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Posts tagged furniture
I followed the news about Salman Rushdie’s banishment from the Jaipur Literature Festival last week with considerable interest. The local government claimed that Mumbai-based goons, engaged by pro-Muslim fanatics, were on their way to assassinate him. It was a sub-plot as fantastic as the ones in The Satanic Verses, the book that started all the fuss twenty-three years ago, and that remains banned in India. The last time that I thought about The Sanatic Verses in political terms, as anything other than literature, was when it was published in 1989 and the Ayatollah Khomeni’s fatwa sent the author in hiding. I was in college and some students staged a public reading from the book, in protest. Last week in Jaipur writers Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil, and Ruchir Joshi read from the book, in protest, and were themselves, in turn, banished from the festival.
The Satanic Verses is, I think, Rushdie’s finest book, the most complex in its language and ideas. It’s the only book I know that captures both India and the west (in this case England) with true emotional richness. There are passages that I can recall from reading the book over fifteen years ago (a plane crash, a boy eating pork, a man spitting into another man’s food) with devastating clarity. Yet my most powerful memories of the book aren’t related to the narrative, or to the edition I read from (a fat, secondhand hardcover that the author signed for me years later). What I remember is the physical circumstances in which I read it: over a string of late summer evenings, in my first apartment, with the windows flung open, sunk low and dreamily in the only chair I owned — a secondhand one with nubby green cushions and Danish modern stylings. I still have the chair, refinished and reupholstered, in a corner of my living room, although it only really gets used as a step stool. My memories of the chair, and of the book too, remain more vivid than the things themselves.
I subscribe to the myth, still. I believe that Modernism is something entirely divorced from what went before, a historical rupture, a revolution. But the exhibit celebrating reknown nineteenth-century New York furniture maker Duncan Phyfe on view now at the Met makes it seem much less so. Phyfe opened his workshop in 1794 and died in 1854. His work impresses because, like a lot of great work, while it seems absolutely of its time it also looks far forward.
As displayed in the small, open, interconnected galleries in the museum’s American Wing, adjacent to the work of his contemporaries, Phyfe’s pieces have a singular assurance. They are finer, smarter and less fussy, with more elemental profiles. And they are stronger, more fit, than the other Victorian pieces, which seem to be drowning in their own over-ripe Gothic and classical embellishments, some so much so that it’s hard to determine what purpose they serve. Is that a side table or an umbrella stand? A console or a bench. After taking in the Phyfe exhibit my friend and I walked through galleries packed with Arts and Craft, Art Deco and Shaker treasures, arriving finally at the museum’s famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed period room. The Duncan Phyfe exhibit was a perfect overture.
A few years ago Thomasville launched The Ernest Hemingway Furniture Collection with four lines called “Paris,” “Kenya,” “Key West,” and “Havana,” inspired by the great writer’s travels. The pieces, exaggerated versions of regional styles, had a real appeal. (The company still sells Hemingway furniture in some of these styles, but now it’s only classified by room.) The furniture richly evoked the mythology of the writer. And it was just a beginning. Thomasville could have followed with “Ketchum,” “Pamplona,” and “Oak Park.” Hemingway had so many lives, so many incarnations. Every reader can sift through them and choose the Hemingway she likes best.
After reading A Moveable Feast, “Paris” became my favorite. That memoir, in which Hemingway describes his life there as a young writer in the 1920’s, was completed in the late 1950’s, decades afterwards. In the book Hemingway remembers Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And he remembers his (first) wife, his (first) son, and his work. He rented a small, unheated garret for writing, and climbed the steps each morning with empty copy books, pencils, and a pocketful of oranges. He struggled over the empty pages all day, and the oranges sometimes froze before he could eat them. This Hemingway, remembered softly, is the one that appears in Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris, and he’s entirely winning. The movie gives us a Stein, a Picasso and a Fitzgerald that are convincing, but it’s Hemingway, played by Corey Stoll, that really springs to life. He stares boldly and impassively at whomever he’s with, and speaks in slow, absolute declarations that are at once stylistically accurate and richly satirical. He’s always drinking and challenging men to boxing matches, but we don’t see any of the consequences. We only see the young man.
Sigmund Freud’s office has been wonderfully recreated in the movie A Dangerous Method. It’s decked out with blood-colored curtains, leather-bound volumes, dark wood furniture and ancient talismans, so that there’s barely space for the doctor to sit, or think, inside. And it’s a dramatic contrast to Karl Jung’s (movie) office, with its pristine white walls and scrubbed oak floors. Freud was thinking modern and living Victorian, searching for scientific clarity while weighed down by all of literature and history. The sumptuously shadowed, cluttered room might be the perfect (movie) symbol for his mind. I visited the Freud Museum in London, once, years ago, on a drizzly afternoon. It’s Freud’s old house and office, which his son, the architect Ernst Freud, remodeled and enlarged with a small sunroom. I remember walking uphill from the Camden tube station through winding residential blocks, ringing the bell, then being inspected and admitted by a smiling, overattentive docent, who followed me silently from room to room.
Freud’s consultation room at the museum is furnished with the books, artworks and furniture he brought with from his famed office at Bergasse 19 in Vienna, which has also been turned into a museum. His couch, the most mythologized piece of furniture in Western history, was not at all what I expected. It was small and lumpy; it did not beckon me to lie down on it and surrender myself to my unconscious. It had a tapestry thrown over it, the same way college students throw tablecloths over furniture they drag into their dorm rooms from the sidewalk. Yet seeing it was tremendously moving. Freud left Vienna for London in 1938, for the obvious reasons, when he was 82 years old. He was suffering from jaw cancer and a portion of his face had been removed, so that he could barely speak. It’s tragic that this great man was was uprooted at this stage of his life. And it’s poignant that he recreated his life at Bergasse — piece by piece — in this stodgy brick house in suburban London.
There’s an informative piece on the history of IKEA in last week’s New Yorker. I love their noisy, labyrinthine stores. I appreciate their mission to bring good design to the masses. I’ve specified their cabinets for interior remodels. And I’m dazzled by their skill at knocking-off iconic pieces. (Is It IKEA or Is It Mid-Century Modern?) But there’s something in the piece that makes me pause. IKEA has changed the definition of furniture.
“Furniture” used to be big, important things we bought once in a lifetime and passed on to others. Now “furniture” is flat-packed, somewhat important things we switch out every few years. Though IKEA has taken steps to green itself, like discontinuing incandescent bulbs, they’re essentially manufacturing million of temporary beds, sofas, and tables, shipping them to all ends of the earth, and distributing them in immense, new shops built in places one needs to drive to. The new IKEA-inspired attituded about home decor is perfectly in step with shifting notions of home and family. But it leaves no room for craft. What if each of us had a dining table that was a singular, substantial piece, something we saved for, selected carefully, and cared for? It might make a more beautiful home.