene in

the dialogue of his name: ‘There is shade there

and a moderate breeze and grass to sit on (ποα

καθιζεσθαι) or, if we like (η αν βουλ’μεθα), to lie

down (κατακλιθηναι)’, Phaedrus 229b. We soon

learn which choice Socrates made, since he refers

later to the lovely grass and how lying one’s head

upon it (κατακλινεντι την κεφαλην) is delightful,

ibid. 230c.

attractively, people also go to sleep in their chairs. Beds are not the unique context for

sleeping. But these examples of sleeping outside the conventional context of the bed are

telling. The bed is the institution, the established locus, for sleeping. To go outside the institution

requires licence, a change in the person’s ethos, either through exhibitionism,

shamelessness, fatigue or that hedonistic indulgence which makes sleep an ostentatious

recreation, as when people do it by the pool among other refreshments. We are fundamentally

socialized in a way that makes us embarrassed to encounter sleeping bodies. 246 We

want them rather to do it somewhere by themselves. Preferably, people should sleep in a

bed in their own bedroom.

It is strange, because sleeping is more natural or more primary than any other posture:

it is the only position that you could achieve as a baby. You had to be cajoled and taught

to sit without tumbling; and staying erect is the first sign of athletic prowess. You never

needed to be shown how to go floppy in the limbs and allow them to be disposed as sleep

demands. And true to the naturalness of sleeping postures, people are ideally unaware when

they sleep: it requires no thinkingcan sustain none, else you would be awakeand the

comatose suspension of all powers lets you revert to an infantile configuration of limbs,

even the most muscular or the most drawn by a life-time’s attrition. In bed, you make the

prawn or sprawl with arms around the head like a bub, have no sustained rectitude, are

helpless, inactive and docile to all but reverie or the irresponsible pleasure of the dream.

All these regressive connotations are unacceptable to the social presence. Small wonder that

people become so resentful to the loud importunity of the alarm clock in the morning. The

pedantic clock could well be dashed with violence by the primitive human genius who is so

rudely rent from the somnolent childhood of the night.

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247 Comedy of Errors 3.2.17. The bed as an image of

the violated institution of marriage is common in

Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The Duchess says to York:

‘thou dost suspect That I have been disloyal to

thy bed’, Richard II 5.2.105; and Diana declares

her bed to be ‘defiled’, All’s Well That Ends Well

5.3.305. The bed features memorably in Othello,

with Iago’s dreadful advice: ‘Do it not with

poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she

hath contaminated’, 4.1.221 and especially 4.3

and 5.1–2. The bed also features in a scenario

dealing specifically with incest in Hamlet, ‘the

incenstuous pleasure of his bed’, 3.3.90, and ‘the

rank sweat of an enseamed bed’, 3.4.92 ff.

248 This is certainly a sense of the word considerably

more ancient than Shakespeare. See Pindar’s

description of the fiery Clytaemnestra, given

over to others’ beds (ετερο λεχει δαμαζομεναν),

Pythian Odes 11.24. In the Septuagint, the Greekspeaking

Jews also invoke the image of the bed in

describing adultery, even though the Authorized

Version does not indicate it. Thus, where we

have in our Authorized Version: ‘if thou hast

gone to another instead of thy husband’, Numbers

5.20, the Septuagint has: ‘if another gives his

bed to you (εδοκε τις την κοιτην αυτου εν σοι)’.

See also Leviticus 18.20, and the extraordinary

phrase ‘if any man’s seed of copulation go out

from him’, for which the Greek is: ‘seed of his

bed (κοιτη σπερματος)’, ibid. 15.16. There is

another interesting English word in Paul, for

which the Greek is ‘bed’: ‘let us walk honestly, as

in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not

in chambering and wantonness...’ Romans 13.13.

The ‘chambering’ is in fact ‘in beds (κοιταις)’.

In this sense, the bed tells us that there is logic in our euphemism of sleep, as in sleeping

with someonethat is, having sexual intercoursewhich is also expressed as ‘going to

bed with someone’. While our curiosity may not mind encountering a spectacle of copulation

or masturbation, it causes embarrassment for most, certainly for individuals in a social

context. We have to set up a situation with sophisticated patterns of narrative in order to

justify the spectacle and, even then, we are dealing with an artificial representationsuch

as in film or poetryand not a reality under the open sky or in the waiting lounge at the

railway. The community absolutely forbids anyone presenting others with an unsolicited

sexual spectacle, which is considered indecent. And so, while there are general laws to cover

unwanted snoozing in public places (loitering and vagrancy and so on), there are stricter

and severer laws directly applying to obscenity. Those things, society has it, have to happen

in private by the consensual nature that participation is properly based upon. By that, we

do not demand that they happen in bed but, with its inbuilt privacy, bed is certainly considered

their natural context.

The other side of all this is that bed is exclusive. This was not always so. A seventeenthcentury

sovereign might receive people in the chambre du roi, even though this would be a

very privileged audience. Either way, the bed is confirmed as a political institution. As an

institution of privacy, the bed says keep out. The idea of sleeping in someone else’s bed is

charged with ritualistic horror. It may be granted as an act of charity; but the mark of the

generosity is the feeling that a concession is being made; a hallowed barrier is being lowered,

a gesture for the sake of the beneficiary at the expense of the benefactor. At the extreme,

of course, the idea of sleeping in someone else’s bed’to truant with your bed’, as

Shakespeare puts it 247 means adultery or a de facto variant. 248 Furthermore, the institution

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is profoundly rooted in the inner psychological scenario of the family, whence the social

and conventional meanings related to promiscuity may be seen, in Freudian terms, as derivative.

Within the family, the horror of someone else’s bed is stronger than the horror of

someone else’s bed outside the family (unless perhaps there is some practical reason), just

as the dread of incest is greater than that of adultery.

You do not mind going to a bed in a hotel though the terms of your access to the bed

grant you the privilege of calling it yours for the night. The money that you pay for it legitimates

your entry and denies anyone else’s. Hence there is much excitement in discovering

what it is likefor there is no violationand the hired bed quickly becomes appropriated

as your own. Indeed, the beds in a hotel have nothing of the prostitute: the terms of the

trade are innocent and are more pathetic than meretricious. The hotel is the orphanage

of beds, a place where unclaimed beds go, beds which do not have a family to go to. You

take one on. You adopt one for the night; but it is never well known and can never receive

your identification.

Beds assert the proprietorship of the sleeping person, even when he or she is somewhere

else. The psychological ghost of their privacy wards off intrusion in our imagination: they

are possessed of an apotropaic genius (the spirit of keeping evil demons away) which acts in

our imagination as a potent residue of the repressed memory and conjecture of the parental

bed. What an awesome icon! The parental bed is a place where we dare not venture long

in the imagination. Our amnesia makes its contemplation seem artificial or, in intellectual

terms, archaeological, like the act of digging up an ancient tomb; and when we decipher

the inscription, it reads: go not here, enter not, have no temerity to disturb. In the unconscious,

the parental bed could well be the grave. Our research seems so importunate: could

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we not have more pietas than not to let the memory of our parents rest in peace? Let us

not linger in this haunted unconscious realm too long and morbidly and rather consider

present realities!

Today, the beds go in the bedrooms. Which other room bears the name of the furniture?

There is no chair-room. You use verbs to designate the other rooms, the sitting room,

the dining room. But the bedroom takes the noun and it would be vulgar to say ‘the sleeping

room’, in the same way that you would not want to say the poo-room to describe the toilet.

The institution of beds cannot avoid the logic of the architecture; but which came first?

The bedrooms have been designed as separate spaces because our conception of sleep

hence the beds themselvesdemands separation, political divisions within the household.

These distinctions need not be made. They do not operate in parts of southern Italy, for example,

where the whole family may sleep in a single bed; though this would not include the

extended family. The key separation in the conservative nuclear family is between parents

and children. Whether each of the children has a separate room is a question of space. But

in the square ethos of suburban families, there is no question that the parents sleep apart

from the childrenunless a baby, and even then we worry about sudden deathlest the

bed-mingling encourage some terrible perversity.

The disposition of the beds, of course, defines the relationships. The children’s beds are

single and are normally oriented along the walls. In childhood, a great fear is the shock

of tumbling out of bed during sleep; so we tend to shunt a child’s bed against a wall to

lessen the exposure to this risk. Architecturally, they are marginalized, in the sense that

they belong to the periphery together with the other furniture in attendance, such as the

wardrobes. If not marginalized, they are certainly accorded no special authority beside the

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other pieces. Normally, they are rammed into the corner, so that one side belongs to one

wall while the bedhead and a bedside table belong to the other. It would be a waste of space

to allow access to the beds on three sides. Nothing really justifies the provision of slipperspace

on both sides of a single bed, if not in the fulfillment of the phrase ‘to get out of the

wrong side of bed this morning’.

The disposition of the beds in the master bedroom is very different. Either we are dealing

with a double bed or two singles. Unless the sleeping habits of the couple are incompatible,

the two beds will be shunted together to become a de facto double. And, because it

is impractical to clamber over one side of a double bed to get to the other, space has to be

provided all around the bed, with only the head of the bed attaching itself to the wall. As

a result, the disposition of the bed is not marginalized in any sense but is privileged. In effect,

it occupies the centre of the room while the wardrobes, chairs, even the bedside table,

belong to the perimeter. In this position, it gathers grand prestige and authority.

Nor is this status unwarranted. After all, the primary function of the room is to accommodate

the beds and the sleeping which takes place within them. But the status of the bed

in the master bedroom contrasts so sharply with that of the beds in the children’s rooms

that it can only be interpreted as a reflection of the superior position of the parents relative

to children. Even in somewhat more neutral language, the more grandiose status of the

parental bed expresses the fact that there is a relationship, that the couple sleeps together in

all senses: the unified presence of his and hers states that there is nothing separating mother

and father (a phrase whose protocol of gender is interestingly inverted in the religio-legal

‘man and wife’). Furthermore, it asserts that husband and wife have equal status, since an

asymmetrical sleeping arrangement for concubines would be grotesque.

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We want the layout and appearance of the child’s bedroom to be cute, even for a boy’s, just

in being boyish. In no way should it replicate the ethos of the parents’ bedroom. There is a

genealogy of beds that requires that the child’s be diminutive but distant, neither competition

nor a reproduction. Figuratively speaking, the parental bed has spawned the child’s: it

must then live a separate life with its own personality. In all this, the genitive prowess of the

parental bed is established both formally and historically. It is the Urbett of the household,

the primary and original bed, the institution among all beds in the house with unquestionable

precedence. The bed in the master bedroom has a life predating the arrival of the children.

For the child, it is the essential site of the Oedipal drama.

The pre-existence of the parental bed may also be linked to the fact that the couple’s bed

is probably the first piece of furniture in the household. It has to be established by the couple

before they enter their nuptial home. The bed is consequently the piece par excellence

that symbolizes their marriage. There is a whole literary genre with a tradition dating from

Greece and enjoying great popularity right through the renaissance, the epithalamos, which

testifies to the status of the bed. Epithalamoi are the songs and poems dedicated to the marriage.

The root of the word (thalamos) does not simply mean bed but marriage bed. While

no one writes much poetry of such a type any longer, the tradition has its modern vestiges.

The newly-weds establishing a house seek a bed which carries with it the imagery of the

wedding: the image of the veil is particularly popular. Nor are we simply talking about the

day after. Couples may touchingly seek to maintain the spirit of the wedding through the

imagery of the veiled and lacy bed till late in life; and so they also confer upon the bedside

furniture the gallery of photographs, just as sometimes the wedding photographs end up

garnishing the tomb. Is it not pathetic the way we express the grave as the final place of rest,

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as though it were also a bed, though one out of which you never rise in the morning? People

often die in their beds, just as they may once have been born in their mother’s bed, before

maternity was hospitalized. There is a whole and immediate life cycle enshrined in the

furniture; it is rhapsodically rehearsed every night when you lie down and let out that sigh,

that miniature expiry which spells the soft exhaustion from life. It is so benign, so much a

sigh of relief; but it is also a biologically necessary relinquishing of the vigour of the day.

There is no need to dwell on the morbid…but when someone is about to die, the bed

takes on the quality of an altar. People come to it piously and gather around; soon they will

do so at the funeral. Even those horrible metal beds in hospital acquire the most suitable

gravity that is the hallowed vessel for reverence or pity. And you become vulnerable to so

many feelings concerning death when you are in bed. The remorse that guards the memory

of the departed is more likely to afflict you when you are in bed than when you are sitting

in a chair doing something or about to do something. In bed, you have no protection from

painful remembrance; you have no insulation through the purposefulness of activity or

engagement with others. It is a site of such tranquillity that the noise of memory easily

penetrates and sometimes overwhelms it; and all emotions gather there in a concentrated

degree. You may hope to get to sleep for many reasons.

The ritualistic dimension of beds can never be adequately addressed. A student once

pointed out the conspicuous orientation of beds, noting that his bed was his personal Mecca

in which he would prostrate himself every night, as though doing atheist obeisance to the

Northwest. It matters not if the orientation of the bed is arbitrary in the spiritual sense.

Sure, it is determined on a practical basis by the space between the wardrobe and the door,

the only place large enough for that massive floor-hog; but it still has that orientation and

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249 It is easy to get the impression that in ancient

Greece the constructing of beds had a special

pregnancy in social terms. Plato would not have

been talking as a philistine when he explained

how the labour of the maker of beds (κλινοποιος,

κλινουργος) is superior to that of the artist who

depicts the bed in an image, Republic 596 ff.

250 Antony and Cleopatra 1.4.17.

you have to respect it every night without exception. A clever painting by the Austrailan

artist Jon Cattapan drew out the idea forcefully: he represented the ground plan of a flat in

which he and his wife, Giselle Kett, were staying in New York. The bedroom was distinguishable

by two stick figures lying in the bed with a single orientation. With all its schematization,

the painting communicates the familiar idea of bed more than any illusionistic

Reclining Venus.

In constructing beds, we are participating in the creation of one of the most ritualistic

spaces, whether according to religiously defined marriage or anything else. One remembers,

particularly the importance which the bed must have had in Homeric times through

the detail given in the Odyssey: Odysseus personally builds the bed for Penelope and himself,

despite the fact that he is King of Ithaca, no craftsman (τεχνιτης) or day-labourer (θες)

or oaf (βαναυσος) but the king himself. It seems that Odysseus was happy to perform the

labour that a virile man respectful of his wife and marriage would perform, regardless of

social class. 249

Despite the fact that the household context of beds poignantly expresses the Oedipal

situation, we seem to imagine the bed itself as a great leveller of humanity. It is like sex itself.

King and queen, day-labourer and housemaid perform the sexual act alike and by the

same gratification, even if the nobility have more leisure to indulge before and after. And

the physical theatre of this consummate ritual is, in most ways, invariable; so we may all

‘tumble on the bed of Ptolemy’. 250 Sure, the royal bed may be richly encrusted with chryselephantine

and fabulous carving: sure it may have a superstructure or massive tester and so

on; but these are really only trimmings. The large bed of Sardanapalus is still not likely to

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251 The idea that a peasant’s bed is as good as a king’s

has often been noted; such remarks about rustic

architecture and furniture are commonplace in

pastoral poetry. See Solone’s speech to the Queen

in Delfino’s tragedy: ‘Dentro a privato albergo

Sicura dormirai, benchè difeso Non sia da guardie

il sonno; E proverai, che il letto Fatto di lane che

non tingon gli ostri, Soave, e non turbato offre il

riposo’, Creso, 4.2.

measure more than two metres by two metres and is therefore essentially the same thing,

regardless of the extras and the kind of room in which it is placed. 251

Of course, similar things can be said of all the king’s tables and chairs (though certainly

not the coffers); but they differ from the bed in two important respects. First, the king’s

tables and chairs are numerous and are without common measure with household items

both in scale and purpose. The chair in front of the television has little in common with the

throne at the court or the myriad chairs surrounding it. Even our dining room table does

not serve banquets for foreign emissaries. But the bed differs in no important respect in the

two situations. And with just a touch of pretension about the design of their bed, the suburban

couple can certainly aspire to belong symbolically to les grands of the baroque, in fact

to exceed it, as so many pilgrims to Versailles are astonished to see how modest in scale are

the loftiest beds in Christendom.

In their bedroom, the couple owns a museum for their sexual empire. It is also a sacred

museumwhence much of the Kitschbecause it is immune from the megalomania of

competitors and establishes the most self-satisfied aura of wholesomeness and completeness.

On whatever scale and with whatever appurtenances, the bedroom has within its four

walls the bed and, in that sense, no one can do better, just as no one can do what we do better.

Through the bedroom, the personal experience of copulation is given a social point of

reference that is invariably reassuring and flattering to the couple. In the icon of their bed,

the couple can see themselves as both a private and sealed unit but also an institution that

matches up with any other in the neighbourhood or his or her family.

The fussiness of many bedrooms also serves to sanctify the union with the discipline

of convention, akin to marriage itself. The suburban interior wants to suggest politeness

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throughout. Sex is not seized upon an impulsepants and jumpers, ties and knickers going

in all directionsno, there is a time and a place for everything and that is not how we do

it at all. The pants get hung up here, the tie there; even the undergarments can be folded to

suggest that they belong on the chair rather than merely being strewn there. The jouissance

which results may be no more stuffy or sterile than any impetuous affair but the studied air

of everything being in its place has the virtue of sanctifying the moment, placing it within

the due order of ritual, undoubtedly between supper and sleep. On no account must stolen

moments be narrated by the furniture. In order for the couple to feel comfortable about

their regular horizontal dance; the architecture of time and place must not degenerate

to instinct.

The living museum lives and dies a thousand resurrections when the visitors come and

want to sticky. In one sense, it is a private and exclusive sanctum: in another, it is set up for

just such occasions as to be exposed. The bedroom wants to recede and project at the same

time: it becomes a vitrine for neurotic exhibitionism, wanting its familiarity to be hidden

and to be revealed at once. Perhaps of all outsiders to visit the bedroom, the most important

are the family themselves, not just his and hers, but the children as well. The somewhat

stuffy appearance of the bedroom has been contrived to formalize the rapport, to place it

within social parameters of respectability, hence nothing casual or sloppy. The children

learn this: not merely that our shoes are placed on a rack but, when we grow up, we properly

replicate the parental bedroom with our own spouse.

The passing down of the ethos from one generation to the next provokes a final Oedipal

crisis when, as often happens, the parental bed is inherited. The young couple, which has

been sleeping on its own nuptial bed, suddenly finds itself confronted with the bed

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252 Cf. the pathetic desire of the shepherd ‘to die upon

the bed my father died’, The Winter’s Tale 4.3.468.

Interestingly, the importance of the parental

bed for symbolizing heredity is scorned in

Edmund’s lines: being a bastard, he is interested

in the bed as it embodies the ‘quality’ of the

relationship rather than its patronymic privileges;

and he characterizes the issue of illegitimate

relationships, ‘who in the lusty stealth of nature

take / more composition and fierce quality / than

doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed, / go to the

creating a whole tribe of fops, / got ’tween asleep

and wake?’ King Lear 1.2.9–15.

253 There is also a most unwanted condition in

between these extremes, an extreme in its own

direction, namely insomnia, the hated restlessness

that signals the failure of the bed to fulfill its

destiny. This condition also has a presence in the

poetic literature where it is forever a symptom of

the perturbations of unrequited love. Particularly

in Petrarch’s poetrytypically seeking a sweet

torpidness (un languir dolce), Canzoniere 224.2

the lover bewails his peaceful moments, especially

on ‘the bed, a hard battle-field’, ibid. 226.8. Cf. his

state of langour in bed, 342.6.

belonging to his or her parents. It is a pathetic agony. While similar problems arise with all

items of furniturethe tables and chairs and crystal cabinet and so onthe bed has much

stronger forces acting upon it, both to demand its expulsion from and its inclusion within

the new household. Inclusion, of course, would mean displacing the couple’s own nuptial

bed. It is not likely and would be sure to displease both spouses. But can we throw it out?

Maybe we can keep it in a garage until one of the children might use it in some prospective

relationship. That is a good idea; because some form of deconsecration must take place

even if just by the removal vanso that the bed can be reconsecrated in the context of a

new erotic history. 252

But let us not be hung up on the erotic. If we could imagine the difficulty of designers in

finding a form to match the essential nature of the bed, it would be because the essential

nature of the bed is absolutely agonized. As the context for sleeping, it is split according to

the disparate meanings of the word, namely, sleep as resting in a state of unconsciousness

and sleep as making love. Although the euphemism of our language suggests that there is

common ground between the two, there is a major difference between sleep and copulation.

One embodies the most restful, tranquil state; the other evokes the most exciting,

poignant state, even if there is much slow wriggling in between. They are two contrary extremes:

on one hand, the greatest peace, on the other the greatest stimulation. 253

As a context for these extremes, the bed is in danger of being conceptually contradictory.

As an embodiment of them, it is schizoid in the popular and incorrect sense of the

word, split in its identity. Granted, we may have no trouble with a child’s bed, in which

sleep is unambiguously snug in its ideal form. For the design of the bed, we need only look

for motifs of comfort and security. The bed only needs to be protective and restful. We

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254 Euripides, Electra 936 and 1089; 481, and Sappho

75; λεκτροχαρης, Orphic Hymns 55.9; ‘had one

bed (εξ ενος κοιτην εχουσα)’, Romans 9.10.

never want the child to experience a spasm; we are happy if she is blessed with serenity and

uninterrupted tranquillity. For ourselves, moreover, we want the same thing most of the

time. How much of our night is going to be so sexy? There is only a short time in most people’s

livescourtship to be precisewhen the phrase ‘going to bed’ means sex. In ancient

writings, too, it is more common to find the bed being a symbol of matrimonial unity than

sex. Frequently, the word (λεχος) actually means marriage or even spouse. The bed was

frequently conceived as essentially a place for enjoyment, characterized by the epithet ‘enjoying

the marriage-bed (λεκτροχαρης). However, it seems to have been left to the Greekspeaking

Jews to employ the word for bed to mean ‘sex’. Normally, as already noted, this is

disapproving because it involves the wrong beds. But Paul does not use the word disapprovingly

when he notes with approbation that ‘Rebecca had also conceived by one [husband]’,

which could more literally be translated as: ‘had one bed’. 254 Married couples do not

generally use the phrase to mean sex unless it is broad daylight or extravagant looks are exchanged

over the syllables.

Bed is forever seen as a havenfor sex or otherwiseand so the suggestions of retirement

and withdrawal are always proper to it, even if some vulgar designers make the bed

into a disco, with loudspeakers and flashing lights. The bed constitutes a whole universe,

accommodating the least public activities. The posture adopted in bed is free when compared

to that instituted by a chair or stool etc. The flat disposition of the mattress seems to

predetermine the posture as lying although, in this, there are many inflections. From curling

up to lying flat, this side or that, arms under the face, beside the body and so on, there

is no limit. The bed offers no instructions. And this extends to sitting up, since most people

do such a thing before going to sleep.

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255 Like the chair (κλισμος), the Greek bed (or couch)

can be identified etymologically with the leaning

action. The word for the piece under discussion

(κλινη) refers to the same action, related to the

Latin (clin’), whence our ‘incline’. Thus, as the

previous footnotes demonstrate, the word for

‘lie down’ is essentially the same as that for ‘bed

or couch’ and both derive from the notion of

inclining on an angle. Another conception for

bed (κοιτη) seems less technical, since its root

points directly to sleep (κοιμα’ etc.), apparently

related to lying (κειμαι), since a resting place or

bed is similarly described by a noun (κοιτος) in

Homer, Odyssey 3.334. Unfortunately, while

Gisela Richter, in her excellent book on The

Furniture of the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans,

Phaidon 1974, lists these conceptions, she does

not explain their rich philological histories; nor

does she apparently mention a third conception

(λεκτρον, λεχος) which is important not only

because of its antiquity (Iliad 22.503 and 1.609

respectively) and its pertience to marriage (ibid.

1.31) but also because, etymologically, it relates

to the act of lying (λεχομαι) and identifies the

deep Indo-European root which we know from

Germanic (liegen), our verb ‘to lie’. Furthermore,

this is the Greek form which most invites a link

with the Latin bed or couch (lectus), a word which

suggests similar kinship with the Germanic.

256 Iago to Desdemona, definitely intended with

slanderous injury, Othello 2.1.115.

Sitting up in bed is a meta-stable state that is not really encouraged by the design of most

beds. The earliest beds whose design can be easily scrutinized, those of the Greeks and Romans,

seem contrived for sitting up more than lying down. Many even look like a chair

with backrest (κλισμος) only with a long base 255 and, from Roman times, beds have been

preserved with a voluted bracketoften ornately sculpted and known as fulcrawhich

acknowledged the inclining position to be assumed on the bed. Since the ancients ate their

meals, drank and entertained upon these beds, it is not surprising that they were not exclusively

designed for the sake of lying down. Little furniture but the bed had any social significance,

if not the great thronoi of state authority; and these had nothing to do with parties.

But, since the middle ages, when the division of activities was reflected in the separate

categories of furniture, the role of the bed has receded. Today, we feel that it is indulgent,

even disgusting, to eat in bed unless there are medical grounds for it. We are too worried

about what happens to the crumbs.

Nor, for us, is bed a place for concentration. Certainly, many people sit up reading in

bed till all hours; but we expect that the literature will be light or, at any rate, enjoyable. If

not, we will suspect the person of being obsessive, a workaholic, one not respectful of his or

her health or spouse’s temper, in short, not respectful of the bed. Intellectual activities can

take place on the bed; but we somehow do not want them to count as work and there seems

something perverse about those who ‘rise to play and go to bed to work’. 256 We want this to

be a place of restoration, recreation, a slackening of all tension. The time spent in bed when

not asleep is nevertheless informed by the spirit of relaxation: it is inclined to dreamy therapy,

to a stretching reverie expressed in yawning. If discussion takes place in bed, we expect

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it to be intimate and private in character, not really to do with the balance of payments with

Korea or the tax inentives for speculative investment.

Unlike the chair, the bed requires attention when not actually in use. Much labour is devoted

to its maintenance, the making of the beds and, of course, their cleaning at frequent

intervals. In this, the bed is rather more like the table, which has to be cleared, washed

down and set before anyone can eat at it; and then it has to be cleared and cleaned again

immediately afterwards. The focus of these activities in the bed is directed to the linen, the

independent parts but not, strictly speaking, the structural parts. Yet as an integral part of

the institution, the covers, the sheets and the pillow all have to be arranged and regularly

changed. The double bed makes the responsibility for this labour unclear and a forum for

disputes. The design of double beds suggests a relationship of equality. It seldom flows

through to the domestic chores associated with this icon of conjugal mutuality.

Very few beds express inequality in their design and, if there are some that do, it is

because of some practical reason, such as shortage of space. Bunks are the best example;

though it will remain a matter of debate among all who use them as to which sleeper is

the more disadvantaged. But relationships are certainly expressed by the way the beds are

placed. It belongs to suburban lore, for example, that the dominant partner ends up with

the side of the bed closest to the door. It is necessary to concede that one side of the room

may present more convenience, though not necessarily in relation to the door. One side

may be closer to a side table with the alarm clock on it, a wardrobe, a beautiful prospect

through the window. But let us consider the design in greater detail.

The variation in the design of beds is considerable. The extent to which they subsume

other objects, or objects which might exist autonomously in the room, is central to the

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ethos of the bedroom. For example, bedside tables might be disposed in two ways. First,

the sidetable is an auxiliary unit, standing independently but close to the bed. With a double

bed, there may or may not be an identical counterpart on the other side. Second, the

sidetable can actually be integral with the structure of the bed. It was a popular deco strategy

to incorporate an extrusion at the extremity of the bedhead. The thing was projected at

right angles from the bedhead with not only a horizontal surface on top but often a drawer

as well.

The bedside table is a point of supply, a station attending the bed for nightly ministry. It

may contain features proper to its own nightscape, such as clock and light as well as space

to keep our effects in its nocturnal custody, such as wristwatch or keys. What is the point

of making it a part of the bed? Its nature is wholly different to that of the bed: all that it

shares with the bed is a nearby part of the room. It holds no humans nor has any soft characteristics

or function of cradling; it has no bounce or feather or flop. By making it a part

of the bed, we allow it to detract from the integrity of the bed. To make one homogeneous

thing out of two incommensurable things is a mechanical strategy typical of modernism.

The integrity of form is sought at the expense of the integrity of function and the symbolic.

Never mind that these two things are radically different in their character: put them under

one envelope, hang them up under one skeleton and, behold, they will cohere with Gropian

harmony. In this co-opting by formal uniformity, they will also lose their identity as meaningful

things and thus more easily blend in with the built-in cupboards.

As a separate piece of furniture, the bedside table may extend to many drawers that

keep clean clothes. The freestanding object can complement the bed, dramatizing the

service that it yields through its independent status. It will then be reckoned a meaningful

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piece of furniture in its own right, not just part of a monstrous machine. Like the mats, the

lamp, the chairs, the bedside table is endowed with its own essence, subservient to the bed,

to be sure, but expressing a relationship which enhances the bed and advertises the integrity

of both. The bedside table should be able to bear upon the bed, to proceed from its own

base and so deliver a gesture with its own presence as landmark to the locus of sleep. Such

complementation cannot arise if we begin with amalgamation.

The analogy of bedside table with mat is interesting because, while the bed can never

actually incorporate a mat, it is nevertheless true that it can be absorbed into the floor. The

bed is semantically stable: it is not in danger of resembling any other piece of furniture, if

not a couch or a chaise longue, objects which it scarcely resembles at all, on account of the

limitations in posture upon them (never within them) and their absence of natural covers.

The bed will never shade off into a wardrobe or a bookshelf, though they can be accommodated

into the architecture, may sprout from the wall or otherwise be synthesized from the

box of a convertible couch. There is always a possibility for the bed to lie down to the point

of annihilation, to the degree zero of the bed that is the floor, let us say a mere mattress, the

spongy mat upon the floor.

Is there anything wrong with that? Clearly not, given that the concept of futon is both

ingenious and aesthetically elegant, allowing rooms to have multiple functions, even if they

involve a lot of labour. Western beds, too, bed can virtually disappear in favour of the floor

and, when we enter the room for the first time, we may even see the space as continuous

and uninterrupted by a piece of furniture. This has the obvious advantage of making the

room look larger, since tall volumes in the middle of the room surely make the room appear

smaller. Modernist beds are usually low for this reason, apart from the obvious economies

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in lighter use of material. But while very low beds may work well in flattering the real estate,

the disadvantages accrue on the practical and symbolic levels. First, low beds are difficult

to get in and out of, especially for the elderly. Much strain is required from the knee to heft

the body up to a dignified height, usually at an hour when ageing knees are ill-prepared

for the feat. Second, the absence of a strong presence in the middle of the room means that

there is a potential booby-trap at foot height, a low wall waiting for the unsuspecting wanderer

to break bones over. Third, however, the low bed offers no gesture to those approaching

the bed: it does not come to greet them.

Still, it would be overstatement to claim that a low bed has no symbolic presence. That

depends on the design. We might reasonably expect that the symbolism will somewhat

favour the animal, the unceremonious notion of curling up on the floor, so that the bed as

a whole behaves like a snoozy dog. But the design can still afford an impressive gesture of

stretching out, bolstered by the horizontal habit of the bed head. There is no reason why a

low bed needs to be wholly receding in habit though it would be natural to expect that the

foot would have no particular presence. If the low bed has a prominent foot, the advantage

of the uninterrupted flow of spacewhich helps the room look biggeris surely compromised.

Establishing visual importance for an inconspicuously low bed can also be achieved

by forceful little bedside tables or, since we demand miniaturization, small chests.

In all events, some form of leg seems desirable, since the mattress is always to be lifted

from the floor. If there are no legs, there will at least be skis or a flat base, structures that

do the same thing but do not enact the process of standing and supporting in the way so

effectively performed by feet. If there is nothing of the sort, the base will have no architectonic

presence and will simply be counted as a layer under the mattress, rather like another

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257 In fact, such a multi-function bed appears to have

been an ancient idea. One of the Greek words

for bed (κοιτη) apparently also meant chest,

perhaps basket: see Pherecrates 122, Eupolis 76,

Inscriptiones græcæ s(2).120.37, 40, Menander

129.2, Lucian, Saturnalian Letters 21. But just

because the word means ‘bed’, we must not

assume that these instances refer to places for

sleeping as well as storage.

mattress beneath. The distinction is made clearer when this base is itself lifted upon legs,

not just feet or castors. Most beds in the western world follow this pattern. The base is then

not counted merely as another layer under the mattress, since it visibly hefts the mattress

above a void. In effect, the mattress is supplied with air underneath by a kind of bridge.

There is a cushion of air under the mattress, symbolically suggesting the buoyancy of support

that the mattress itself provides for the sleeping person.

The logic of the bridge has sometimes been interpreted in an unnecessarily fussy manner.

Instead of four legs, six or more are sunk into the riverbed. The tensile quality of the

bed is lost; and an argument of support by so many teensy pylons is likely to be trivial,

undermining the majesty of the horizontal by so many small props. The bed will look more

like a millipede than an architectonically viable construction. Yet the tradition of giving

beds more than two pairs of legs is not without sound reason, since the lengthwise span is

considerable and is not common to any other piece of furniture, if not the table. The table,

however, does not carry so much weight. Furthermore, an impression of nimbleness may

be desired; and this cannot be realized if a monumental entablature is instituted between

two giant piers.

The bed is essentially nothing but the mattress, granted that there be some minimal

support lifting it off the floor. Yet the elevation from the floor immediately invites the designer

to use the space effectively, to fill the gap between the mattress and the floor. 257 The

shortage of space encourages this, since people always want more storage: it matters not

how much storage people already have. Thus, the whole lower part of the bed can be conceived

as a kind of box. It sits upon the floor like a large but low chest of drawers and may

rise upward to provide walls for the mattress, thus preventing creep of the mattress from

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one side to the other (the side favoured by the sleeping person). No sense of air under the

mattress is expressed though, in recompense, the sense of immense solidity is certainly

achieved by the chest seeming to act as a giant base. This all ‘round casing, however, does

have practical limitations.

The greatest problem is that the bed becomes unmanageably heavy. If the bed is to become

a storage unit, it may weigh as much as an ordinary bed with two people upon it. This

means that the bed is almost impossible to shift from the wall, either to clean or simply to

make. Tucking in the sheets, for example, is a labour that has to be performed by stretching

from one side of the bed to the other. The alternative is to leave the bed in the middle of

the room and, while there are no objections to a detached bed, it is a convention somewhat

restricted to double beds. For the reasons discussed above, it has been regarded as wasteful

to allow access to a bed on three sides unless a double bed. A double bed is the only kind

allowed this privilege. Somehow, the dignity of the double bed seems too compromised by

incorporating drawers and, in effect, becoming a storage unit, socks and undergarments

below, human couple above.

While such structures seem to make unsatisfactory celebrations of the place and performance,

they should perhaps become the object of further research. A bed that sits solidly

on the floor and is never expected to move is not a bad thing. Cleaning underneath would

be irrelevant and much space is won to practical purposes. Similar things can be said of the

space over one metre above the sleepers. We are dealing with a very conservative area in

design and conventions are not easy to shift. Architects who have installed beds in the fabric

of the wall have indeed made use of the space above the bed, building a series of drawers

over what would otherwise be a void. Their solutions were always regrettable, since they

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had all the ergonomic and symbolic disadvantages of beds attached to wall. But does this

mean that the space above the bed must forever remain unused?

Today, in Australia, we have seen periodic renascence of testers. On the pretext that

they can be used for keeping mosquito nets, people have reinstated this motif of Elizabethan

majesty in blends of naive antiquarian Kitsch. These are also a feature installed over

double beds more than single, creating the little room within the room in which the couple

can imagine themselves enjoying another layer of privacy. And so, if it is for the sake of a

symbolically sympathetic purpose, people do not mind woodwork or metalwork over their

heads at night. When, however, it is for the sake of a practical purpose, the prospect of a

high covered rack for one’s jumpers or series of compartments for small items seems repugnant.

The design of such an area would not need to emphasize the carriage of weight more

than the heavy testers used at the moment to support mosquito nets. Surely, we are dealing

with a very conservative area in design.

The tradition of bed design allows two extra features beyond the mattress, the base and

the legs, namely a head and foot, terms inspired by the horizontal figure. It is a nice inversion

of the conventional usage that gives to column bases the name ‘foot’ and the capital

‘head’. Here, of course, we imagine the human in the horizontal state, as befits the purpose.

These extras have definite practical and symbolic value, especially the bedhead. It is an

important part of the bed for three practical reasons. First, it prevents the mattress from

sliding against the wall. Second, it provides a backrest for sitting up in bed, so that one’s

back does not get cold or the wall dirty. Third, the bedhead keeps the pillow fenced in and,

in a symbolic sense, provides the bed with the formal motif of cradling: the bed wraps itself

around the top end, almost as though keeping the sleeping person’s head up.

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In symbolic terms, moreover, it accentuates the importance of the head. The bed is thus

given a hieratic presence, the more important part being given the more potent advertisement

in form. Answering it at the other end, the more modest form of the foot is traditional.

The practical reasons for a foot are fewer. Only the idea of halting the creep of the

mattress is convincing. Both head and foot can inhibit the tucking in of the sheets and, in

that sense, can be downright impractical. We tend to notice especially if the foot is much

higher than mattress height, whence an elbow may come to grief in the course of tucking

in. Nevertheless, the foot serves a role of considerable importance in defining the extent of

the bed. While not as commanding as the head, it enhances the status of the head by complementation

and, in any case, is often more important in its physical and semantic location

within the room. The foot announces the occupation of space: it is the foremost element

of a piece that comes out from the wall and ends at just that point. The demarcation of the

point is therefore a potent sign of the presence of the piece.

The great importance of the foot relative to the bedhead is shown by many early twentieth-century

examples in which the head is a rather thin membrane, defined by little but

the cut-out of its own silhouette. It must have seemed the logical thing to do, given that the

role of the bedhead was to accommodate to the flat wall. In keeping with this, the feet were

merely extensions of the plane, not pieces asserting any formal distinction from the board

that they support. Against this merely graphic outline, the foot incorporated considerably

greater plastic detail. Frequently, it took on lion’s paws and these were linked to other theriomorphic

rhythms in the legs and the sway of the horizontal member running from one

side to the other. The animal-like element in the foot, as beautiful as it might have been,

was not always well reconciled to the more architectonic forms of the head.

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It remains critical, not merely in the description of the foot and head but the whole bed:

should it aspire to be a creatureperhaps as a chair should logically doas something

tensile, agile, joined by ligaments and advancing across the room? Or should it aspire to the

architectonicperhaps as a table should logically doas something settled, constructed,

firmly built up from below, abiding forever in its established place? To this, we could add

the plant-like. Every detail can be conceived according to either bias. Not the foot and head

alone but the members joining them (what we have called the bridge) and the feet and any

other part can exhibit an emphasis in either direction. For example, the habit of mounting

the bed upon an almost alien base, an architectural platform, unequivocally insists upon

the rigidity of the place, the step upward that must be taken to mount it. The bed becomes

a temple, even without a structure, without a roof: it is pitched on the dedicated ground for

a shrine.

The fashions that affect these preferences will be dictated by factors outside the the

normal parameters of industrial design. The factor with the most critical bearing is the

design of fabrics. Many would argue that the bed is but a context for bedclothes. Perhaps

the bedclothes are the most essential part of the bed. Ah, these definitions! Let us not haggle

about whether to include the pyjamas. The bedclothes are an essential part of the bed,

since they are the only element with which we come into nightly contact and the bed would

not function without them. It makes no sense to define objects of design as only that part

which deals with firm structure. Symbolically, too, the bedclothes are the part that keeps us

warm, the part which surrounds us and so brings that sense of comfort and security which

is enshrined in the term ‘bed’ in its deepest and happiest sense, the sense of being ‘in bed’.

The bedclothes have their own structure but it lends itself much less to definition. Whereas

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the forms of the bed are relatively rigid, those of the fabrics may be tossed this way and

that: they may be removed entirely or rearranged according to the season.

In many English-speaking households, a quiet revolution occurred in the late seventies

that brought the bed covers to a point of unprecedented importance. The bed from the war

years to the seventies had been a mattress covered by two sheets and one or two blankets.

The end of the upper sheet was passed over the blankets to form a kind of mouth, an opening

at which the retiring person would further strip back the layers and enter. On top of

the blankets, it was normal to have an eiderdown for cold weather. Such was the bed: in all

seasons, it looked predictable. A pillow at the head, a strip of sheet and then an expanse of

blanket or eiderdown. Unless the eiderdown was very pretty, the bed looked prosaic, dull

if we focused on the blankets. Hence a bedspread was placed over the ensemble, giving the

bed a kind of shroud, a mantle covering the pillow, sheets, blankets, eiderdown, pyjamas

and anything else. This traditional arrangement is still in common use and will no doubt

continue to be.

In the meantime, however, the quiet bourgeois revolution occurred through the doona

(continental quilt) which did away with the upper sheet, the blankets and the eiderdown.

Extra layers of warmth have not been regarded as important, given the strong market penetration

of electric blankets. The new quilts were larger than the old eiderdowns, covering

the length of the bed and allowing overhang on the sides. The pillow and all other details

can therefore be covered without any bedspread and, while bedspreads continue to be used

on top of continental quilts, they are not demanded aesthetically but only by tradition or

to keep the dust off. And so, today, the bed is no longer a constant spectacle of this blanket

or that eiderdown: it is a changing parade of quilt covers or doona covers. The covers are

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washed with a similar frequency to that of the sheet underneath. They are not very expensive

and can be replaced with the changes in the fashions.

The bed has thus become more flexible and responsive to the vicissitudes of taste. And

what changes we are experiencing! Now the severe geometric patterns are out, even the

childish patterns are out. Now we need Latin American abstracts or Australian Indigenous

motifs. Admittedly, they are excellent. Further, there is a welter of paisleys and florals, particularly

mille fiori. Imagery is to be found on the bed. By the time this text is published, the

opinions on current tastes will no doubt seem very dated. Never before has the bed been

such a catwalk of fashion.

To what extent can we expect this to change our perception of the bed? If it continues, it

will demand a soft and luxurious bed. This does not necessarily imply a recessive structure:

on the contrary, a firm structure would be ideal if conceived in a language of richness, such

as the traditional vocabulary of lion’s paws. It is notable how the advertisements for those

magnificent fabrics so frequently presuppose a classicizing taste. Often the lush fabrics are

projected in the context of antique furniture. Small wonder! What do we have in our contemporary

repertoire which can match the splendour of these fabric designers? It makes me

wonder what the bed essentially is. It is almost immaterial.

2.3 Couches

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258 So much are couches related to conversation that

one of the French words for the piece is causeuse,

literally, ‘converser’ or ‘tatler’, (from causer, to talk

or chat).

259 ‘...un fauteuil m’embarrasse; / un homme là

dedans est tout enveloppé; / je ne me trouve

bien que dans un canapé.’ Regnard, Distrait

3.2. The definition of the couch adopted here is

the two- or three-seater, commonly marketed

with two chairs as a suite. The bed, the divan,

the chaise longue, the veilleusethat is a couch

with a longitudinal orientation, all share

features with the couch; but this chapter does not

include these items. The words ‘couch’ and ‘sofa’

are used interchangeably. To this we could add

settee and canapé etc. socializing is somehow

essential to the couch could be contested.

260 ‘voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?’, do you

want to make love with me tonight? It appears in

many epochs of French, e.g. the sixteenth century

of Marguerite de Navarre: ‘j’eusse myeulx aymé

estre gectée en la riviere que de coucher avecq ung

Cordelier’, L’Heptaméron des nouvelles 1.4 (I’d

rather be thrown into the river than sleep with

a Franciscan).

Couches are a theatre of intimacy: they create your private rococo of togetherness and

gossip. We must always be hearing something on a couch. 258 The couch is set up for inclining

to another person, for taking part in another’s intimate space. Even when couches are

not located in an intimate spacesuch as a waiting roomthey are a common seat for two

or three people, a piece of furniture for sharing a discourse, for socializing, where they hem

you in less than an armchair. 259 The very origins off the word provide the motif of being

‘placed together’, as the French coucher comes from the Latin collocare. Just as the people

share the seat, so they are expected to share one another’s glances and presence: certainly

nothing should inhibit their conversation, their exchange of ideas.

As a true theatre of intimacy, every action is left to the spontaneity of the actors. Nothing

on a couch should suggest the mechanical. Unlike a kitchen table or a desk or even a

bed, a couch sets the scene for an unknown outcome: it is not specifically for performing

tasks or restingnot for any ‘process’ such as eating or writing or making lovebut for

interacting with other people in the absence of a teleological imperative. Of course, a couple

may go to bed in order to interact but the expectations are inclined to be linear. If a

great deal of fun is not had (and one might think of the euphemistic senses in the French

coucher), 260 something seems to have gone wrong and partners will be disappointed. People’s

behaviour on the couch may also have a beginning, a middle and an end; but there is

normally no sense of the beginning needing to lead to the middle and the middle then

needing to be consummated by the end. Aristotle’s prescriptions for tragedy have no place

on this play-ground of cushions. The couch is for comedies; its boofy stage is inhospitable

to severe passion, dire miscarriages of fortune or the public realm of high moral dialectic.

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261 He speaks ‘des sièges « fonctionnelles » qui

font de toutes les positions...une synthèse libre.

Tout moralisme en est exclu: vous ne faites plus

face à personne. Impossible de s’y mettre en

colère, impossible d’y debattre ou d’y chercher à

convaincre’, Le système des objets,

Paris 1968, p. 62.

The gravest would be a tragi-comedy, the key element being the confinement of high emotion

to the personal. It seems inappropriate to be talking heatedly on a couch about the

balance of payments or to be declaiming with conviction the principles of the union movement

in a threat of industrial action. The public issue is disqualified for a seat on the couch.

So long as people agree on the balance of payments or the industrial action, the couch comfortably

accommodates their harmony. As people begin to differ, however, they feel a compulsion

to wave their hands in a more direct confrontation, to rise to their feet or to start

thumping a table. The postural disposition of people on a couch evokes their togetherness:

they tend to sit in parallel and their meeting is to the side, an almost incidental intercourse

of glances. There is little scope for direct confrontation. If the two interlocutors decide to

face one another, they must sit skewly, so that their thighs tend to run in parallel with the

front of the couch. This posture is unsuitable for confrontation, since the ability to lunge at

the adversary is unsatisfactorily served (at least in symbolic terms) by an inclination away

from the perpendicular axis of the seat.

On this field of politeness, the passions are personal; the gestures are close to the

ribs: there is no declaiming, no oratory, no denunciations but sighs and scornful laughter;

all expression comes from the lungs and a whisper might cut the air like a dart. The

dispute is about him and her: it has nothing to do with principles but everything to do

with affections.

No furniture is designed for conflict, not even that in the law courts. Baudrillard, in a

brilliant early text, complains of the trend in contemporary furniture (that of the late sixties)

in its prevention of naturally fierce emotional states. He describes the impossibility of

getting angry or conducting a serious debate on modern furniture. 261 Baudrillard believed

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262 See the reference to Regnard, above, in which

the virtue of the couch is recommended as

offering greater commodiousness for one person.

But the provision of more real estate seems to be

appreciated only in terms of comfort, not for the

sake of projecting the ego pompously.

his observations to have been confined to the slick and abstract styles of tables and chairs

purveyed by post-war industrial design; but he might have spared a thought for the traditional

couch. Perhaps more than any other piece of furniturelets us say with the exception

of the bedthe couch deflects conflict. Squabbles can erupt anywhere and so, without

doubt, they occur on the couch; but they erupt in spite of the design, in spite of an

absence of any directional thrust which might suggest opposition or aggression.

Just as the couch deflects conflict, it naturally lacks assertiveness. A couch never really

wants to be very bold, even when designers coax it into extroverted angles. A jazzy style

just belongs to the realm of formal tricks: it can be applied to anything and does not necessarily

bear on the essential being of the object. The couch can be extroverted, to be sure;

but it has no ambition to assume responsibilities and claims little public presence. If a

couch is to be found in an office, it is for the waiting room. There is something silly and

pretentious about a couch which is accorded pomp. People seated on a couch may or may

not be pompous individualsperhaps they are if they station themselves right in the middle

262 but the couch does glorify the individual. It does not specifically lessen the dignity

of the individual but nevertheless communicates the equivalent status of people in some

modest plurality: it impresses upon us the likeness in weight of the two or more people sitting

side by side. Insofar as it elevates these people with splendour and pomp, it serves a

function extrinsic to the charter of the couch.

In this, the couch differs greatly from the chair. The chair, that superb instrument of

projection and authority, takes command of its site by its singular address: there is one

seated person and one direction ahead, the pathway leading from the sitter’s gaze over his

or her feet. The chair establishes the sitting person in a position of distinction and defines

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the immediate space before it as the object of the seated subject. The chair suggests an active

and binary relationship between the sitter and the rest of the universe: the seated person

exists in opposition to the rest of the world, a particular entity against the background

of an almost abstract stage. As an active relationship, the binary nexus between the seated

person and the environment favours the seated person (the subject acting upon the object):

he or she is cast as the scrutineer, the judge, the penetrating witness, while the environment

receives the sitter’s outlook passively. The chair is a vehicle of comfort empowering the

seated person with a decisive advantage in the political grammar of visual relationships.

At the very least, this relationship must be extended to accommodate a third presence,

the person sitting beside the other who shares his or her view of the outside world. But

once that elementary polar relationship between subject and object has been ruptured, it

makes little sense to pursue the analogy. The presence of people which the empty couch

evokes does not project as ‘joint subject’ because we know that two people, from the moment

they sit together on a couch, are already involved in their own relationship, a complex

situation in which subject and object are impossible to separate; because casual human

contact makes attention vibrantly oscillate between individuals.

The front of the couch looks out at the room; but its face is broad. A chair on the other

hand retains this faciality. Especially as defined with armrests, the chair holds its regard

fast in the direction ahead, gripping the space with those two ‘limbs’ and, because the

armrests correspond to those of the human individual, the human gesture of purposefully

occupying the space is hard to escape. The address is spelt out in the inevitable reference

to a prehensile human being oriented in just such a way. The couch, on the other hand,

offers much more scope for ambiguity in its figurative looking out. Its armrests (let us

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assume that it has them) cannot be interpreted as those of a single individual since they

are too far apart. Consequently, the space between the armrests does not correspond to a

single person or even two people with their arms in such a position: only one arm of both

seated people is acknowledged. Their orientation is thus never spelt out: there is a space

stretching between the armrests in which the seated people can be engaged in any number

of postures.

The same is true of the legs. The legs of a chair suggest the legs of the seated person by

the paradigm described above as ‘impersonation’: at the very least, they suggest a beast

as if the fantom quadruped from which humans evolved in primordial times) which carries

the human and whose proportions are analogous to the human. The legs either at the front

or the back have the capacity to evoke the human, especially if the viewpoint is directly

in front or directly behind. If the chair is viewed from the side, only the ‘beast-like’ association

has great immediacy since, of course, the human does not have front and back

legs. But these subtle schemes of figurative association have no bearing on the couch. Let

us say (by the same argument relating to the arms) that the association with the human is

disqualified from the outset because the two front legs are too far apart to be reminiscent

of the human’s; so too are the hind legs. Still less can there be a relation between front and

hind legs when the couch is seen from the side. Such a relation (which is notable in chairs)

depends on the ‘beast-like’ association not only evoked in the link between fore and hind

legs but the axis of the piece equating with the ‘spinal’ orientation of a beast.

Alas, the axis of the couch is perpendicular to that of a chair. The chair greets the

spectator with the force of its address unequivocally striking ahead. The couch, on the

other hand, stretches out conspicuously in the other direction: it creates a miniature

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263 Such an orientation is emphasized in nineteenthcentury

designs with a curved back (following

eighteenth-century veilleuses etc.): the back

figuratively ‘arches’ along the backrest and

sometimes delivers special rhythmic accent as

it raises itself at one end. Again, however, such

couches are not basically being discussed here.

The meaning of ‘couch’ is essentially attached to

the two- or three-seater, upon which the seated

person is fundamentally expected to face outward,

as in a chair. The longitudinally oriented couch is

mentioned later in this chapter.

processional space parallel to its length and, in this projection of its ‘frontage’, the couch

resembles a building which both ‘looks out’ across the street but which also ‘walks along’

the street, accompanying the pedestrians with a façade marking their progress. If a couch

is like a whole building, a chair is like a doorway or a Roman arch: it has no axis which is

not access. The chair receives and does not accompany: it does not walk hand in hand with

the human in any part of the room but uniquely determines the person’s transit toward it.

And while the chair seems designed conclusively to absorb the movement of the human

in his or her movement toward itthus almost posited as a focus for a street or a passage

which stretches out in the direction of its armrests, the couch equally advertises the passage

along its ‘frontage’ and therefore casts the street or passage in the other direction, with

itself not as a threshold or point of destination but a series of places along a route.

Thus, to return to their respective points of support, the legs of the couch have little in

common with those of the chair. Neither in architectonic terms nor theriomorphic terms

is there any clear correspondence. If the couch were conceived as a beast, it would not figuratively

stretch from hind legs to the front legsas we have imagined for a chair, especially

when seen from the sidebut it would stretch from one end to the other. 263 It would not be

a vigilant sphinx, so to speak, which stands or crouches with its hind to the wall and its

paws propping itself up in front. Rather, it would be a lazy ox standing or slouching alongside

the wall: the beast’s front and back legs on the left would be the front legs of the couch

while its front and back legs on the right would correspond to the rear legs of the couch.

The analogy breaks down because, while the couch has a spine running along its length,

it does not have such an axis to the point of front and back. The couch has no head which

would terminate the spine in one direction and a tail which would do so in the other. The

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sitting posture of a beast is easy to evoke in the chair; but the equivalent in the common

couch is complicated and ultimately unsatisfactory.

Unreceptive to any compelling analogy to the beast-like, the couch does not have

the same pride of stance which chairs can naturally acquire by echoing the integrity of

beasts in even the most oblique and abstract manner. A couch cannot be quite so ready to

pounce, to bow down, rear up; nor is this indisposition due to some inert quality, as of the

hollowness of wardrobes. With chairs, sure, we see the beast about to pounce: the thing

has integrity, as of the tension in straining tendons and the muscular poise of paws pinning

themselves into the carpet; and we are immediately impressed by the formal and semantic

autonomy of the piece. But, while the couch lacks such a brilliant iconic self-sufficiency in

the imagination, its real figurative richness abides in the social theatre which it creates, a

realm of association relatively foreign to the chair.

The figurative content of the couch is narrative rather than iconic. It does not strike awe

in our souls by its directness of address and stark monumentality. The couch is reticent,

unwilling to announce itself to a single glance but happy to be followed and occupied in

some shared way, to be the framework for social events. The more expansively unfolding

spaces of the couch are episodic: they do not yield their content to the beholder immediately

with an unambiguous meaning but present themselves to the imagination with a

sense of relativity to the potential acts which they attend. The form lacks the connotations

of abstract generality, as if the absolute of furniture, in a state of sculptural autonomy. Instead

the form furnishes the situational: it supplies the particular moment of interaction

between humans and, in this slighter claim on the universal, the form of the couch is less

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sculpturally aloof, less a victim of conceptual megalomania, less given to arrogant embodiments

of self-sufficient form and more a precursor to relational aesthetics.

Thus, that weakness of the legs in evoking a beast is a symptom of the whole condition

of the piece of furniture. The couch is less coherent than the chair: it is not contemplated

with that circumscription characteristic of the formal outline of the chair but rather the

couch is contemplated in a more rhapsodic and wandering spirit, characterized by its less

concerted outward appearance. The inability of the couch readily to assume the presence

of a beast is not an isolated symptom of its more modest appeal to the imagination relative

to the grandiose iconicity of the chair. The observations made with regard to a theriomorphic

base (that is, animal legs) can be extended to geometric forms and phytomorphic

forms (that is, plant-like bases). Since the fifties, chairs have been given strikingly bold

bases to match the reductive forms of their seats and backs. An example is Saarinen’s Tulip

Chair. A disc-like base rises in an even and concave parabolically curving cone to become a

stem for the ‘bowl’ of the chair. The chair resembles a wine glass but without any classical

and architectural articulation. Such forms would be impossible to imagine as appropriate

for a couch.

It is not really that the couch is a more conservative institution than the chair but rather

that the couch cannot be conceived in terms of stark unities. If it is forcibly conceived thus,

the design seems not to make a great deal of sense. Saarinen’s inverted trumpet forms

would look absurd under the middle of a three-seater, even a two-seater. The base could

be cantilevered but would only appear stable so long as no one sat on either end. But even

without such problems of imagery and reference, the form of the couch is too spread to

deserve a motif as rigidly coherent as that of the parabolic cone. Two such parabolic bases

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would be necessary to acknowledge the orientation of the seat and, in that very multiplicity,

the geometric form would lose its abstract coherence. The unique shape of the chair allows

the relationship between base and seat to take advantage of centrality, indeed to express

centrality. The status of the chair as a focus from which all access radiates is reinforced by

the motif of a 360° address. One form mounting above the other therefore consolidates the

tight integrity of the geometric logic. Against this, the couch defies the elementary force of

geometric form.

As in Saarinen’s Tulip Chair, the geometric association may also suggest the phytomorphic,

the plant-like. The notion of a stem or a trunk is easily applied to a chair because the

essential unity of form implied by the unique support is borne out by the singular action

and stance of the chair. But the couch cannot easily be ‘rooted’ with a single trunk, even if

gigantic. Just as you would need more than one tulip stem, so you would end up allowing

the couch to strike many roots into the floor. Indeed, it would be preferable if the emphasis

were taken away from the roothence motif of supportand passed over to the boughs

and branches, maybe even the suggestion of a screen. The couch can accept plant-like motifs;

but if you figuratively cast the narrative in the garden, the couch wants to be a bower, a

nook in the landscape, a retreat with its own interior and motif of protection.

In a couch, you want to be comfortably huddled up. A chair might forever be a smaller

item of furniture but its claim on the space in front of it is ambitious. The couch only

wants its own space and, though bigger, naturally suggests contraction within its own

space rather than expansion beyond. An empty couch always looks emptier than an empty

chair. You scarcely need the human to sense his or her presence in the chair, so direct is the

evocation of posture, girth and authority. But the couch indifferently suggests distinctions

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of posture, corpulence or status. Whereas there are umpteen different activities served by

chairs in their prolific variety, all differently designed according to their function, there is

a narrower range of activities performed on a couch, namely sitting with other people for

conversation or watching television, listening to music with someone, being receptive. In

speaking of a chair, you have to say what type: is it a desk chair, a lounge room chair, a

kitchen chair and so on? But a couch is relatively uniform.

If, when you sit on a couch, you want to be comfortably huddled up, you are not going

to assume a directorial attitude: you are unlikely to feel very imposing nor is the context

likely to demand high levels of responsibility in your actions. If, by some chance, you do

not want to be comfortably huddled up, you probably want more room than you would

otherwise have on a chair. Seeing the greater space available, you make for the couch and

disport yourself with the greater luxury of the surrounding sitting space. However, even in

this indulgence, the decision is taken for the sake of hedonistic advantage and has little to

do with affecting or impressing other people. Though a very social space, the couch does

not lend itself to political advantage (as in the authority imagined abiding in somebody

seated behind a desk).

Why do you sit on a couch? A hundred scenarios could come to mind. You might already

imagine yourself in a room with another person or number of people: even as you

entertain the thought of a couch, you have probably already presupposed the existence of

chairs in the room. Your choosing to sit in the couch has social connotations, maybe beckoning

to another person to sit down beside you. Perhaps you imagine that others are in the

room, some of whom will sit on the chairs. The decision to go for the couch locates interest

in the others. Some may choose the couch for modesty’s sake, allowing people of greater

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dignity to sit on the chairs. The couch is for the plebeians. At best, its tenants get one

armrest though they may get none at all. They sit in a row without great distinction. Some

might prefer the couch because there is strength in numbers. On the other hand, what if

no one can be relied on to sit down beside you? No one in a chair will feel as alienated as a

loner on a couch.

No office complex is complete without a suite of couches. Normally they are placed in a

space adjoining the offices proper, the little rooms with desks in them. In some executives’

offices, enough space exists for a desk surrounded by a couple of chairs and, at the other

end, a brace of couches around a coffee table. That arena is specifically designed to get

away from the desk, to allow visitors to discuss business in a less authoritarian context than

that existing to either side of the desk. In other cases, where the suite of couches may be in

a discrete area, the furniture is expected to be used for informal meetings, for throwing ideas

around but without feeling any need to write them down. Alternatively, such meetings

might be arranged for refreshment only or might not even be arranged but are expected to

arise spontaneously, such as the consensus to take morning tea in a congenial space.

Although sharing the parenthetic quality with the amorous episodes, these casual

conferences in between concentrated bouts of business demand a different architectural

context. The couches in an office are assembled in a gregarious spirit of extension, inviting

an indefinite plurality of interested people to join in. In their cohesion, the couches are

often co-ordinated by the coffee table: their centralized function is dictated by the colloquium

of coffee cups and, though more intimate than the spaces separated by a desk, the

arena is dynamic, a forum for intellectual interchange rather than emotional communion.

This is reflected in the geometry of the situation. The ground plan for such bureaucratic

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corroborees bears some relation to the layout of a table in that it is based on a duality of

centre and periphery. Even if the couches are artfully drawn into L-shapes, there is always

a sense of the one couch looking across a space at the other couch. And while there is little

of the confrontation evoked by the two sides of a desk, the couches to either side of the coffee

table are capable of suggesting a stern and direct address to one another’s point of view.

The constitution of such couches for business is often unlike any suggested in the

domestic realm, indeed is often unlike any encountered in any circumstance before the

twentieth century; and with the growth of mobile technologieswhere the mainstay of

work is no longer a fixed deskit may be that more casual configurations in workspaces

grow, where we get to see one another’s legs. In one sense, the couches then replicate the

structure of a conference room. If the ground plan resembles that of a table, the shape and

structure of the individual couches often resemble those of so many chairs: frequently,

moreover, the couches are modular affairs which, in effect, simply allow a concatenation

of two chairs or three to form a couch. When the couches are indeed formed as coherent

unitswithout couplings or attachments of discrete component chairsthey may as well

be constituted through such combinations; because they lack the definition of forceful

structure such as armrests or rhythmic development in details such as a swelling curve in

the backrest to suggest its compass, its sweep and point of arrival at the ends. The ends

themselves may sometimes not even be marked by armrests and thus, while suggesting infinite

extension, the form does not respect its own definition. It may as well be a collection

of flat chairs shoved together in a row.

It appears, therefore, that the design of couches may be oriented toward two distinct

areas of function. The first is to provide a haven for spontaneous and tender relationships;

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the second is to convene a forum for an organized absence of tension, an exercise in relaxation.

While the second may strike us as condescending, unromantic and patronizing, it

includes the context of the majority of domestic couches. Few would be used for amorous

interaction throughout a large proportion of their career; rather, most are used for watching

the television nearly every night of the week. In front of the television, the couch performs

a similar job to that performed by the couches in business: it convokes a gentle and undemanding

attention across the roommaybe even across a coffee tablewhich is expected

to invite a stimulating and relaxing experience at the same time.

In any accounting of common use in households and work-places, the lovely tête-à-tête

which we want to imagine as a key attribute of natural activities on the couch is in danger

of turning out to be uncommon and marginal. The image is enchanting but fleeting and

evanescent, like courtship itself. For half a century, couches have been used for the most

lugubrious torpor, the evacuation of the mind, the ultimate passivity of watching television;

though this stupefaction is now yielding to a multi-task leisure, where television watchers

are simultaneously conducting social networking in other media, sometimes more than

one at a time. In the age of television, social interchange fell to a sad low. Instead of assuming

a vitally interested soul exchanging sentiments with another in a spirit of enthusiasm

for their joint curiosity and sympathies, we must conjecture mute and numb consumers of

a third presence, oriented away from one another and with gazes in parallel: the mechanically

contrived spectacle of television which offers no possibility of interaction with it. As

furniture which is most commonly used for such social hypnosis, our optimism for the

delights of gentle conversation may seem misplaced and unrealistic (though social media

upon mobile devices is changing that passivity). Couches intended for such banality seem

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to express the neutrality of the experience in their design, bland horizontal platforms with

sloping cushions for backrests, suitable for lying upon, often in an L-shape conformation.

Even though a paradigm of non-reciprocal, non-interactive behaviour, watching television

is by no means a complete psychological anaesthetic. It would not be necessary

to watch television on a couch, though many opt for couches in order to lie down while

watching. Many watch television from a chair; and nobody, for that reason, would feel that

the whole genus of chairs is stigmatized by complicity in our moronization. The decision

to place the television in front of the couch perhaps still declares a social attitude to watching.

It is hardly interactive or dynamically disposed to the television set; but the situation

does establish a kind of passive forum in which the impact of the television appears to be

absorbed in a joint consideration, a judging, a bifocal subject with the capacity to discuss

and challenge internally. Those on the couch cannot, of course, challenge the television

and, quite probably, will not challenge one another; but the very presence of the couch at

least suggests the capacity to do so, even in quietly regulated asides which do not break up

an uninterrupted broadcast.

Meanwhile, social media have reinvested the couch with much popularity. When children

get together, for example, they love to sit on a couch, so that they can easily peer over

one another’s space to see what they have on their personal screen. This new transaction of

hilarity is a new dynamic which is difficult to serve upon chairs, which isolate young people

too much.

The relationship between furniture and media appliance even changed significantly

with the development of remote control. The television could be switched from channel

to channel and the volume lowered or raised; and these alterations take place without any

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need to get up and physically contact the set in order to effect the desired change, in the

same way that we now control music from our laptop. Thus, whoever sits in the couch or

chair possesses a power to command the screen by cybernetic means. Relationships of

authority and influence within a household are no longer simply reflected by the arrangement

of the furniture but are determined by whoever has the remote control. While others

watching the programs may have great influence over this person’s decisions, there is

nothing to prevent utter frustration should he or she decide to be irritating, vexatious and


Moreover, the revolution that was video or DVD allowed a further degree of interaction

with the machine, to say nothing of electronic games. A single person watching such a

device theoretically enjoys a freedom comparable to that experienced in the way we might

regulate the reading of a book. Now, not only can the machine be turned on and off and

suppressed in volume as the material is broadcast but the recording of the material can

be sped forward, rewound and replayed: like a book, it can be intercepted at any point,

reviewed and re-experienced and so on; and these editorial alterations also take place from

the seat. Thus, the couch or chair possesses a new prestige invested by the remote control:

it is a right of command, an authority to control the screen by means of telaesthesia.

The privilege of the buttons is a new structural motif in households. Whereas formerly

the television stood in a corner of the room and the gallery of seats around it had a theoretically

equal access to its controls, the structure has changed markedly; though the structural

change is political rather than visual. If games are played, the groupings will fragment,

even in multiplayer mode. Somebody in one of the seats assumes possession of the control

and so takes on a distinction which has no visual manifestation, other than perhaps the

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proud waving and pointing of an electronically potent icon from time to time, a flashy show

of directorial prowess. The rank seems best expressed by a chair of grand proportions, a

symbol of status. But the essence of the control is precisely to allow transfer from one seat

to another. Rather like the rotating chairperson’s position in a university department, the

management of the remote control is not predetermined as a geographical construct but is

ideally free to wander.

In order to be democratic in a physical and visually apparent way, the remote control

would have to be put out of everyone’s reach in order to be closer to nobody but to be equidistant

from each one, perhaps a nearby coffee table. Instead, since that would defeat the

convenience of the machine, the democratic spirit relies on communication being received

by an executive (often a junior member of the family) charged with the selfless responsibility

of pleasing everyone in the room, including himself or herself. This exalted office seems

to have a different nature when passed over to the couch. If we assume that there are more

than one person on the couch, the possession of the remote control seems to be shared,

even when it is hogged by one of the joint occupants. In relation to the function of the

remote control, the structure of the couch suggests a little council, a body of consent, far

from the unilateral authority of the chair.

The relationship between chairs and couch is normally an important element in the

lounge room interior. They may all adopt a deferential attendance around the television or,

in the blessed absence of a television, they may respect one another or perhaps the hi-fi. A

typical commercially available combination is a suite, that is, a group of three, sometimes

ending up as a couch along one wall and two chairs in either corner opposite the wall of

the couch, sometimes (and increasingly favoured in more recent interiors) two couches or

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a couch in the middle of a larger flowing space and two chairs assisting its role of dividing

space by framing an enclosure, of which the couch is the main parapet. With whatever

arrangement, the room is generally set up for a discussion between those stationed on

opposite or adjacent wings. Thus, although a thoroughly domestic situation, far from the

patronizing relaxation of business chats, the couch is implicated in a scheme of interaction

which emphatically goes beyond the couple on the couch. They may or may not be

absorbed in one another’s company; but the conformation of the furniture suggests that

they are also involved in the discourse of those in the corners. The couch has little selfsufficiency

in such a scheme.

It is not exactly a question of regimentation, of a hegemonic order displacing the intimacy

of a personable order. The question normally relates to accommodation of a larger

number of peopleso, yes, the arrangement may be more impersonal than the image of

the couch on its ownbut the couch is itself predicated upon a notion of interaction, a

theme simply extended in the motif of the whole room. If we begin with a preconception

of the couch as a sequestered realm for intimacy, the liaison with the chairs will be seen as

disruptive: a cosy motif of introverted togetherness is forced to relate to the outer ambience:

it must accept intrusion and is expected to have an outward address itself.

Lounge room suites are marketed as an ensemble: the couch and two chairs (often a

coffee table as well) are designed in a certain style which unifies them. The conformity of

one with respect to the other means that their roles are equated. It is difficult for the couch

to be understood as symbolically different to the chairs, since the form of the couch is expressively

linked to that of the chairs. Even if the design differs in some details other than

scale but the same fabric and style of upholstery are used on both couch and chairs, the

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degree of uniformity will have a similar effect: chairs and couch will be understood as performing

very analogous tasks in the room and the liaison between the pieces will be more

notable than their semantic differences.

It is easy to see why people buy such suites. They want the interior to be unified and

are not keen on an eccentric and inclusive ragbag of styles. If things in the interior are

unified, clashes are sure to be avoided and a kind of harmony is guaranteed. The room

will automatically have a ‘look’ by the commonness of style. For many people, this rule of

agreement is synonymous with style itself. But a lounge room interior with discrete styles

for chairs and couch also serves the logic of the room as well as the furniture. The room

can be understood as a forum for many guests when many guests arrivebecause nothing

prevents a person on a chair speaking to another on a couch of different stylebut it also

has the flexibility to suggest the seclusion of the couch when there are no guests present

but only a couple. If the couch is stylistically distinct, no interference of a social nature will

figuratively disrupt the quaint mood of the tête-à-tête on the couch. The couch will be left

to its own devices, feeling no need to refer to the greater panorama of social concourse in

the room.

One of the greatest problems for householders with substantial living rooms is the

choice between a two-seater and a three-seater, a preoccupation of people looking to buy

a couch, along with style, material and colour. A two-seater offers greater intimacy (on

the principle that ‘two’s company and three’s a crowd’) and does not occupy so much of

the surrounding room. On the other hand, the three-seater offers greater accommodation

and an important convenience, namely that of lying down. Indeed, those slobs who seek

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264 The point has already been discussed in relation

to beds in the earlier chapter. It is interesting

to speculate, however, when the separation

between ‘couch’ and ‘bed’ appears in the modern

languages. The etymology of the word testifies to

a fundamental link with ‘bed’, since the French

root is ‘to lie down’ (coucher). The word certainly

exists well before the eighteenth century but does

not mean a physical couch in the modern sense

of sofa. The contemporary meaning is hinted at,

however, in Shakespeare’s usage. For instance,

the old king’s ghost urges: ‘Let not the royal bed

of Denmark be / a couch for luxury and damned

incest.’ Hamlet 1.5.82–83; but ‘couch’ here means

‘the place where things bed down’ and does not

indicate a piece of furniture of a specific design.

Cf. Constance’s invocation to death: ‘Arise forth

from the couch of everlasting night’, King John

3.4.27, in which the word is not metaphorically

brought from a concrete reality to a transcendent

image but is intrinsically flexible, associated

with a resting place rather than an object of any

particular design.

265 In fact the settee can be found to have existed in

the late sixteenth, early seventeenth century in

Germany. But it is apparently only in the early

eighteenth century that the form was developed

with the sense of comfort and containment

embodied in rich upholstery and padding. At this

point, too, the type reaches a greater proliferation

and especially ‘takes off’ with the emergence of

a large middle class with well-appointed

living rooms.

the facility of taking a nap in the lounge room are inadvertently echoing the users of the

couches of antiquity.

In fact, to talk of the couches of antiquity is, in philological terms, nonsense. The distinction

which we assume between a bed and a couch had no currency in Greek or Latin. 264

All available words suggest either conception, bed or couch. The bed was a couch and the

couch was a bed. The object which, today, we know as a couch was developed in the eighteenth

century, 265 the age of intimacy. Prior to the eighteenth century, there were certainly

benches, capable of seating two or more people; and, in the sixteenth-century cassapanca,

the genus of bench already took on certain characteristics which we associate with couches.

Yet a cassapanca is not a couch but a kind of cassone, a box for storage which included provision

for seating: literally a ‘boxbench’, it lacks the connotations of intimacy and, of course,

the level of comfort which might be expected of a couch today. Such comfort, in any case,

was available in no other piece of furniture in the sixteenth century.

As we know from any consideration of chairs, the key factor in the comfort of restful

seating is the angle of the seat relative to the backrest. In order to be securely ensconced in

a relaxed posture, without fear of slipping to a point where the spine must carry the weight

of our trunk without lumbar support, the seat must be inclined so that our knees are higher

than our buttocks. This is no less true of couches than chairs; in fact, it can be said more

generally of couches than chairs because, as a seating arrangement, couches are designed

almost exclusively for relaxation whereas chairs may be designed for activities which demand

a more upright posture. But while the inclined seat is essential to the comfortable

seating expected of a couch, it seems foreign to those other functions mentioned above,

the storage of a cassapanca or the lying condition of an antique couch-cum-bed, the type

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used by psychiatrists, David’s Mme Récamier and most prolifically, the horizontal television

watchers of today.

Technically, at least, neither should present a real problem. If a couch is to include storage,

the lid can still be inclined so as to form a comfortable seat. Some storage space will be

lost by the unequal height of the lid; and the corresponding rake of the backrest may similarly

detract from the optimal volume for storage known from the cassapanca or even the

twentieth-century divan, a large and flat affair with a drawer underneath a layer of cushions.

Since couches are indeed large items of furniture, only exceeded by the bed in their

occupation of floor-space, they seem a logical target for dual-function designs. It would be

a good idea to include storage under a couch, though a loss of poise and the sense of delicate

balance of those engaged upon it may ensue. A couch which is also a box is technically

feasible in every sense (including ergonomically sound angles of seat and backrest) but it is

likely to be cumbersome in appearance and to fail to suggest the lively spirit of interaction

of the humans for whose intimacy it is meant to provide the lyrical context.

If a couch is to provide for the afternoon nap, again, there need be no problem in technically

reconciling the apparently contradictory requirements of an angled seat and backrest

for seating and a horizontal mattress for sleeping. If the angles cannot be reconciled by

gentle curves, the seat and backrest can be made adjustable. However, there is resistance

to an adjustable seat for a couch. Adjustable backrests have been in circulation for some

time. They allow the backrest to be folded down to provide a cantilevered addition to

the lying space already provided by a flat seat. Notwithstanding the proliferation of such

contraptions, the enthusiasm for hinged parts on couches seems restricted to backrests

(if anywhere) and does not extend to an adjustable seat. And, in any case, the presence of

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movable parts does not encourage confidence in the abiding nature of the furniture: it appears

makeshift and shonky, a result of impoverished circumstances, and seems unlikely

to penetrate the living room of anyone with pretensions. Ironically, we do accept moving

parts on a couch when the couch converts to a beda hugely popular formwhich is also

a very sensible concept. It is notable, however, that nearly all such designs have a horizontal

seat, when in couch mode, which is very uncomfortable to sit in for long.

There are also certain reservations which people might entertain concerning couches to

be slept on unless by such fold-out mechanisms; but we must make a distinction between

pieces whose sleeping role is fundamentally intended for night-time use and those which

can be exploited for the stolen afternoon nap. While some forms, such as that of the divan,

have been developed specifically to accommodate an extra sleeping body in the house at

night, the couch designed essentially for use during the day appeals to indulgence rather

than necessity. The divan could almost be defined as a bed which can be stripped back to a

couch for the daytime: it is a practical construct which offers households with a shortage of

space the advantages of extra accommodation with the same footprint. The main problem

is the labour in the daily transformations from bed to couch and vice versa; furthermore,

the horizontal surface which is suitable as a mattress is likely to be comfortable only to

those people with very long thighs.

The couch which is not designed to accept linen is a different matter. People decide to

recline on it not because they need a place to sleep for the night. Their bed is in the bedroom

but they just feel like stretching out in the lounge room. Those of a stoic complexion

loathe the habit because it suggests sloth rather than rest, a practice for indulging lethargy

rather than restoring vigour. A severe parent will still say to his or her child: ‘if one is so

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tired that one cannot sit up, one goes to bed’. When considering chairs, it was apparent

that seating is a moral construct. The presence of moral ideas is no less important in the

postural options upon couches. As in chairs, the disposition of the couch can be absorbed

or resisted by the sitting person. The act of resting on one’s side, for example, may seem

contrary to the nature of the well-socialized couch. Those who like to relax on the couch

and put their feet up in varied poses negate the participation of another person. The couch

as the context for vivacious interchange does not enjoy a spontaneous transformation into

a realm for one individual.

A couch is frequently occupied by only one person at a time; but all are designed for a

plurality. The space created by the furniture assumes a relationship at close quarters and,

even if a person is alone, it is difficult to preside over the room as in a chair. Most people

are modest in their solitary positioning on a couch, opting for a position beside one of the

armrests rather than in the centre. Not only do they have the benefit of the armrest but the

logic of the couch in relating two people is at least acknowledgedeven if not fulfilledby

the single person in the extreme position.

Some couches are designed to accommodate one person rather than two. The classical

bed type or chaise longue mentioned abovethat used by psychiatrists, Mme Récamier

and Canova’s Paulina Borghesedisplaces the sitting axis in order to create a lying axis:

the transverse is exchanged for the longitudinal. A very rhapsodic type evolved which

could allow and acknowledge both sitting and lying. The backrest for the sitting posture

was low and continuous, running into a sculptural curve at either end and becoming the

armrest in the same fabric with upholstery. At one end, however, the backrest rose in an

exaggerated curve, advertising the concentration of interest in the corner, the site for the

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reclining person’s back. Thus, lyrical and feline, the swelling form signalled the orientation

of the person as longitudinal as much as transverse, lying as much as sitting.

The curve in the backrest has greater expressive potential than that of the chair. Owing

to the dominant anthropomorphic reference discussed earlier, the outline of the backrest

of a chair can only be understood in the context of the shoulders and head of the seated

person. But the outline of the backrest of a couch is understood through interrelated gestures

of support, the propping up, the leaning upon the side of the rib cage, upon arms and

elbow: above all, the outline of the backrest can suggest the mutual holding of arms by the

occupants in their embrace. Instead of a merely physical reference, the backrest is gestural,

dynamic and dramatic. Its sensuality does not merely belong with a beautiful form but a

beautiful event.

Today, a minority of couches has such sensual curves in its backrest. It is a pity, too,

that they arise only in reproductions of antiques; though in some ways, the lack of originality

is understandable. Couches belong so enduringly to the eighteenth century that the

labour of recreating the concept may always involve re-experiencing the excitement of an

eighteenth-century frisson, a shudder of stolen dainties, the sense of precious moments in

which people’s company is enjoyed outside all conventions of formality but nevertheless

is conditioned by delicacy and sensitivity. While this spirit may be confined to a moment

in history, it would be good to restore its agency in design without merely reproducing its

outer results.

2.4 Tables

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2.4 Tables


The table is reserved for action. Other pieces of furniture may serve more directly, supporting

the body or issuing light; but the table, standing independently, proffers a settled context

for achieving something. You are invited to act upon its passive surface to some purpose,

even if only to rest the cup of coffee in order not to nurse it in your hands. The table is

a stage upon which you act out some of the most immediate dramas of daily life. All rooms

with a table are a theatre and the question is only whether or not there is an audience as

well as histrions. Other pieces of furniture may directly define relationships with their user

but the table is a stage upon which any play can be performedfrom the most banal to the

most excitingdepending upon the script within.

Tables are seen by contrast with our other items of settlement. The chair serves the

anatomy and cushions us from the discomforts of gravity: in accepting its service, you

become passiveyou submit to its careand your reliance upon it for posture establishes

an attitude, an disposition preconceived in the design. The chair may dignify lassitude and

assuage fatigue; alternatively, it may allow space for energetic interchange, to be vigilant or

stimulated, to lean forward to type or eat. Whatever posture is determined, your accommodation

by the chair relieves you of the responsibility for physical support and, to that extent,

the furniture takes care of decisions, disposing of the problem of will by pre-emptively

comprehending desire.

The table tends to the opposite. It is a space upon which you are expected to act, to have

resolved to do something or, at least, to put something and not merely to succumb or abandon

yourself to a beautifully designed recreation. The table is like an open book, perhaps

even an empty book, which has all the pages but no text. The circumstances are established

but no writing has commenced. It seems no accident (though it is certainly a philological

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266 It is only in Medieval Latin that tabula means

table, since the classical word for table is mensa.

At the most, the tabula was a counter or office

where the tablets or public records were kept,

Cicero, Oration for Quinto 6.25. Nevertheless, it

is interesting that the derivation of tabula appears

to be a board or a plankthe sort of substance

out of which a table rather than a writing tablet is

made, whence, perhaps, the term for a cottage

or tavern (taberna). The image of the ‘table’ as

we know it seems to haunt the etymology, maybe

in the essential image of the beam (trabs). In

English, however, the resonance of the ‘tablet’ in

the ‘table’ has not escaped our poet. So the young

prince, foreswearing his youth’s education: ‘Yea,

from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all

trivial fond records, / all saws of books, all forms,

all pressures past / that youth and observation

copied there;’ Hamlet 1.5.98–99.

267 Following visual archaeological evidence

(especially vase-painting), some believe that

Greek tables were not used for eating. But they

assuredly were used for eating, since the word

frequently designates a dining table in Homer,

Odyssey 17.333, 447, and so on. Furthermore, the

table could represent the very notion of the meal,

as when Xenophon describes parasites, those

people who live at other people’s tables, Anabasis

7.2.33, 3.22; cf. Herodotus, 1.162, Euripides,

Alcestis 2, Sophocles, Oedipus the King 1464. As

such, the table was associated with luxury, as in

Aristophanes, Fragments 216, Plato, Republic

404d. Cf. Plato’s reference to beds and tables

which equates them in terms of function, Republic

373a. The meaning of the Latin table (mensa) also

extended to what was served upon it, that is, the

food, as in Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.35.100.

coincidence) that the notion of a ‘clean slate’ or beginning means a ‘scraped table or tablet’

in Latin (tabula rasa) and that the English word tablet doubles for table in the ancient language.

266 The modern notion of a table is indeed a beginning for action: it somehow suggests

the potential for a textthe tabula is there to be written on, like the tablets of Mosesbut

nothing as yet is formulated, not even inchoately. The table on its own is always

waiting for something to happen upon it.

All pieces of furniture are waiting to be used; but the use that becomes their fulfilment

represents an allaying of variety, an attenuation of energies, an ordering which favours resolution

and finality. Shelves may be considered in this light, even though they are implicated

in a process: the domestic shelf wants to provide a home for its objects for as long as necessary,

at least till such time as energies of another order prevail and abolish their right to

such a home. The condition that the shelf serves in that bracket of time is storage.

Tables are different. They are not primarily designed for storage: that which is placed on

a table is not expected to remain there indefinitely but will either be used, removed to its

home or disposed of. The table is not a natural home for many items: in fastidious households,

not even the pepper and salt shakeritems used nowhere else but on the table

may remain on this surface. The table is a busy surface, accommodating things only as long

as they are to be employed. When a table has objects domiciled upon it on a permanent

basis, it tends to change its status from table to sideboard, even though it may not have any

intrinsic orientation to the wall.

This was not always the case. Domestic tables, at least, were not always intended for

practical purposes. Eating, for example, in antiquity was usually performed upon beds. 267

Writing was done on the lap. The table, meanwhile, was often a small affairrather like the

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268 The word (τραπεζα) can mean the plinth of a

statue, Corpus inscriptionum græcarum 4703.7, or

a lamp-stand, Papiri greci e latini 4.428.39

269 Matthew 21.12, Mark 11.15. The word table

(τραπεζα) already designated ‘bank’ in classical

times, as in Plato, Apology 17c, Lesser Hippias

368b, also Lysias, 9.5, and Demosthenes, 36.6.

The financial institution is represented by the

item of furniture in Latin as well (mensarius).

The meaning of the word as ‘bank’ indicates

a logical and fundamental persistence of the

image of the flat surface for dealing, noted in the

derivation of our own ‘bank’, through the Italian

bench (banco).

chiffonier of the cubistswhich held the family portrait busts or relics. In such a role, it

was little but a substitute plinth or podium, offering a base for a certain number of objets

d’art. 268 There is no evidence in antiquity for a horizontal table upon which all kinds of family

business may be conducted. State business must have required tables, to be sure, such as

the proverbial tables of the moneychangers that Jesus overturned in the temple. 269 However,

this commercial convenience aside, the status of the table as a more or less autonomous

surface resisting service to permanent items and instead remaining free to traffic was

apparently not a general part of domestic life.

It is unnecessary to be pedantic about the rights of objects to abide on this surface.

Every household permits a table its own degree of clutter; thus, a vase in the middle may

permanently establish centrality for a dining table or a toaster may have no home other

than the kitchen table. It would be mean to disqualify the poor kitchen table as the thing

that it isjust because it harbours immigrantsand demote it to a shelf. The key quality is

the space which the table provides for transactions: it offers scope for spread, even if some

small part is permanently engaged with a static object. The prime purpose of the surface is

to allow the laying out of materials and their gathering up upon perusal or rearrangement.

The inhospitability of the surface to colonization by objects has a logical expression in

the behaviour of the table in the room, its location and the relationships that it establishes

with surrounding space. There is always something inaccessible about a table, even a table

in the most intimate situation. There is little relating the surface to any intelligible volume

or plane: there is no internal element but only an expanse, a sheer outlay of distances in

two dimensions. The only surface to which it provides an analogy is the floor, perhaps the

ceiling as well. It is a hard plane upon which any upholstery is ephemeral: the institution of

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table cloths is itself a mere tenant, a layer of unnecessary material whose existence actually

reinforces the insulation and remoteness of the surface. The cloth or place mats have to be

removed for practical reasons and there can be no attachment. And where there is a certain

softness under the cloth insinuated by a layer of felt, it is still unthinkable that anything

should really bed down on the surface. The dampening is only introduced further to protect

the pristine surface or soften the clatter of glass, cutlery and crockery upon an otherwise

hard tablet.

An analogy with the floor or ceiling can be noted in a coincidence in the evolution of

the table in western interiors. As we know from paintings, such as those of Vermeer, the

table was often covered not with a cloth but a carpet, an eastern rug, the kind that was subsequently

given to the floor. Like the floor, everything happens upon the table: for symbolic

purposes, the underneath is secondary. In practical terms, to be sure, the place of knees

is as important as the place beneath the floor boards (perhaps even constituting further

apartments in a multistorey building) but nobody wonders about the room below in either

situation when contemplating how the surface is to be used. The waiter setting the table

cares as little about the room for people’s feet as the householder placing a chair in a corner

cares for the flat below.

Yet the floor attracts fixed items upon it at certain points: it is a surface naturally marked

by points of entrance, windows, chimney and so on. The tabletop is less endowed with natural

features: it is a near-abstract plane upon which an item has equivalent status regardless

of precise placement. There is no logical place for a book to be put down; there is scant geographical

reference upon this uninterrupted horizontal plane. It is as though the floor has

become elevated to such loftiness that it will not have to endure the fixity of circumstantial

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points of reference. The higher floor space is an abstraction of the lower: it is an arena deprived

of hearth and lintel that respects the ceiling without the limitation or connection

of walls.

The tabletop represents a shiny protocol of flatness. It is necessarily sheer and intolerant

of irregularity. While the table is certainly limited in its span, the tabletop aspires to continuityit

more often than not has no inherent form which signals its own boundaryand

so pertains to infinite extension. The archetypical plane is well known to us from the early

century as the sharp metaphor of universality and any designer arranging a tablet upon legs

must contend with the severity of this conceptual status. The tabletop, as humble as it may

seem, looks awfully like a universal form, an arrogant generality sheering off all claims to

location, particularity and place. Fixity is foreign to to this space, since it may be used for

rolling the pastry, sorting out the shopping, eating, paperwork and so on. Depending on

the context, the table might have no greater pertinence to one of these activities than to

any other.

Thus, even from a functional point of view, it is difficult to imagine a nook on the tabletop,

much less to consider the whole table intrinsically endowed with a genius loci. The

shape of the table may have some bearing on the surrounding space and so establish a

positive rapport with fixed location. For example, a table for a corner may be designed with

two edges forming a right angle and the third consisting of an arc joining the two straight

edges. In this way, the design of the table commits itself to a location. Merely in describing

an arc, the surface pertains to an infinite subtending of space, that quarter of the compass

between the rays of the right angle. It would seem wrong to have such a design placed in

the centre of the room.

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Although a table may be emphatically axial in orientation, it is not fundamentally designed

to refer to a particular direction. In this, it differs greatly from a chair which, of course,

points ahead and allows the seated person an address in only one direction. Apart from the

corner version, the table has no facing action, even though it may be aligned longitudinally.

Certainly, a table can be made to face a room, simply by being shunted against a wall so

that the side opposite the wall fronts onto the room. But this incidental contingency is not

an effect produced by the design. A tennis ball acquires a certain orientation as it meets the

tennis racquet; but there is nothing intrinsically directional about the ball; it is the form

most conceived to lack directionality, to have an even rebound, to be equal from every aspect,

to have no bias or to be differentiated in any characteristic at any point.

There need be no difference in design between a table shunted against a wall and one

standing in the centre of the room. The same table can do both, just as the ball can be imagined

in mid air, on the ground or caught in the gully. A table is a centrepiece only because

it is used as such: it stands against the wall only because it has been moved there. If any

aspect of the design signals an accommodation to the wall on one aspect, we would tend

to call the thing a sideboard rather than a table. (Of course, there are exceptions to this,

apart from the one mentioned above: for instance, a double dropside table may be adjusted

with one leaf up and the other down and then stationed with the down side against the wall.

Thus, unless the table has drawers, it is not intrinsically oriented but a drawerless table can

have the capacity to be so in a given context.) The essence of the table is not to be disposed

to a single point of address but to be capable of being positioned to privilege any of its

identifiable aspects.

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Insofar as tables can be designed for one type of location rather than another, it is by signalling

an absence of attachment. The best example is the circular table. This is clearly intended

to be a centrepiece, since it disclaims any pertinence to the walls and instead suggests

the passage of people around it, rather as though it were an island. The table can therefore

show its distance from other things: it is not so well equipped to show attachment. It could

certainly be argued that the centrepiece does advertise a pertinence to surrounding space,

just because it constitutes a hub around which the life of the room takes place. But this

status is achieved by formal independence, a kind of disdaining to come in contact with

the rest of the room. While the structure can advertise the centrality of the space, therefore,

it miraculously preserves the abstract quality that distinguishes it from other items

of furniture.

The table resists attachment and, in its freedom in space, shares more with the chair

than any other major category of furniture. Items such as beds have a natural pertinence to

the wall. You would find it strangely impersonal and dislocated to have a bed unattached

to a wall at its head. The attachment of a bed to the wall does not have to involve physical

anchorage but merely a natural closeness in the parallel surfaces of wall and bedhead, an affinity

of verticals terminating the horizontal themes of mattress and floor. The bed is always

engaged to the wall in order to be identified as a logical locus for the human body to assume

the lying posture: it must show itself to be oriented for the presiding of bodies either sitting

up or sleeping, in any case with special importance accorded to the head. If the head of the

bed were not contiguous with the wall, the sleeper would appear to lack any restful security,

to be floating in an undefined expanse of room. You would only expect to encounter

an unanchored bed in the middle of a hospital ward or military dormitory. Against this,

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271 Many people would spontaneously consider

the key aspect of a table the social role, the

function of bringing people together. With the

table, therefore, we tend to associate familiarity,

conviviality, bonhommie and so on, even though

tables may be used more often for activities

unconducive to such positive qualities. But see

Montaigne’s values: ‘A la familiarité de la table

j’associe le plaisant, non le prudent; au lict, la

beauté avant la bonté; en la societé du discours,

la suffisance, voire sans la preud’hommie.’ Essais

1.28, Rat ed., p. 209. Many, of course, associate

the table with the pleasure of eating. Montaigne,

himself, affirms that he is never hungry except at

table, ibid. 3.9, p. 415.

270 London National Gallery.

a chair is expected to be found in the middle of a room, perhaps even with a concourse of

people circulating around it. Despite its single direction, the chair is not expected to be

engaged to a wall.

The table represents a further stage of spatial autonomy. Like the chair, it can be conceived

from any angle and is expected to be encountered from any perspective. The chair

functions by analogy to the human bodyhence its peculiar prestige in the designer’s repertoirebecause,

while we humans certainly have a front and back, all views are intriguing

and significant aesthetically and semantically. You are oriented ahead and only look to the

side with difficulty; but the beauty and expressiveness of the body are perceived from every

angle. Such is a chair: frontality does not imply the negation of a rear. Indeed, it could be

argued that the essential form of the chair expresses the human back and bottom much

more than the front. In any case, there is little analogy to the table. You would have to imagine

a form like that of Titian’s Allegory of Prudence to evoke the action of the table, a triple

figure looking out in three directions (though you would have to add a fourth to provide a

satisfactory analogy). 270 The table is properly faceless insofar as it faces outward through

360º. At the very least, a table could be described as multi-faced.

Amid the disdaining to touch other things and to be uncommitted in space, the table

enjoys a peculiar address by other items of furniture, notably the chairs surrounding it,

paying court to its border in a dutiful and attentive assembly. In the abstract terms of form

and design, the table is haptophobic, untouchable, self-reliant and insular; but in the context

of the room, it is the very capital of sociability, the locus toward which not only the

chairs gravitate but standing humans as well. 271 The table demands attention: it has been

put there to receive people and their business; and so its spatial autonomy reflects a kind of

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organizational supremacy, a rule of convocation for humans and furniture, akin to the

gathering and collation of items upon its surface. A chair is drawn up to any object of interestsuch

as a table or televisionbut the table remains where it is: its lightness relative to

containing items such as wardrobes nevertheless does not allow it to be taken lightly. A table

can easily be moved, to be sure; but the plurality of chairs around a table (with or without

their people) establishes the tablethat unique plane which relates the chairs and peopleas

a semantically immobile focus.

Look under the table and you will see the same motif of meeting, a conference of feet

which corresponds to the hands acting upon the surface and in whose company the congregation

of chair-legs seems beyond number. For children, the underside of tables has

greater prestige than the nether parts of any other piece of furniture. Presumably scale has

something to do with it. And, wherever she has her kennel or basket, the dog seeks the underside

of the table when the humans assemble to eat. A dog can redefine a table. The humans

devour their food thereit is truebut another definition of the table is the dog’s

palace. The idea of expressing a central place where people meet is understood by the dog

more keenly than by the humans. The dog, too, is called to the table, as though by instinct.

Why does she lie under the table? It is not for food alone since, if well behaved, she does not

beg for tidbits but lies at everyone’s feet in the middle. When the dog begs, she does so from

the periphery of the table, not from the centre. The site under the table has special symbolic

value, not in terms of welfare but canine-human protocol. Nor is it for safety, since there are

more perils under the table than elsewhere: there is a greater concentration of feet excitedly

and blindly prodding the ears and tail and nose; for none of those animated feet can see

quite where it is kicking. But these incommodities do not lessen the charm of the place for

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272 Montaigne refers to the gnawing of bones beneath

the table and he regards it as pathological if

people get upset at the sound of it, Essais 2.12,

Rat ed., p. 671. See also Launce’s reference to the

aristocratic ‘company of three or four gentlemanlike

dogs under the Duke’s table’, Shakespeare,

Two Gentlemen of Verona 4.4.20.

the dog. 272 She stretches out serenely as the family or friends munch and jabber and shuffle;

she needs no satisfaction but the rude symmetries of her low architecture. You think that

she lies beneath your table; but she thinks that you have come to pay her court at her most

urbane hôtel. No table may be called properly aristocratic without a dog under it; for a dog

resting her muzzle on her paws beneath that platform of human zeal expresses all the contentment

to which the table could ever aspire in providing agreement and the gratification

of appetite.

When different sides in a dispute speak of settling their differences, they sometimes

refer to the site at which this takes place: sitting down at the table for working things out.

The notion of bringing things to a table invokes the commonness of the plane to all parties,

the equal disposition to all people sitting around it. The bringing together (conferentia) of

viewsperhaps to develop a platformtakes place on this level playing field, as we say, as a

symbol of meeting people not just at a certain location but upon a single altitude, bring the

elbows to rest on the same surface. Heaven knows what subtleties of etiquette are involved

in the organization of such diplomatic affairs. Who sits where provokes a hundred crises.

Most meetings over tables allow for a privileged position, usually the chairman or chairwoman.

At an elongated rectangular table, this position is normally taken as the head of

the table, a site of unquestionable prestige and authority. Another site that may acquire

importance, depending on the scale and disposition of the parties, is the centre of the long

side. The Christ in Leonardo’s Last Supper makes it unforgettable. As a theatre for human

interaction, the table is a political construct. The behaviour of people at meetings is, to

some extent, predetermined by their respective placements around the table. People participating

in conferences across tables have an acute sense of the hierarchical complexities.

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A given position around a table does not automatically denote a certain importance. For

example, the position at the head of the table may be typically honorific for somebody

understood to have authority; somebody lacking authority, meanwhile, may well feel subjected

and intimidated by being assigned the same seat, perhaps sensing that he or she has

been set up for interrogation. There is nothing axiomatic about the importance of people

in certain positions. Relationships are set out spatially; but the table acquires its own logic

that is predicated upon the will and character which people bring to it.

Many tables, such as those designed for conferences or formal dinners, are emphatically

dedicated to a social function and express this merely through their scale. At one level, the

number of people attending a given function can almost be equated with the importance

of the event; on the other hand, the construct of exclusiveness may be expressed by the

restricted number of seats relative to a large table. A small number of seats around a small

table will merely suggest intimacy, perhaps even modesty or indigence. But these subtleties

have to do with ratios extrinsic to the design of the table itself. Certainly these ratios

involve the proportions of the table but they do not end with those proportions alone but

with the seating arrangements for which they are the context.

Wherever there is an intelligible distinction (typically with large rectangular tables),

the breadth of a table is more expressive than the length. The length is significant insofar

as it indicates the number of people; but the breadth indicates the ability of one side to

gesture to the other, meet in the middle or share the space before them, perhaps jointly

taking whatever may be served from the centre. Thus, some tables have a disconcerting

zone which is out of reach: some even signal this by having a hole in the centre, a somewhat

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pretentious way of masking the sterility which would otherwise be visible in the emptiness

of an unreachable tabletop.

All tables are naturally endowed with a distribution of importance, proceeding from the

periphery and reaching to the opposite side. Thus, while also having a hierarchy of who sits

where in the axis parallel to the seated people, the tabletop varies in importance across the

table, that is, in the perpendicular axis. The territory immediately in front of each person,

no matter where he or she sits with respect to anyone else, varies in approachability, in usefulness,

in its appropriateness for one item or another, for one action or another. You could

imagine a distribution curve between the distance from the perimeter of the table and the

value of the area for key activities. The perimeter itself is useful only for leaning against.

No one would want to place a glass near the edge lest it be bumped over the abyss. In any

case, we normally sit close to the table, making the immediate zone of the perimeter too

cumbersome. The territory further toward the centre of the table rapidly assumes value, on

account of its convenience. Further inward, however, the table surface looses importance

as the things placed there become rapidly inaccessible, requiring a leaning action to be contacted,

perhaps even a standing posture to be retrieved.

Thus, not all parts of this abstract plane are equivalent in meaning. As in all design,

their meaning is dictated by function; and this changes in a roughly systematic progression

from the periphery to the centre. As suggested, the value and meaning of each space on the

surface depend on the seating arrangement. The height of the seat, the number of seats and

the distance from which they allow the table to be approached greatly influence the prestige

of the closer areas. In all these considerations, the gestural notion of reach holds sway.

The tabletop is a field over which human arms perform meaningful acts; and their compass

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273 It is easy to become preoccupied with eating,

given the ancient tradition equating the piece

of furniture with the meal that it supports. The

metaphor was current throughout the renaissance.

An example is when Montaigne declares that

‘les longues tables me faschent et me nuisent’,

Essais 3.13, Rat ed., p. 559, meaning long meals

rather than large pieces of furniture. But with

Shakespeare, the word becomes absolutely

identified with the institution of the household

and thus transcends eating. In this august role,

the piece of furniture may be compared with the

role of the bed. Queen Margaret severely explains

to Henry: ‘But thou preferr’st thy life before thine

honour: / and seeing thou dost, I here divorce

myself / both from thy table, Henry, and thy

bed...’ 3 Henry VI 1.1.246–48. The bed means the

marriage; the table means the household. In other

instances, the table means the company of people

assembled around it, e.g. ‘by the entreaty and

grant of the whole table’, Coriolanus 4.5.213.

is governed by codes of decorum, a linguistic matrix of convention. Intrusion into the

space to one’s side is uncouth: reaching too far in any direction will be construed as greed;

and yet a reluctance to embrace any part of this arena will appear stiff and insular.

The hierarchy between concentric zonesthat is, between one place and another

closer or further from the peripheryinvokes the order of gesture and convention, from

the extravagant behaviour of extroverted, hand-waving enthusiasts of Latin conversation

to the clipped table manners of old-time formal northern Europeans, people trained to eat

with books clamped under their armpits through rigid discipline. To such puritanical souls

(now very rare on the earth), the centre of a table must have appeared a sublime mystery,

known only to waiters and housewives. And since the centre of a table must have always

been out of reach, the breadth of a table must have expressed an awesome aloofness, a remote

grandeur akin to the vast height of ceilings in palatial chambers.

But let us not be preoccupied with eating. 273 We sometimes sit at tables for no reason but

to allow the surface to take care of our forearms. The table substitutes for armrests; though

it does not duplicate them: it takes our elbows far from our ribs. For some, this relief could

be the sole reason for coming to a table. Resting our forearms on a table is more expressive

than leaving them on an armrest. We appear both more casual and more in control when

our arms are on the table. It may even signify a gesture of frankness, as in putting your cards

on the table. The armrests of your chair belong to no one but you: hence, support for the

arm is individual and cannot suggest a shared disposition, that symbolic state of commonness

mentioned above. The tabletop not only enables the gesture to appear spontaneous but

sociable. It invokes interaction: the posture is generally thrown forward for a projection

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274 Republic 404d. Plato’s ghostly quest for the

‘fundamental idea’ or the essence of things has

already been noted in relation to furniture, since

in the same textcited à propos bedshe also

discusses the greater proximity of the bed to ‘the

idea of the bed’ than the painted representation of

the bed. I guess that my project throughout this

book is freely Platonic.

toward other people; but the vivacity suggested by the gesture of claiming support from

the table may be directed to other people, to an argument or to the soup.

Certainly, people may sometimes be found slumped over a table; but this sign of excessive

fatigue causes us concern: we recognize it as a lapse, a kind of abuse of the table. The

table is for the engaged and, in this theatre of elbows, we resent the occupation by the

somnolent. In a chair, our hands may be limp when hanging off the edge of an armrest; but

on the table, they are always apt to be figuratively placing an argument, slicing a cabbage or

arranging a serving. And so, when we acknowledge that we sometimes sit at tables for no

reason but to allow the surface to take care of our forearms, we must add that the table does

not merely fulfil a physical role: it supports our inactivity with the authority of business.

We take advantage of the table to insinuate activity even where we want nothing but relaxation.

The indulgence of a break in the day seems more easily justified at the table than in an

armchair or a sofa upon which no readiness for activity can be supposed.

As both shop for activity and court for sociability, the table is a complex structure. The

functional and symbolic construct allows ample scope for ambiguity. How, then, do we

want the design to express the essential nature of this thing? Do we always have to refer our

notions of the table to individual cases, feeling unable to generalize, feeling the need to observe

stipulations of circumstance before we can have any idea of the itemthe idea, the

form of the table, as Plato says 274 which we will call a table on account of its surface and

legs? Can we formulate any universal qualities that might match the abstract nature of the

plane? For example, what sort of psychological qualities might a general table embody, other

than an accommodation of action? How welcoming do we want it to be? How receptive,

how containing? How much should it deflect the address of those approaching it?

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The table, this quintessence of flatness, bears on surrounding space, to be sure; but it respects

the rest of the room with a strongly self-centred bias. The prime reference which

the structure makes is to the space above it; and so the address of the table seems forever

dictated by the supremacy of the horizontal surface, the tabletop which does not look out

but rather looks up to the ceiling. It has already been mentioned that a plane, conceived

abstractly, suggests continuity; and so, granted, a reference of sorts is issued to the greater

horizontal expanse of the room. Yet this is unaccompanied by the gestural pertinence of

the people who use the table, a claim assisted by the distribution of seats in their capacity

to suggest the lively interaction which takes place over the table and immediately around

its periphery.

That apparent contradiction between the horizontal orientation and the vertical reference

(the column of utility above the surface) brings us to the dilemma in the design of the

table, namely the irresolution of horizontal and vertical. The obvious assertion of the vertical

is produced by the legs. Before discussing the balance of these two principles, however,

we should consider one internal strategy for limiting the symbolically infinite extension

of the tabletop, a method suitably confined to the tabletop itself. The idea of establishing

the centrality of the tabletop has already been considered through the placement of a vase

or dish or candle and so on. This marking of place can be accommodated internally, by a

graphic treatment of the surface itself. Like a courtyard or piazza in the renaissance, the

tabletop can be patterned geometricallyby differences in colour or medium or counterparts

in a tableclothin a way that lends definition to the centre and the margin. If the

design delineates both the axis to the centre and the periphery, it will achieve a certain

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275 An alternative is to use a sheet of glass over a

sculptural form, so that the inscrutable flatness of

the surface does not deny the ‘episodic’ nature of

whatever plastic element supports it. EG Lucie-

Smith Furniture, Illustration 188, Allen Jones.

deliberateness in their relation, establishing the logic linking each part of the otherwise

slippery surface.

As a result, the surface is animated: the various parts appear to cohere in a dynamic

whole, intelligible through the architecture of their linear definition. It is impossible, certainly

impractical, to achieve this effect with three-dimensional form, since the smoothness

of the horizontal is essential to the functional integrity of the table. But that does not

mean that definition can only be achieved chromatically, through parquetry or some other

artificial inlay of materials, such as the ebonism of the eighteenth century. Analogous effects

can be achieved more simply and more honestly by advertising structural links between

components. Even planks joined by tongue and groove provide a logic that relates

one part of the table to the next in a progression both across and against the grain. 275

Such a naïve design cannot circumscribe the table. The horizontal plane will still spill

over its four edges, being unbounded by any motif declaring its own limits. Some margin

would be necessary to terminate the spread and bring the rhythms of the design to a conclusion.

While this may be achieved through a clever manipulation of components in the

essential structure, there is no reason why it should not be pursued with more artificial

means, perhaps less fussy and technologically unreductive than ebonism but nevertheless

applied to the surface as a graphic addition. Cheap laminex or formica finishes often

involve motifs that have been designed for a specific size of table. While these designs may

trivialize the tabletop, there is no reason why they should not be capable of establishing

space on the surface with elegance.

Certain traditions of lace also provide cues, even if sometimes embarrassing. While

lace has been developed as a covering, it has also been placed under glass upon tabletops,

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both for the protection of the lace and the coherence and practicality of the surface. In this

way (even if we do not like the appearance or the transformation of ideas, perhaps even

the devaluation of the lace-making tradition), the piece of lace no longer acts as an independent

cover but is incorporated into the structural strata of the tabletop. The surface is

therefore marked by whatever patterns belong to the lace, perhaps advertising a circular

design, perhaps marking the corners and so on. But surely such a homespun technique can

be advanced by artists and designers to accommodate the forms of the surface and project

their individuality.

The design of motifs, however they are integrated technologically, should not merely

reflect the structure of the table in physical terms: they do not merely have to lend emphasis

to natural features such as the edge or the centre. The whole business of the table can be

our aim, the movement and processing of things upon the surface. It would be a great opportunity

to express symmetries because the action that takes place on the table is reciprocal

in nature. A cycle of activity is always involved, by the very principle that nothing much

stays on the surface for long. This is not merely a saga ending with the removal of whatever

is put down: the same would apply to a shelf. The thing is put down at a critical point in the

trajectory of its life; it is taken away as this is completed. The reciprocal nature of actions

on the surface could be expressed in terms of production and consumption, beginning and

completing, and so on. It does not matter if it is homework or food, whether being prepared

or eaten. The state of things is expected to be changed on the table; something is achieved.

The design of the surface might therefore argue the transitions that occur upon it.

No other piece of furniture possesses this characteristic to the same degree and it seems

important to accentuate it rather than deny it, as frequently happens in the sedation of

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tabletops, either by an absence of any decoration suggesting structured relationship or by a

wadding of decorative material which makes the table into a resting place for the contents

of an antique collection. As noted, a table can be set up for a static display: before the advent

of mobile phones, its purpose might be limited just to holding a handset by a chair in

the hall. But even in these relatively inactive scenarios, the table does not withdraw from

the connotations of activity: it is still perceived as a service for effecting things. To answer

the phone is to do a job, like typing a letter. A kind of transmutation is always implied.

This quality extends to the ancestral portrait busts on the ancient Græco-Roman table,

before the development of the table as we know it. In its ancient habit, the table still differs

greatly from a shelf. The portrait busts are not placed in storage awaiting use, as would

happen on a shelf. They are active upon the table: they are placed for doing a job, for being

the subject of veneration: the ancient member of the gens did obeisance before this surface,

practicing a kind of devotion with due pietas. It is true that nothing really changed upon

the surface; but in the minds of the Greek or Roman, the inner feelings were received

there; the act of reverence took place before this domestic altar and, upon its exalted surface,

the alchemy of spiritual favours was imagined as productive. As an altar, of course, it is

a stage of transmutation par excellence, a plane of ideal conversion, the transubstantiation of

matter and spirit.

But let us remain physical; because each perception of the subjective arises from a material

presence. The abstract concerns discussed so far are probably the last to be entertained

by somebody buying a table. People want to consider tables by a typology of convenience.

The indices of small and large, high and low, light and solid, folding and fixed and so on,

are combined in people’s consciousness with definition of location and function, such as

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‘kitchen’, ‘outdoor’, ‘dining’, ‘coffee’, ‘hall’, and so on. It provides a motley system of classification

if we want to describe it comprehensively; but retailers and consumers have no

difficulty identifying what is wanted, because they possess a unique idea of what it is and

do not need to conceptualize that unique thing alongside the hundreds of variants which

it excludes.

Definitions are predicated on exclusion: they arise by a negative process of eliminating

complements, even as we seek the essence which is distinct and, in one sense, has nothing

to do with the items eliminated. And so it pays to consider the margins at which a table apparently

ceases to be a table and becomes something else. The categories surrounding the

table, then, are the shelf, the counter, the bench, the chest, the desk and the sideboard.

The sideboard has been seen in terms of its orientation and the internal volume distinguishing

it from a table that is simply placed against a wall. An orientation achieved by

means of any interruption to the surface disqualifies the object as a table. For example, a

board at the back designed to meet the wall declares an affinity with the walla belonging

to the sitethat denies the abstract continuity of the surface. The aborting of the horizontal

by a board signals deference before the wall: the surface terminates its claim on space

to serve the wall. But a vertical board on the tabletop is not the only element to declare an

anchorage to the wall and consequent address to the rest of the room. The same directionality

can be achieved by the legs of the piece figuratively stepping in one direction. Indeed,

sideboardswe could even call them sidetables to underline the subtletyhave often

been designed with unequal legs. The foremost legs are more elaborate with more purposefully

defined feet than the rear legs. Similar traditions can be found in chairs. The hind

legs are often far less architectural or theriomorphic than the front legs, lacking turnings

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or paws and so on. Instead, they frequently preserve a tensile curve that links them with

the backrest.

But whereas the chair can exist in the centre of the room, as noted, a directionally defined

table must abide with the wall and so becomes a sideboard. Those chairs most given

to occupying the centre of a room, namely dining chairs, are expected to have an engagement

at their front rather than back. They are attached to nothing at the rear whereas they

figuratively pounce toward the table around which they are assembled. Such chairs, indeed,

may seldom be seen from the front: in effect, this only occurs when they are displaced from

their natural location around the table, when they are superfluous and are cast to the periphery

of the room awaiting promotion to the elect. The universal address of the table, that

is, its reference around 360º, demands the submissive attention of all chairs.

The absence of an internal volume points to a margin at which a table may cease to be

a sideboard (as in a credenza) but also may cease to be a desk or counter or chest. Any sort

of cupboards, drawers or shelves underneath the horizontal surface tends to disqualify the

piece as a table. Yet we are simply looking at a grey area, no hard and fast distinction. For

example, a low table, a coffee table in a lounge room or the telephone table in the hall will

frequently be fitted with a shelf under the surface. This installation may play an important

role, not merely in housing magazines in the lounge room so that the surface can be used

for other purposes: essential aspects of the table may be fulfilled, as in the telephone table

where the telephone books are accommodated by this rack. Furthermore, the construction

of the rack may be integral with the whole piece (as when the rack is developed as a commodious

extension of the stretcher) and, in this sense, it is not fair to speak of an ‘installation’

in the sense of something fitted subsequent to the creation of its environment.

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In all events, some margin of open storage beneath the surface is to be admitted in our category

of table. It is unlikely that more than one rack could be incorporated without the object

rather attracting the name of shelf. The designer of a low table must always encounter

the temptation to develop the space under the little surface. Unlike the space under larger

tables, that under the coffee table is good for nothing. There is too little to accommodate

your legs, unless the surrounding furniture is very low as well; and in any case, it would be

uncomfortable to have your legs stretched under a low table while sitting on a low settee

and face the prospect of getting up. Fastidious householders will always like to be able to

clean under their lounge-room furniture; so you could add that the space has a value in

providing people with chores if chores they want.

Given that the space might otherwise be usefully employed, it is convenient to shut it off

altogether, since those who find euphoria in cleaning will be frustrated by the excessively

restricted space. If we shut the space off altogether, we need walls; hence the little surface

becomes a lid to a volume beneath. Such an object would neither attract the name of table

or shelf but chest. This very undervalued category of furniture deserves a discussion of its

own. The table is arguably closer to a shelf than a chest, since a chest is primarily an object

for storage and, if it suggests action, it is in the removal of itself from site to site, as in the

travelling chest. It is hardly an object to which people come in order to perform various

kinds of transactions.

Workbenches, counters and desks of all sorts, meanwhile, are uniquely contrived for

such activities; and their difference with the table is apparently more formal than functional.

Closed storage is generally involved, giving the object some substantial and significant

volume beneath the surface. This is easily recognized in formal terms but it is equally

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important in symbolic terms. Being closed storage, it is generally given access from one

side only. Workbenches, counters and desks of all sorts thus reveal their bias. They are operated

from one side and approached from the other. They may stand in the centre of a space;

but there is a sharp distinction between someone arriving or checking at a counter and

someone behind the counter.

Such places are certainly all about business, since they separate the two sides of a transaction,

those who buy and those who sell. Counters are the markers of a one-way service

and separate public from personnel. They are oriented to express the nexus between them

but do not figuratively extend beyond the point of transaction. It is notable that the semiotics

of tables as distinct from benches are understood by real estate agents and car sales people

as well as furniture sales people. A customer proceeds from enquiry at a counter and,

if he or she is interested, will perhaps move to a desk to speak to one of the sales people.

But at the stage when the company has to convince the customer that he or she will have

to spend five times more than he or she can afford, a table will provide the best site, a nice

general site which can bring people together in an insidious implication of partnership. It is

easier, in such circumstances, for a further agent to enter as another friendly participant to

exert his or her skills in persuasion.

In fact, the formal difference between the benches or desks and the table is sometimes

less notable than the semantic difference, the behavioural patterns which the form facilitates

and, in that sense, expresses. The two are obviously linked. An enclosed volume beneath

the surface does not automatically disqualify a table from the name of table. Granted

that many tables are given a skirt, a narrow band of wall beneath the surface, a space exists

in which drawers may be inserted without a strong formal expression of their separate

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276 Conceptually, we could even argue that the legs

are less essential, as they simply serve the surface.

The abstract supremacy of the surface is borne

out philologically by the word in its use in Greek

geometry, trapezoid (from table, τραπεζα), as in

Aristotle, Problems 911a7.

function, their wholly different action from that of the surface. Even when no attempt is

made to marry drawer and skirt at an imperceptibly fine line, the drawer can be formally

acknowledged and still allow the table to be a table. Such is the case, for example, when we

speak of a sewing table, which usually has some kind of drawer beneath the surface and,

furthermore, can only be operated from one side, the same side from which the drawer

is operated.

But these are only margins. You know a table when you see one. Upon this confidence,

however, who will hazard a definition or an explanation of its essence? A table is a horizontal

surface held from the floor at something less than belly height by vertical supports. If

much is added to the two elementsa single horizontal surface and vertical supportsthe

thing approaches a structure with a different name. Furthermore, while the vertical supports

may be singular or plural, the horizontal surface must be unique or, at least, one horizontal

surface (somehow designated as a tabletop) must dominate any other in the design.

Perhaps no other piece of furniture is constituted by so few elements and such reductive

elements. For argument’s sake, we can call them surface and legs. This is the formal essence

of the table. 276 Let us ignore architectural extrusions from the wall pretending to the status

of breakfast table by means of a sly bracket rather than a leg or gate.

One of the most fundamental dilemmas which we face in design is whether to imagine

the essence as best celebrated by a reductive concentration on the elements, eliminating

everything unnecessary, or whether to imagine that these elements can best be celebrated

through elaboration, by expressive decoration. When we seek the essence of anything, we

arrive at a statement of purity. Is the destiny of design to capture that notion of purity and

limit itself only to the replication of an axiomatic simplicity? Or is the destiny of design to

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transcend this severe formula, to go beyond the reiteration of a basic construct of principles

and to dramatize their physical action as they meet their symbolic consequences through

functional contact with the human?

The search for the essence of anything should never stop with the form. If a table is essentially

surface and legs, that does not mean that it is essentially a horizontal and a vertical

in whatever combination. It is composed of those elements, to be sure; but the essence that

we seek is a relationship between them. Horizontal and vertical perform entirely different

thingstherefore have a different essenceand the design must somehow decide to

reconcile them, let them clash or deny their difference altogether. Indeed, if we approached

the table from a purely formal point of view, we may regard it as logical to create horizontal

and vertical in the reductive simplicity that would equate them. Both would be seen in elevation

as a uniform line of even thickness and colour: as the elements, they would appear

equivalent. This would deny the symbolic and functional difference between horizontal

and vertical.

As in architecture, the vertical is a motif of support, typified in the action of a column.

The horizontal may be either a base that lends support to columns or, if it rises above columns,

it will be a beam, a tensile element deriving support from its ends and supporting

itself in the middle by dint of internal rigidity. The architectural formula so well known

through the classical tradition as trabeation or post and lintel form assigns a very different

design to the two elements. The column is accentuated in its verticality by means of fluting,

the separation of top, middle and bottom, and even entasis. The horizontal at the base

is expressed as built up of many series of horizontals by a plethora of grooves and ogees.

As an entablature, it is broken up as so many massively compressed forms (triglyphs and

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2.4 Tables


metopes) in order to stress the carriage over space as a mighty beam. This ancient system of

elaboration expressed the functional and symbolic essence of the structure.

Indeed, if we can just escape the absolutism of horizontal and vertical demanding a

Mondrianesque equivalence, we arrive at one of the most basic and exciting challenges of

design: how to join horizontal and vertical. If we simply allow horizontal and vertical to

meet (as in Mondrian’s grid), we cannot conceive of a join by which one relates to the other

to reinforce their positions. In the unarticulated crossing of the two lines, horizontal and

vertical slip past one another or collide as though by accident. Furthermore, the unarticulated

meeting of horizontal and vertical is not strong by nature. If it is strong because the

materials are strong, there is nevertheless no expression of the strength and, ironically, the

mighty steel or fibreglass structure will appear flimsy.

Thus, for centuries, designers have evolved a whole vocabulary of brackets, a motif

whose purpose is to marry horizontal and vertical. From the heavy volutes of the renaissance

to the gridded clusters of Chinese design, the bracket has performed the linkage in

a way which advertises the join: the meeting of horizontal and vertical is ceremoniously

relayed through the forms of the bracket or half-arch to suggest the passing of energies

from one element to the other. In this architectural institution, the agency of horizontal

and vertical is dramatized. The stresses acting upon each are passed through the diagonal

sweep of the volute or the multiplicity of right angles of the oriental grid. In the volute or

arch, stress is dissipated through the roll of one plane onto another; in the Chinese bracket

(k’ang), stress is distributed through the ramification of minor joins, each contributing

to the strength of each other and hence the greater join which they assist. The join is not

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only physically strengthened by the bracket but is symbolically bolstered by the display of

stress-transfer and is hence the very expression of the join.

A system of brackets acting on the legs is attractive to the designer because the placement

of the legs with respect to the surface can be strengthened without the encumbrance

of a stretcher. A stretcher may have architectural presence of its own and may enhance the

presence of the table as a whole; but nobody likes kicking it. All manner of bruising creations

have strengthened the works of the table with sculptural pomp but, from the shin’s

point of view, the area under the tabletop should ideally be as free as possible. Apart from

separate legs, two solutions provide a degree of freedom that guarantees them continuing

relevance. The first is the very traditional solid wall at either end; the second is the central

support, a solution that also has a long tradition.

In their traditional forms, these two arrangements contributed a plastic robustness to

the structure, even against practical imperatives. Indeed, the practical problems are obvious.

Even semi-solid ends embarrass anyone who wants to sit at either head of the table,

since he or she will confront a rigid structure through which human limbs will not decorously

pass. The table achieves monumentality at the expense of the knees that grievously

experience its rigour. If the wall is recessedthat is, if the tabletop cantilevers beyond the

verticalthe wall is likely to interfere with the seating arrangements on the long sides,

since they will intercept the space beneath the surface at some arbitrary distance from

the ends. Furthermore, because the recession creates an overhang of the surface, the top

part of the solid wall will scarcely be visible unless the spectator crouches down to inspect

it. As a result, the very moment of encounter that we might want to dramatize is hidden:

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the joining of horizontal and vertical is suppressed and, in such remoteness, it can hardly

emerge as an expressive theme in the design.

The advantage of the legs being placed at the corners is just that: the meeting of horizontal

and vertical is conspicuous and can be developed with architectural richness. The

extreme hiding of the join of horizontal and vertical is the final scenario mentioned, that

is, the single support in the centre of the table. It was a design understandably admired in

the Victorian period because of the pomp and authority that it accorded the centre as the

stalwart mainstay of the piece. But because the Victorians could tolerate nothing spindly,

the single support in the centre was developed as a mighty member, spreading through

complicated stages of horizontals to feet emphatically planted on the floor. While the join

between horizontal and vertical was hidden, a substitute was provided in the meeting of

the grand column and the horizontal floor. This was effected through a system of outwardly

stretching levels, each claiming greater empire than the last. The sense of hierarchy in

this meeting of horizontal and vertical could be induced upon the invisible one above. But

in the massive system of sustaining the column at the base, the table demanded a generous

spread of floor; and so it created an encumbrance beneath the surface. While the design

thus interfered with the feet and alienated the dog from her foot-warming hospice, it had

the advantage of at least not damaging the knees.

Today, the design of a single central support is felt not to require the muscularity of so

many feet splaying outward on the floor. Instead, we can enjoy a tablet poised over a pin,

a veritable celebration of neurological brinkmanship. As in the design of chairs, tables

emerged in the fifties with a hyperbolic curve in the support, appearing to adhere to the

ground like a suction cap and then rising upward with asymptotic attenuation. It was a

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celebration of geometry: it said as little for the table as it did for the chair. Nothing symbolic

could arise together with the manically launched conic section: no form could effectively

cap it as though logically proceeding from its energies. The bottom was figuratively speared

by its soaring ascent; and the tabletop was figuratively pierced like a target by a trumpetshaped


The meeting of horizontal and vertical principles that the table makes axiomatic is determined

by the relative thickness and the shape of the two parts, leg and surface. The balance

between the two is not simply a matter of the idiom of the join but extends to their relative

proportions. Unlike most other objects of furniture, the table emphatically stands: its

legs are longer than those of most other pieces and the poise that the table achieves through

its legs is potentially expressive in the highest degree. The vocabulary of turnings, tapering,

bulging, flexing with the tendons and bones of beasts, writhing with plant-like rhythms

and so on, has developed over the centuries to accentuate either a tensile stance in the table,

a suggestion of upward growth or an architectonic solidity which weighs downward. There

seems no systematic way in which to describe the incredible variety of legs other than

through the crude indices of theriomorphic, phytomorphic, architectonic and abstract.

Similarly, it would be difficult to describe the numerous treatments given to the horizontal

membernot the tabletop as seen from above but in elevationas it, too, may

be treated as an architectural cornice, a very flat arch, an abstract slab or box, a rhythmic

screen and so on. The vertical part of the horizontal member importantly emphasizes the

strength of the surface, its rigidity or tensile poise. But this vertical part of the horizontal

member (let us call it the skirt) has practical disadvantages which limit its scope. Since

most tables are to be sat at, the skirt deprives us of legroom. If the skirt is too magnified,

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277 Symbolically we know it must be so. The table

is the piece of furniture symbolizing not just

the unity of the family but also serving the

entertainment of guests. Alberti is keen to

emphasize that the integrity of the family depends

upon its physical cohering under one roof and

around one hearth and one table, as Giannozzo

explains: ‘Vorrei tutti i miei albergassero sotto

uno medesimo tetto, a uno medesimo fuoco si

scaldassono, a una medesima mensa sedessono’,

Della famiglia 3, Romano and Tenenti eds, Turin

1980, p. 232. In the chapter ‘Interiors’ of my own

Expressions of Purpose, Melbourne 1992, there is

a discussion of the lost centrality of the kitchen

table as a hub of the family. Today, as suburban

households fragment before the television in the

‘family room’, each soul may eat dinner on a tray

in the abject detachment of the separate chairs.

The scenario makes me think of the alienated

Timon: ‘let him have a table by himself, for he

does neither affect company nor is he fit for’t’,

Timon of Athens 1.2.30.

there will need to be too great a difference between the height of the table and the level of

our knees: either there will be a danger of hitting our knees on the skirt or the tabletop will

have to be uncomfortably close to our chin.

For the same reason, any structural framework beneath the surface should be minimized

to allow the greatest amount of freedom for the legs. It is pleasant to be able to cross

our legs under a table. But while the design should provide for the uninhibited posture and

relaxation of those seated, it should arguably not provide a spectacle of our legs, so that we

seem to be the subjects of our own gaze into a fishbowl. The thinness of the tabletop can,

for example, be taken to the extreme of a single pane of glass resting on finely connected

uprights. The use of such tables is disconcerting. The stability implied by a well-supported

horizontal is undermined by its very existence not having a corresponding visual manifestation:

the transparency of the glass denies the substance of the divide between under

and over; and the visual continuity through the glass sheet makes the support of objects

upon it seem irrational. It is as though the plates are floating and the cups levitating on

their saucers.

Through the agony of such innovations, the table is seen to be a conservative institution.

277 The glass surface is hardly a very radical step in terms of materials technology; and

yet it is upsetting in our perception of use and the symbolic value of a table understood

through convention. It is doubtful that technological advances will have a great impact on

the table. Support for the horizontal surfaces upon which we conduct so much of our lives

is always likely to come from beneath and, if suspension from above (or from some childishly

horrible force field) becomes practical, we are unlikely to dignify the result with the

name of table. The only imaginable threat to the venerable traditions that we perpetuate

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today is the superseding of the table altogether. This could occur through several pieces of

furniture supplanting the individual functions performed by the single piece today, the table.

Thus, we may envisage an eating machine in the kitchen that holds our dinner but does

not facilitate the children’s homework or the payment of bills. Yet there is as much reason

to think that general surfaces are likely to become more important, owing to the shortage

of space in our cities. At any rate, let us hope that even the distant future preserves this general

and lively forum and continues to find innovative solutions to the fundamental questions

of design.

3 Storage and stowing

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3. Storage and stowing


Embarrassingly, I have five bicycles. They have been accumulated over 35 years of cycling

and I cannot bear to throw them out. Two of them are relatively new and handsome fixedwheel

specimens; the others are old, and each serves a slightly different purpose which

justifies their retention, this one for carrying heavy things, that one for wet weather, and

some duplication is indicated in case I wake up and discover that the necessary bike has

a puncture.

All of these machines are somewhat large and require storage. We live in a townhouse

and there is little room for so many bicycles, let alone the two adult bikes that belong to

our children and my wife’s as well; plus we look after a bicycle for my wife’s cousin, who arrives

each year from Florence and is happily reunited with her beautiful bicycle, which we

keep under a shroud on an upstairs verandah. Reluctantly, I store two of my road bikes at

my parents’ house, which is in a leafy suburb and has a garage. Gratefully, there is no car

in the garage and the bikes can be domiciled there, along with two bikes which belong to

my father.

There is no commonly accepted furniture for bikes, because they are too big and the

furniture would waste space and quite likely look extremely ugly. Many hanging systems

have been devised with hooks or pulleys to get them out of the way; but the consensus in

my household is that such tackle would probably add to the air of mess. A bicycle standing

on the floor at least looks like a bicycle and the mind can figuratively take care of it; whereas

a bike suspended on a gantry looks, at best, like something strung up in a repair shop.

Part of the justification for the collection of bicycles is environmental; but there is an

evil paradox potentially attending this ecological piety. To occupy space is to consume,

because space is a resource like any other, with many ecological costs associated with it.

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Space has to be serviced, including when it is outdoor space. Indoor space has the obvious

charge of heating, cooling and lighting against it; but all space, and especially outdoor

space, has transport costs associated with it. To occupy land is to cause other people to

move around your land. In a city, where everyone’s occupation of land rapidly aggregates

to thousands of hectares, this collective detour will entail a large transport burden, unless

the occupation of land is extremely efficient, as in Paris or Tokyo. But in spread-out cities

like so many of those of the new world, the ecological transport costs are enormous, with

disproportionate damage to the atmosphere for the requisite energy. The consequence

of each person occupying a lot of land with private garages is the existence of low-density

cities; and with low density come several undesirable corollaries. It is unlikely that the

services that you seek, like schools, shops, day-care, doctor and work, will be within walking

distance or even cycling distance; so people use their cars. There is a fateful formula in

urban planning which tells us unwelcome home truths about our prosperous habits: the

more land that we occupy, the more kilometres and the more cars.

The bicycles themselves are green but their storage in a garage is structurally wasteful

and backward in terms of green urban development. Generally, our occupation of land in

the suburbs is profligate. The land is still cheap because the petrol is still cheap; and so long

as we do not mind burning petrol in motor cars, we have no cause to scrutinize the vagaries

of our storage. But once we begin to quantify the petrol beyond its market price and

consider its costs in terms of carbon footprint, a new need arises with threatening urgency

to examine all the causes for so many journeys of such considerable length that our population

feels forced to make each day, mostly in cars that depend on fossil fuel.

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Our bicycle collection may rate as eccentric but there are counterparts in too many contemporary

households. We occupy a lot of space with all kinds of collectionsreally worthy

things, too, like books, musical instruments, pictures and the decorative artsas well

as the massive stockpiles of clothing and footwear, suitcases, appliances, linen, electronics,

handbags, crockery, toys and of course furniture itself. Some are naturally disciplined

in their collecting habits but many more recognize no limit to their lust for acquisitions

except a lack of space; and if there were more space, there would be further acquisitions.

Sometimes, people decide that they need a plurality of bathrooms as well as toilets and

plasma screens. Children are no longer expected to sleep with one another but have their

own rooms; and frequently the storage of clothing requires separate rooms and not some

peripheral part of a bedroom.

Throughout middle-class culture, there is an aspiration to increase the size of the property,

to upgrade and enhance, to grow and express prosperity with rising levels of comfort

and volumes of appurtenances; and what was once regarded as luxury is now considered

standard. To some, this is not merely an aspiration but something almost predestined, an

expectation that serves one’s vanity and is supported by a sense of entitlement. We are, in

middle-class culture, structurally built around competition, jealous of our status and full of

zeal for tangible achievements; and none seems so tangible as the assets, the real estate and

the stuff inside it, for satisfying our ambitions and not falling behind our nearest friends

and rivals.

Technically, I could say that storing the bicycles costs nothing, because my family is not

about to alter its footprint on account of this light rolling stock. We were neither contemplating

an annexe to the neighbouring property nor otherwise using more productively the

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space where the bicycles now reside, say to accommodate another human. We are not up

to an extension or acquiring a bigger property. I think that we unconsciously say similar

things with most objects that come into the house. Our real estate is sufficiently large to

be tolerant and can accommodate extra things at the margin. So long as we do not cross

the threshold and decide that a larger place is in order or that we should extend or buy or

rent a studio somewhere to facilitate some part of our life that has been squeezed out by

goods! However, structurally speaking, this apparently inexorable pressure is cumulative

and grows to a point where we are dissatisfied with the limits. We gather things; and with

the material gathering comes the gathering of discontent. The ‘contents’ are forever in

potential and are not satisfactorily served by their container. We can put up with a given

container when we have no choice; but the increase in gubbins leads us to be ambitious

about the shell that visibly swells and strains in accommodating our fortunes. We seem

to have no choice but to maximize the holdings of the current envelope, while nurturing

barely suppressed hopes to augment the envelope. Ultimately we consume as much space

as we can. Of all the things that we are likely to get ourselves into debt over, space is at the

forefront. We are, from a commercial and psychological point of view, desperate for space.

There is nothing new in our dismay over the excessive production and consumption of

the western world, and much has been written deploring the consumer society since the

1960s. But we tend to relate the scandals of so much energy and waste to the ecological

costs of manufacture: we blame industry and more gently reprove individual greed and

consumption because they seem to cause the manufacture. This indignation is understandable;

but we can support the campaign by revealing a larger ecological cost which is

easily neglected. The manufacture is a certain burden but it is a once-off costat least for

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the life of the objectwhereas the space and energy that must be dedicated to holding it

are committed for a long time.

Because of the spatial tolerance of households, and the obscurity of the various thresholds

and quanta by which expansion is necessary, it is too hard to calculate the carbon

footprint for any object that occupies volume, like a suitcase; and things that are hard to

calculate are somewhat outside public awareness. That does not mean that they do not

have to be taken into account, when all logic indicates that the patterns of ecological damage

correlate with occupation of land and large houses.

It is necessary, therefore, to ponder what our storage is about, what kind of institutions

it involves, what its histories are. The aesthetic, the symbolic and the anally compulsive are

in self-satisfied conspiracy against the environmental. Storage since La Fontaine has been

associated with virtue: we like to allegorize our prudence in storing things, as if mistrustful

of the bank and its virtual deposits in the form of money. It seems to me unproductive

to denounce the things that people have and love, because the argument will only seem

misanthropic and may ultimately persuade nobody. Rather, the more valuable service is

to understand the various strands of pleasure, to see the images and fantasies that keep so

much material in demand; and thereafter, our challenge becomes poetic. We must follow

the method which is familiar from the last section: can we name these delights and extract

their joys by poetic contemplation rather than by avid ownership? Can we see the contentment

in the container rather than the contents and thus feel less need to expand either?

What might a wardrobe yield beyond the clothes that dangle from its rail? The future of

the planet depends upon our ability to gather the world in the virtual space of the imagination

rather than consume the physical space of property. We want to use what we have, to

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3. Storage and stowing


forestall the desire for what we otherwise crave and which the planet cannot afford, even if

we can financially.

3.1 Trunks

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3.1 Trunks


278 Chests and trunks have a history anterior to

the renaissance and reaching back at least as far

as Hellenic antiquity. Indeed, our own word

‘chest’ is derived from the Greek (κιστη), as in

the Odyssey 6.76 or Aristophanes, Acharnians

1098; though the meaning suggests a hamper

or basket. In Aristophanes, however, it means

a writing-case or desk, Wasps 529. In the same

text, furthermore, we encounter another word for

box, coffer or chest (κιβωτος), ibid. 1056 and the

same playwright’s Knights 1000; cf. Simonides

239, Lysander 12.10, Theophrastus, Characters

18.4. In biblical times, the chest was equated with

the prestigious items placed within in, as we learn

from the delightful descriptions in Ezekiel, listing

those who supplied the riches of Tyre: ‘these

were thy merchants in all sorts of things, in blue

clothes, and broidered work, and in chests of rich

apparel, bound with cords, and made of cedar,

among thy merchandise’, 28.24.

The topic of trunks and chests is elegiac. Though beautiful objects in their own right, belonging

to a magnificent epoch in history, trunks are looked on as a thing of the past. The

period of their greatest production was the renaissance 278 the two centuries from the beginning

of the fifteenth to the end of the sixteenthin which they crucially took part in

some of the splendid developments in the fine arts; for the illusionistic panels which we see

in autonomous frames in the museum sometimes belonged to cassoni and, in the sixteenth

century, the rich styles of relief sculpture developed upon the same objects, forcefully

three-dimensional and sensual.

The topic is elegiac because, in the seventeenth century, the demise of the trunk occurred

through the development of the wardrobe, the armoire. Wealthy households evidently

now saw the old cassoni as redundant and they fell to extinction, no doubt preserved

more out of a spirit of family tradition and pietas than appreciation for their function.

Indeed, their function is complicated; and it was apparently impossible to consider them

functionally complementary to the wardrobe. Unable to compete with the greater convenience

and efficiency of the wardrobe, the cassoni were not, it seems, recognized as something

distinct and still worthy of production. And so there is a hiatus in their history, some

three centuries during which a trunk was seen more or less only as an item of travel.

In the nineteenth century, there was a revival of the chest, just as the old forms from the

renaissance were revived across other categories of furniture. The English occasionally imitated

Italian cassoni and, more often, recreated the types native to Britain, trunks with simple

panelling and box-like habit. Yet Victorian times yielded no sustained reincarnation for

the hero of majestic renaissance rooms. Victorian England could no more recreate the cassoni

on a mass-market scale than it could reproduce the styles of the old masters in its

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279 The pathos of the trunk possibly registered

through the ‘indigenous’ trunks more than the

flamboyant Italian cassoni. The image of the seachest

is automatically romantic. Consider the

touching scenes in Shakespeare’s Pericles when

the king piously places Thaisa in a chest, ‘caulk’d

and bitumined ready’, Pericles 3.1.72, to be cast to

sea and subsequently to be opened in Cerimon’s

house when, in an impromptu funeral with music,

to everyone’s joy and amazement, its living

contents are discovered, 3.2.49 ff.

painting or the idiom of Chaucer in its verse. Their raison d’être had evidently become irrelevant

and the attempt to redeem their form from desuetude was tinged with pathos. 279

What would the Victorians have wanted with these monumental tombs for the linen?

Their expatiating horizontality only makes sense in the context of the sparsely furnished

chambers of the renaissance, ceremonial yet undesignated halls, each wanting to be an

atrium, each drawn up in a geometric correspondence with the measured courtyard and

each evoking an ancestral claim on the piazza outside. The sculptural decoration of the

later cassoni coheres with the mannerist relish in caprice and decorative contradiction but

has difficulty transcending a culture which does not sprout grotesques on its tables and

door-knockers and spread them about its ceramics. The cassoni were a construct both too

simple and too complicated to be absorbed on a large scale by even the eclectic Victorians

who, indeed, had a particular love of the classicizing but multiplistic decorative idioms of

the Italian renaissance.

Yet the topic is not entirely archaeological. It is elegiac because the spirit of the original

cassoni seems forever to escape us and yet to abide so forcefully in the majestic forms,

entombed in themselves as sacred relics in our galleries. The topic of chests and trunks is

by no means confined to the history of their decline; because chests and trunks are still

being produced and, albeit in cheap and tasteless forms, have a good outlook in mass production;

for wherever there is a coffee table, you could have a trunk, which gives you more

accommodation. We also have room elsewhere in our problematic disposability of space in

ecologically excessive houses and apartments. Though it seems melancholy to compare our

little pine boxes with those monumental renaissance pieces of sculptural architecture for

the interior, the morphing of the archetype continues. Ours are boxy; theirs had presence:

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280 This function is almost the opposite of that

associated with the origins of the trunk, as we

shall see, which deal with transport. So, too, the

conventional meaning of the word ‘case’, whence

the Italian magnitive ‘cassone’. A case is often

evoked by Shakespeare in relation to the home

of musical instruments, ‘for God defend the lute

should be like the case’, Much Ado About Nothing

2.1.98; cf. Falstaff’s amusing prose concerning

Justice Shallow, ‘the very genius of famine’:

‘the case of a treble hautboy was a mansion for

him, a court’, 2 Henry IV 3.2.351; and finally

the misanthrope Timon pathetically evokes the

inwardness and inertness of the instruments in

their case: ‘what need we have any friends, if

we should ne’er have need of ‘em? they were the

most needless creatures living should we ne’er

have use for ‘em, and would most resemble sweet

instruments hung up in cases, that keep their

sounds to themselves’, Timon of Athens 1.2.103.

ours are quaint; theirs were proud: ours are statements of domestic cosiness; theirs were

statements of the family’s magnificence and wealth: ours are for toys; theirs were for

ceremonial treasures.

Contemporary chests, unlike sixteenth-century cassoni, coexist with the very forms of

storage which, at the end of the sixteenth century, replaced the cassone. Our pieces mostly

derive from travelling chests, perhaps even tea chests. They are paradoxically closer to the

origins of this very mobile form of furniture, impermanent, and a substitute for other pieces.

It fills an important role, since the space under a low table is seldom used for anything if

not stretching feet. But we might find it difficult to justify the use of a chest on a bedroom

wall, where the storage-to-floor-space ratio is low, and the flipping lid does not allow items

to be placed on the surface without inconvenience every time we want to withdraw our

shirt or undergarments.

In its serviceable site of lounge-room or family room, the modern chest is useful and

practical but, as popular as it may be, it seems difficult to see it emerging as a major item of

furniture design. Every household must have many chairs and most have several pictures

with frames. Far fewer would have a single chest, much less two or three. The key storage

volumes are likely to remain high-rise structures such as wardrobes and tall cupboards.

Chests are only likely to be used for relatively light-use objects such as formal table cloths

and last season’s clothing. In a sense, the chest is confined to ‘cold storage’ although, as

such, it obviously offers only modest volumes. 280

In effect, the chest is not very efficient: the householder must open a lid (which may

have items placed upon it) and, in a kneeling position, must bend over the wall and plunge

the hands deep into the box. Furthermore, in a traditional chest, there is no shelving;

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3.1 Trunks


consequently, the lowest item cannot easily be located and withdrawn without first lifting

out everything on top of it, the whole contents of the chest. For ergonomic and cybernetic

reasons, we may well agree with the verdict of history, namely, that the chest is an anachronism.

But it is still worth discussing for its potential, which is shared not only in the Italian

tradition of cassoni but also Korean chests; and much could be done with the form.

More than any other category of furniture, chests and trunks refer to transport. All

trunks can be assessed properly in terms of portability: they constitute furniture for travel.

Materials were placed in them for safe keeping; but these goods were expected to remain

locked up for whatever duration and, at some point of arrival, they would be redeemed

from the case: they would emerge from their state of security in the chest to mark the destination,

dignifying the occasion by providing, by issuing their contents. Although a chest

might not move over a century, its simple operation suggests the pomp and ceremony of

repatriation: the contents are available after an interval of estrangement from the outside

world, an exile in time during which they were in a state of hiding, prepared for flight.

Our category of design is not elegiac in the sense of nostalgia alone: it is not merely

through belonging to history that it has such an aura of a past episode; because the existence

of the trunk, wherever and however formidably placed in an august interior, always

refers to packing up and leaving. If we are optimistically disposed, the trunk will refer to

the festivity of arrival, the thrill of finding our cherished belongings from another location.

In either case, however, the furniture suggests shifting, if not in the future at least in the

past. In this identification with movement, the trunk is archetypical furniture, as we are

always reminded in the Romance languages (mobilia, meubles etc.), items to be shifted.

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281 The phenomenon of marking place is evoked by

Shakespeare in the amusing scene where Falstaff

seeks a hiding place with the assistance of Mrs

Ford and Mrs Page (who suggests the kiln-hole);

but Mrs Ford advises Falstaff of Page’s intuition

for all such spots throughout the household: ‘He

will seek there, on my word. Neither press, coffer,

chest, trunk, well, vault, but he hath an abstract

for the remembrance of such places, and goes to

them by his note: there is no hiding you in the

house.’ The Merry Wives of Windsor 4.2.60–67.

(Earlier, Evans had said: ‘if there pe any pody in

the house, and in the chambers, and in the coffers,

and in the presses, heaven forgive my sins at the

day of judgment’, 3.3.223–226.) Cf. the trunk in

Imogen’s bedchamber, Cymbeline 2.2. Episodes of

the lover diving into a cassone are not uncommon

in the two centuries of Italian novelle before

Shakespeare (e.g. Bandello, Novelliere 1.3); and at

least one example can be found in early sixteenthcentury

comedy: Corbolo asks if there is a place

to hide his master, Flavio: ‘non c’è alcuna cassa,

alcun armario?’ Pacifico replies that there are

only two which would be insufficient to hide a

dwarf, La Lena 3.5.807–809. With less humour,

King John’s enemies are squalidly forced to ‘dive

like buckets, in concealed wells; To crouch in

litter of your stable planks; To lie like pawns

lock’d up in chests and trunks; To hug with

swine...’ King John 4.2.139–142.

The trunk is not as ephemeral as a suitcase but it, too, is not an institution of tidiness. It is

unlike a shelf not just because it seals the items with walls and a lid but because it resists

identification with a single place in a stable interior: the trunk will not spill its contents

precisely because it needs to be entrusted with their safety on the road. Things are not

sorted and filed in a trunk but gathered and stashed. Openness is a privilege of security

and, if enough comfort can afford enough exposure, a display can resultlike that upon

the shelfwhich projects orderliness and administrative regularity. Rather than an institution

of tidiness, the trunk is an institution of mustering and protection, of stowing and

security. It does not present its contents to the perusing gaze but holds its treasure tightly

within, as though preserving a secret as much as material.

The shelf provides a home for the shelved item; but it does so only because of the reference

existing among all the other shelved items. In its structure, the shelf is ‘slippery’ and

abstract, creating no protective abode for any of its inhabitants. But the piece of furniture

itself has a well designated home in the interior, existing between fixed architectural features

such as window and door. The trunk is the opposite. Its items within have a natural

home in the sense that they are buried where they have been laid; but the trunk itself has

no natural home in the interior: it is not a fragile structure which depends on the fixity of

its location but is a ‘self-contained’ or autonomous piece. The cassoni of the renaissance

were always designed to be placed against a wall but this orientation did not reduce their

wandering nature from wall to wall or from city to city.

The magic of the renaissance cassoni was that the peregrine spirit of their conception

did not deprive them of the most celebratory establishment of place wherever they were

put. 281 The cassoni firmly asserted that the place of sojourn was to be dignified: wherever

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the trunk was placed would be instated with pomp and festivity, as though the fickleness of

transit would complement the grandeur of arrival. In their developed formal vocabulary,

the cassoni of the sixteenth century powerfully suggested permanence. Insofar as travel

was suggested, it evoked the conquering of territorya spirit of colonizationand the

trunk stood proudly as firm evidence of the achievement. Together with festoons and garlands,

columns and entablatures, illusionistic panels, grotesque masks and arms, the cassoni

nearly always sported lion’s paws, actively staking out the claim of territory in a

figurative gesture.

The architectural detail which enhanced this monumentality projected a vigorous

outward address: the corners were frequently given special emphasis through massing

of detail or illusionistic motifs poised on the diagonal. Heraldic details often established

the centrality of the design, expressing through symmetry the determination for the fixed

and logical location, for order in the placement of the whole. Through its emphasis on key

zones in the design, the cassone not only acquired stateliness but recommended itself to stable

placement, to a permanent station which it could assume with concerted presence. The

result was a formidable piece, combining almost aggressive vigour with solid guardianship.

The cassoni are not only formally forceful but argue their possession of space with a kind of

enthusiasm for their own presence, energetically striking an unassailable stance in a ‘newly

won’ authority. In their formal logic, they suggest a dialectic of ambition and protection,

triumph and defence, expansiveness and removal.

Of all categories, the trunk most embodies the agonized state fundamental to all furniture,

which is called mobilia in Italian: it produces a place in the context of displacement.

The trunk constitutes archetypical furniture insofar as mobility is at the heart of its origin

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3.1 Trunks


but permanence is at the heart of its aspiration. In the context of not literally belonging,

all furniture seeks a figurative belonging: it wants to be a fixed establishment in the room,

equal to, if not more imposing than, architectural features such as doors and hearth. Sure,

all of it can be removed; but the function of most pieces depends on their remaining where

they are and providing a home for our possessions. Of all pieces, the trunk is closest in

origin and design to the moveable essence of furniture; but it is also the item which most

assertively holds its place and seems determined to bed down. It is like a wandering beast

which has been let inside the home and, once indoors, wants to assimilate in an imposing

way, wants to become architecture in its own right.

It is no accident that the cassoni were the first pieces of furniture to hold linen and precious

fabrics. The form of the trunk was the most suited to defying the transience of fortune

and establishing its role as a shrine within the interior, an institution within the interior

for which the architecture, in one sense, had been contrived as a servant. From merely

being a nomadic tenant, the trunk allowed storage furniture to become the obstinate

incumbent. It was no longer the stranger in search of a context but was the context around

which the solid things of the world would cohere and make sense. In a word, it would become

the symbol of the household’s wealth, the figurative source of capital, the hub of congealed

‘surplus value’ which defined the true prosperity of the family. The trunk as an item

of furniture representing the total assets of a household is evoked by Shakespeare’s Gremio,

one of Bianca’s suitors. Thus, the gentleman seeks to impress the young woman’s father, the

wealthy Baptista:

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282 The Taming of the Shrew 2.1.339–350.

The word ‘coffer’, of course, immediately

equates with capital. See Hasting’s judgement:

‘so is the unfirm king In three divided, and

his coffers sound With hollow poverty and

emptiness’, 2 Henry IV 1.3.73–75, an image

which takes advantage of the physicality of the

piece of furniture; cf. King Richard’s judgement:

‘our coffers with too great a court And liberal

largess are grown somewhat light’, Richard II

1.4.43–44, and Flavius’ judgement of Timon:

‘He commands us to provide, and give great gifts,

And all out of an empty coffer’, Timon of Athens


First, as you know, my house within the city

is richly furnished with plate and gold:

basins and ewers to lave her dainty hands;

my hangings all of Tyrian tapestry;

in ivory coffers I have stuff’d my crowns;

in cypress chests my arras counterpoints,

costly apparel, tents, and canopies,

fine linen, turkey cushions boss’d with pearl,

valance of Venice gold in needle-work,

pewter and brass, and all things that belong

to house or housekeeping... 282

But there is an irony in this scenariothat is, the ascent of the trunk from travelling case

to treasurewhich represents the paradigmatic development of western furniture from

instability to settlement. The connotations of the treasure do not automatically transfer

immutable anchorage to a site. On the contrary, a treasure may command the building

around it; but it does not depend upon its site: it can buy the neighbouring property or set

up house in Spain. The essence of the treasure is fabulous wealth; and, in the famous development

of mercantilism of the west, wealth is described through monetary value and is

transferable par excellence. The treasure as something fixed is an aristocratic notion bound

to be transcended by the trading middle classes.

And even in an aristocratic spirit of chivalry and noble defeat, you may have had to

take your treasure elsewhere as the vicissitudes of fate made necessary. Whole families

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could be suddenly uprooted. The most important thing, in such instances, was to take

your treasured goods. The real estate would be lost but the treasures might be rescued immediately.

In an emergency, it made no sense to have priceless fabrics and jewels stashed in

a safe which could never be brought through the door. For that reason, too, the size of the

furniture would be limited. Although a supertrunk, measuring four times the volume of a

cassone might have made for grandeur’s sake, it made more sense to have four independent

cassoni for the sake of flexibility.

Furthermore, there is something intrinsically small-scale about a treasure, no matter

what value. A treasure may indeed be very large; but it will fail to look valuable, since the

presumed worth of the objects inside is devalued by scale. The symbolism of the treasure

does not accommodate much sympathy for bulk. The precious item is assumed to be small

because, true to the symbolism of things precious, they are assumed to be unique and not

held in large quantity anywhere. It may be irrational; but a treasure looks less like a treasure

if it is large. Consequently, if you want to project vast wealth, it would be mistake to

place it all in one vast storage unit. The genius of wealth is in replication. The four smaller

ones would be more impressive, since each one would succeed in impressing the spectator

as a treasure.

In addition to the decorative appeal of a number of trunks throughout a large house, the

smaller scale is important for the practical or operational value of the trunk. Unless there

is an internal mechanism allowing shelves to be lifted out, the items are placed one on top

of the other. A very deep chest will therefore demand sustained excavations to take anything

out, unless it happens to be close to the top. The deeper the trunk, the slighter is the

chance of any single item finding itself near the surface. And even if the supertrunk had a

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sophisticated system of arms or lift-out shelves, the connotations of a treasure would cede

to those of a tool-box. The cassoni were not primarily conceived in terms of convenience

but rather the concentration of wealthnot the ordering and setting out of many items in

special compartmentsand this fundamental act of guardianship was best fulfilled by the

smaller volume. It is as though there was a ‘natural’ limit in size for these objects, a limit

which tradition determined on symbolic and practical criteria.

Indeed, the practical dimension of these early essays in storage furniture should not

be overshadowed by the aspiration to the coffer, the treasure chest filled with spoils. The

translation often given to cassone in English is marriage chest. While it is a problematic

translation, particularly insofar as it evokes that dreadful institution of the dowryknown

in our tongue as ‘glory box’, the term ‘marriage chest’ suitably reminds us of the domestic

situation occasioning the object. The core of every household in the renaissance

meant a marriage. There is logic, therefore, in calling any item of furniture a ‘marriage’

pieceprovided it was used for both husband and wifesince the marriage, as applied

to furniture, simply means household. Yet it also evokes a seductive image: the marriage

chest, if not actually referring to the day of the wedding or the presents which came forth,

nevertheless suggests the conjugality according to which the domestic future is conceived

and the furniture is installed.

Marriages, at least in the renaissance, came into being alongside pre-existing institutions,

one of which was the architecture. A middle or upper class couple did not get married

and then look for a house. At some point in their fortune together, the couple might

look for a more suitable architectural expression of their wealth; but some part of a house

already owned by the extended family would normally have been part of the marriage

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story. But while the dwelling was pre-existing, the trunk could be fabricated for the sake

of the marriage because, in effect, it had suddenly been occasioned and became necessary

to express the new structure derived from other households. Together with the couple, the

trunk enters the house. The link between the object of furniture and the establishment of

a family is more than coincidental. The furniture actively participates in the organization

and functioning of the new unit. While not a ‘marriage chest’ in all literal senses, it appears

to have been more than a mere symbol of the marriage. The trunk was part of the ritual in

the establishment of the household, integral to the initiation of the basic institution.

Like the linen, the jewels and precious fabrics, the values of the union were enshrined

in these boxes. An excessive identification with the architecture would have removed the

object from its proximity to the humans whose common interest it celebrated. To be a suitable

abstraction of their union, the trunk had to share the balance of movement and stability

which characterized the humans. The closeness to the human demanded that degree of

autonomy implied in their structure, neither too dependent on the wall nor too vulnerable

or flimsy. Our suitcases would have been too mobile; our wardrobes would have been too

anchored to the wall. Like the human, in effect, these objects were ensconced in their position

of rank but were not so inflexible that they could not accompany the couple on their

flight to another house.

But the difference between the trunk and the wardrobewhich historically replaced

the trunkgoes beyond the greater portability of the trunk and the greater practical facility

of the wardrobe for storage purposes. The garments of a wardrobe can hang; and this

vertical habit is reflected in the orientation of the piece. The greater adherence to the wall

relative to the floor respects the behaviour of the garments in their response to gravity. In

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the trunk, however, the items are not found in a hanging state: the response to gravity is

understood as a submission or lying down. It is unhappy even to think of them as ‘garments’

since we immediately suffer the image of their being crushed, what with one layer

simply being laid over another to a depth of forty centimetres. We would rather expect to

encounter fabrics for beds and display purposes for special occasions. But whatever the

material, it is encountered in horizontal strata which, in a symbolic sense, put it to rest.

When clothes are hanging in a wardrobe, they can swaythey can be moved to the

sideand each is equivalent to the extent that gravity acts on each consistently. There is

no natural hierarchy: there is only left to right in which an order is likely to be arbitrary.

When things are laid out in a trunk, on the other hand, the relationship of each item to

each other is hieratic, implying a rank of preference literally going from bottom to top. The

things kept at the bottom may not necessarily be of slighter value; but they will logically

have a less delicate character than those put on top. It may even be tempting to place very

expensive things toward the bottom, so that it is difficult for any unwanted investigator to

find them. The amount of use to which an item is expected to be put is another important

factor in its placement in the stack. The remoter levels would logically be occupied only by

things seldom used. This need not even involve a conscious decision; because frequentlyused

objects will tend to be placed on top of others for no reason but convenience or even

laziness. In any event, there is an order of priority, based on whatever criteria. The level to

which an object is consigned is intrinsically meaningful.

Together with this order, there is a whole vocabulary of gesture associated with the

daily use of the trunk. Because items are removed from above, the arms are involved in a

vertical action. It is necessary to plunge the arms downward to the elbows, even beyond,

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so that the hands can securely grasp the lower objects, not disrupting too much the folded

measures by which things have been carefully laid there. We could argue that this is a very

messy operation, only to be performed by a succession of awkward movements. Even if

ergonomically unsound, however, these movements are highly expressive. The forceful

gesture of ‘dipping in’ to redeem from the depths of the case a particular item is a ritual in

itself which, perhaps just because of the unergonomic labour involved, has a certain liturgical

gravity, a service for some mysterious domestic Matins.

Titian’s lovely painting in the Uffizi, the so-called Venus of Urbino, memorably shows

this action in the poses of two background women attending one of two cassoni. A standing

woman is apparently rolling up her sleeves, having lifted a hefty robe over her shoulder.

Perhaps she is preparing to bear down on the task of recovering further clothes. The other

woman is in another stage of interaction with the contents: she is kneeling, her head apparently

inclined right over the trunk. Both the labour and the spirit of piety are captured in

the painting through the two poses. Of course, it is necessary to kneel to perform a retrieval

with any degree of comfort; but the purely physical, practical imperative induces a spirit

of reverence in the act, as though one is somehow compelled to proskynesis, genuflecting to

the godhead of domestic orderliness.

It is, however, less a religious experience than toil liable to produce an aching back. A

wardrobe neither obliges the user to kneel (perhaps crouch…but we know the convenience

of wardrobes) nor does it require him or her to unpack a succession of items in order

to reach down to the appropriate level. But when these two practically tedious aspects are

combined in the imagination, they certainly provoke fascination for the process itself. The

gesture and the organizational operation accord with one another in expressing not only

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the state of the items within but the whole shape and orientation of the trunk. Everything

is laid out horizontally: the buried condition of each piece has involved a ‘deposition’, a

devotional bedding down for a deep period of rest; and the spirit of this action evokes a

certain gravity just because it cannot be performed quickly or roughly. Nor is the solemn

association of the act merely a physical result of an awkward analogical process; but it

arises from the motif of ‘accretion’, the rhythm of building order by placing one thing on

another or removing the same, always uncovering the ‘text’ of the internal order in a litany

of repetitions.

That humble structure of layers might embody a whole symbolic order: each stratum

has at some stage been uppermost and, as the next is added, it becomes a base. The pattern

not only evokes the recitation of verses, each one of which presupposes the last: at a deeper

level, the pattern expresses the processional ‘placement’ of things in a sequence of episodes

in time, not just an abstract location assigned by a predetermined code. The practice of

this ‘order’ is a kind of domestic askesis, an exercise of disciplined hermitage. It is not performed

for the sake of worship and is by no means religious; but it shares with holy rituals

the quiet tolling of valued things which is supposed to lead not only to an inner collectedness

but a sympathy for a greater order.

The condition of the linen and precious fabrics within this system may not seem accordingly

dignified when we consider the density with which all items are forced together. Unlike

the state of garments in a wardrobe, the condition of fabrics in the trunk is pressured

and claustrophobic. There is no air between the layers as each compresses the next; and

there is no support between items to relieve their combined weight. If items are stacked

at a certain point, those stretched out underneath may have unequal loads upon them and

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3.1 Trunks


so suffer distortions, skewness and crushing. And yet with all these practical embarrassments,

again the symbolic character of the condition compensates. The status of the fabrics

and garments in a lying habit is distinguished by a natural accord with gravity: there is no

stretching, no lifting by one endwhich, for the purposes of hanging, is privilegedno

system of suspension to defy gravity.

In a wardrobe, the filing of objects upon a rack or rail constitutes a system which, in a

sense, displaces the dignity of each item hung for the sake of the system as a whole. In a

word, the wardrobe is not a repository: it is not a station of rest in which the items within

are emphatically relieved of stress, put away indefinitely, consigned to a recumbent preservation.

In the wardrobe, items are handy for selection: their availability is served rather

than their repose or their integrity as discrete things inhabiting a stratum proper to them.

The very nature of being folded expresses something of this dignity: the item itself is

laid down as one layer upon another, ordered within itself with an introverted protective

composure, an internalized presence, determined in no way to address the outside world.

The habit of being folded argues for neat conservation as a discrete item, a preparation for

permanent retirement.

In practical terms, the trunk is nothing but a large internal volume, a cavernous emptiness

in which no spaces are designated. The destiny of all items within is expressed as undiscriminating:

separate things are given no separate articulation, since there is unlikely to

be a structure within reflecting an analysis of the items contained. There is an assumption

that everything in a trunk will be somewhat similar: all will behave like fabrics, have an aspiration

to lie flat and confirm the horizontal orientation of those above and below. There

is no symbolic space for shoes or a hat. Even if an internal structure could be inserted, it

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3.1 Trunks


would seem alien to the logic governing both the formal and symbolic habit of the majority

of objects which the trunk serves.

Furthermore, the external structure of the trunk expresses horizontality in its operations,

not just in providing a single platform upon which things are stacked horizontally

but in having a lid, a horizontally opening surface which expressively seals the large volume

from the top and holds itself in place by its own gravity. The difference between a lid and a

door has already been mentioned in the chapter on doors. When you approach a wardrobe,

the door confronts you at the end of your approach; and its actionto swing outward

answers your movement toward it, acting in the same direction but the opposite sense. It

relates to us almost by analogy to another human being, standing upright and proffering a

handshake. But that peculiarly dormant lid of a trunk in no way answers your approach. It

lies still and only becomes accessible to the mental grasp as you come within close range.

When the lid is lifted, gravity must be overcome. It is not simply a matter of unlocking

it and swinging it effortlessly. To open the trunk, a muscular effort is needed which requires

the upper body to superintend the action from above, from a position over the space

of the chest. The design of renaissance cassoni emphasizes the weight of the lid: it forms

part of a complex cornice of many layers, each of which bears upon the next, as though

dramatizing the gravity acting upon the whole. The figurative layers mount up toward the

centre, so that the appearance of immense solidity is achieved through a progressive buildup,

each layer not only rising above the lower but being ‘fenced-in’ by its compass. There is

no sense of the lid having any overhangwhich might suggest its thinness or its susceptibility

to human gripnor are there any handles or signs that the lid can ever be removed.

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283 This impious activity was known in Hellenic

antiquity as grave-busting (τυμβορυχια) and

is referred in general to with dire warnings

in several epitaphs. See Inscriptiones græcæ

12(7).478, Corpus inscriptionum græcarum 2690.

These anti-functional attributes are the appropriate expression of the repository, the coffer

to whose cavernous volume priceless objects have been ceremoniously commended for indefinite

keeping. The lid is awesomely kept down by gravity; and the hefting action required

to open it ideally matches the solemnity of its charge. Like the actions required to

remove the items within, the lifting of the lid must be performed with concentration; and it

constitutes a task which is worthy preparation for the ritual ahead. It is difficult for this

grave system of storage not to evoke the tomb, with the interring of objects laid flatburied

under one another like so many carefully folded shroudsand with the gaping space

sealed at the top by a heavy tombstone, never to be prized off by the impious, by thieves

and desecrating barbarians. 283

It is a sublime association, impossible not to consider when the history of the cassone is

traced to its classical exemplars, the Roman coffins or sarcophagi. Throughout the renaissance,

sarcophagi enjoyed enormous prestige, in part because there was a good number

extant. And yet the history of the cassone is by no means linear, taking off from Roman

sarcophagi and leading to more domestic forms. On the contrary, cassoni in the early renaissance

were infinitely more delicate, emphasizing flatness and lightness through painted

panels and neat surrounds. The cassone in fact becomes more like a sarcophagus as time

proceeds, at first preferring inlaid wood effects in panelling to the painted panels but soon

transcending the two dimensional effects altogether. By the mid sixteenth century, the

cassoni were immensely robust objects, mustering the most forceful sculptural and architectural

effects in complementary combinations. Such combinations, in conjunction with

the general proportions of the trunk, made a structure similar to the Roman sarcophagus.

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3.1 Trunks


Thus, the destiny of the cassone was to realize a stylistic language which brought it closer

to the tomb as it progressed. The medieval traditions of trunks provided no real precedent

for the antique reference to the sarcophagus. Trunks of the middle ages certainly appeared

mighty and strong; but this was achieved by means of heavy slab construction, enormous

bolts and bosses on joins and hinges and often a pattern of spiralling metal encasing the

wood. The result was an object which looked physically impregnable. And yet trunks of

the middle ages strangely invite the gesture of destruction; because they seem to signal an

expectation that somebody is going to take an axe to them. The very word trunk is derived

from the wood, that heaviest part of the tree, the trunk (truncus) or bole. Renaissance cassoni,

on the other hand, signal no such fortification and, on the contrary, establish authority

on the understanding that nobody would challenge it by force or dare think of attacking so

powerful a representative of the very fabric of social values and confidence.

Death, in this scenario, is coincidental. While Roman sarcophagi were sepulchres or

permanent coffins, the iconographic link is not sufficiently borne by stylistic kinship or

even stylistic dependence. Not even the symbolic level which has been discussed above

sufficiently supports the link between the trunk and the tomb. The gestural language of

laying things flat and then burying them for eternal rest is interpreted too fancifully if

the metaphor extends to death. We are dealing with a repository, not a reliquary: within

our trunk, there is nothing morbid, nothing that festers and rots, but only splendid things

ultimately to be displayed. The trunk is an institution of preservation and guardianship

and, to that extent, it shares something with the tomb; but our household object wants the

pomp and authority of the material without the funebral overtones of the next world.

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3.1 Trunks


Furthermore, the trunk did not refer to the individual: it did not belong with the memory

of a single person but the symbols of a household, at least of a couple and the social life

which they led. Within the trunk, the couple kept material reflections of their social and

psychological attributes; and these were intended to go out visibly to the closer community,

to be viewed and communicate the glories in which the couple took delight. And so the

cassoni were about festivity, an institution of showing offor at least having the means to

do somore than a convention of grim disposal. So make no bones about it. The trunk

has nothing to do with the dialectics of mortality, not even when it seeks a metaphor for

preservation; because the essence of the valuable things which it preserves has to do not

with a ‘god-given life’ but with jubilation in possessing and the spirited exercise of aesthetic

hedonism. And so, if you look at the iconography closely, you often discover a carnivalesque

relish in the caprice of the gods, a relish which surely translates in the rich style of

sculpture and design.

Surveying the rich fabric of attitudes and attributes which the renaissance trunk served

in its generous volume, we become aware of a certain barrenness in our own circumstances.

This discussion was bound to return to the elegiac; because the values of those lovely

pieces of furniture have long since lost the currency which makes their production and

consumption sustainable. Today, how does a family enshrine its love of festivity? Where,

in its furniture, does the family cultivate the outgoing metaphor of edifying jubilation? In

what item of furniture might prosperity be reflected with decorum, even with a solemn

gesture of secrecy?

The privileges of an aristocratic culture five centuries ago cannot be transferred; and

we can do better by building the possible than lamenting the irredeemable. Furthermore,

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3.1 Trunks


we must include in our romantic view of the advantages of these antiques a reckoning of

the nastier sociological concomitants. The beautiful and pious gestures, as noted, achieve a

sore back; but it may not have been the back of the lord or lady of the house. As in Titian’s

painting, it was the maids’ ergonomic problem. The difficulty of removing items buried

deep inside requires time and space to assemble the unwanted items in some order. And

few people today have so much space that they could even allow a stretch of wall of one and

a half metres to be occupied by storage which rises only half a metre. A renaissance patrician

had both the real estate and the staff to make these problems unrecognizable.

Together with practical problems, there are practical advantages which offset them.

Low furniture will continue to have a place in domestic situations wherever visual access is

not to be obstructed. The site under a window or under a painting, for example, would not

be well used without some piece of furniture which takes advantage of the given feature. A

weak window lacking a sill can be marked much more decisively by a chest than, say, by a

chair whose orientation is always mobile and suggests no strong pertinence to the site. The

trunk almost performs the labour of window box. Today, sideboards are favoured for such

locations and, as noted, shelves have made remarkable incursions on the living room. Of

course, these can be designed to the appropriate height for all situations; and there would

be no need for trunks. The advantage of the trunk is only that it means to be the height

that it is: the force of definition is inherent in the form and it does not appear arbitrary in

the scale that it assumes. The trunk is not cut to the right size for the sake of convenience

but assumes the proper size to satisfy its practical and semantic integrity.

The trunk suggests an established logic on account of its dramatic roots in mobility.

Together with tables and chairs, moreover, the trunk stands alone as an object on the floor.

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But while the trunk has a strong pertinence to the floor, its horizontal orientation does

not negate a definite attachment to the wall. Tables and chairs do not want to belong to

the wall; but the trunk links floor and wall, purposefully cleaving to the horizontal with

determined feet and multiple layers and yet also being identified with the wall on account

of its three-sided construction. The modern trunk is unlikely to follow the renaissance

cassone in this construction which assumes a relationship to the wall. The renaissance

formula does not allow for any duplication of the contemporary coffee table in the centre of

the room.

If the form is to have a sustainable future, it is likely to demand versatility, being suitable

either for peripheral or central placement, either against a wall or in the middle of the

room. The design is also not likely to involve the sculptural splendours of the cassoni, since

these would be somewhat difficult to achieve with contemporary idioms of production,

both industrial and craft oriented. In one sense, the decorative logic of the cassoni matches

the antiquated sociological and gestural dimensions of their use. The ceremonial aspect

involving much labour and strain is an anachronism today. We would be tempted to design

a trunk with umpteen levels of lift-out sections helped by arms and rails. To some extent,

this would defeat the purpose.

Eastern designs, notably Korean, have considerable appeal; and it is interesting that

they should so favour decoration on the surface rather than vigorous plastic combinations

of architectural and sculptural motifs. Contemporary designs on a large scale are more

likely to follow this idiom than the grand ceremonial structures of the renaissance. On

one level, it seems a pity. The Korean chests have much elegance and beauty but lack the

expression of festivity, the spectacle of possession, the grandiosity of the enclosed items.

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Undoubtedly, however, the trunks of the future will follow neither tradition very closely

but will exploit the central ideas of both and invent new figurative schemes to match the

symbolism of their revised function.

3.2 Wardrobes

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3.2 Wardrobes


284 Cf. the cheery thoughts in Baudelaire’s poem,

Le flacon: ‘dans une maison déserte quelque

armoire / pleine de l’âcre odeur des temps

poudreuse et noire.’ Les fleurs du mal 48.

Thanks to their lofty stature, wardrobes ought to be majestic. But they are prone to bloating.

They lurk in the background with swollen contents; they haunt a room with the weight

of our stockpiles, a pressure that tangibly makes the doors hard to close. In structure, they

do not have a strong identity, because wardrobes are eerily hollow when empty and uncooperatively

dense when full. Unless beautifully designed, they bring spatial disappointment

and sombreness to an interior, swallowing up a sizeable part of a formerly generous

room and replacing the freedom with cubic dullness, as if celebrating either vacancy or lugubrious

lifeless storage capacity. Without the levity of ornament and certain airborne fibs

around its miniature legs (which promise the continuity of the floor) it is a large envelopelumbering

and thin at the same timethat consumes the vivacity of the room and

burdens the spirit with the staleness of storage. 284

The problem with wardrobes is not just that people take them for granted but that their

service discourages us from seeing them as beautiful and designing them to be so. People

take most items of furniture for granted and yet this does not prevent us from recognizing

their prestige, their tendency to elegance, their stylish availability for lending a mood to a

conversation or to absorption in a romantic book. But wardrobes? First, the scale involves

problems from which few other pieces of furniture suffer. Second, the storage that they offer

is limited in scope and location: in short, storage is not the most prestigious or hopeful

or romantic office performed by furniture and is apt to seem boring for that reason alone.

Wardrobes house clothing, normally in the bedroom. Whereas pieces of furniture such

as shelves may be still more prosaic in design, their function is not so specific that it cannot

be transferred to areas within a house or commercial property with the highest prestige.

The wardrobe is so specific in its function that the very word frequently recedes from the

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285 Apparently this has always been the case and is

by no means a modern metaphor. For example,

Trinculo sees the apparel which Ariel has hung on

a line; and he says to Stephano: ‘what a wardrobe

is here for thee’. Tempest 4.1.222. Cf. Falstaff’s

play of words on the ‘suits’ pursued in court: ‘yea,

for obtaining of suits, whereof the hangman hath

no lean wardrobe’. 1 Henry IV 1.2.81-82; and,

more obviously, Douglas’ oath: ‘I’ll murder all his

wardrobe, piece by piece, Until I meet the king.’

ibid. 5.3.26-27. In the seventeenth century, when

wardrobes were still a fairly new phenomenon,

there was considerable tension and pregnancy

in the word. Consider the couplet in Racine:

‘Regardè dans ma chambre et dans ma garderobe

/ Les portraits des Dandins: tous ont porté la

robe.’ Les plaidoyers 1.4. Equally, however, the

word could mean the piece of furniture, as in

Molière’s theatre: ‘Is it true, Madame, that at

court an armoire is called a wardrobe?

names thus the place where garments are placed.’

The Comptess d’Escarbagnas 2. This place (lieu)

is not necessarily a piece of furniture but could

equally designate a room, as in the modern walkin


286 So, to pursue the previous footnote, we might

audaciously interpret the peculiar force of

Shakespeare’s lines: ‘Now all the youth of

England are on fire, / and silken dalliance in the

wardrobe lies’, Henry V 2 prologue 1–2.

It is as though the effect of war has cast pleasant

and sweetly trivial things into an undignified

incarceration worse than death.

physical presence of the container (the piece of furniture) and designates the contents.

Thus, we speak of somebody having a marvellous wardrobe if he or she is well dressed and

is frequently seen to change outfits: the ‘wardrobe’ does not refer to the container but the

contents. 285 How demeaning, how humiliating, for the proud designer and maker! When

we use the word ‘table’ to indicatesomewhat archaicallythe food presented on the table

rather than the piece of furniture, the image of the table is nevertheless preserved in our

imagination: we still see it standing proudly on its four legs; we see it in the glory of its horizontal

spread, proffering gastronomic plenty. But when we refer to a person’s wardrobe,

meaning the person’s clothing, no brave wardrobe steps forward in our imagination, encasing

the splendid person with its immeasurable gloom. 286

The very fact that the wardrobe is restricted in its compass to the domestic realm denies

it the universality of a chair