Supervised by scholar and sound artist Matt Rogalsky, over the next four years I will be blogging about my PhD research. Examining "unmaking" as a creative act and exploring how we might begin to decolonize our consumption, production, dissemination and discarding of material culture, this writing will share insights and observations made upon visiting different sites while combining relevant texts discovered during personal research and theoretical course work. Another goal of each post will be to offer strategies and cool links that that will assist in the recrafting of how we see "objects" so that we may begin to take positive actions to disengage us from the colonial capitalist economic systems that create networks of human trauma and environmental devastation.
This first blog draft arose out of an assignment in a graduate level geography class with Professor Laura Cameron that asked us to map aspects of campus from a different lense with the intention to offer fellow colleagues insight into our field of study. Landing at Common Ground on Queen's University campus for my daily afternoon coffee fix, I inevitably began to zoom in to make observations about my field of study.
The range of attire was fascinating, with some arriving highly stylized to open a book and other's dressed in lycra to conduct a business meeting. As I continued to look around I noticed textile items I have never considered. Backpacks slumped at every chair leg sat vulnerable to being kicked by vinyl, leather and canvas encased shuffling feet that seemed to heavy to pick up on that late fall rainy afternoon. In some cases, the absence of textiles became even more of a spectacle than the popular Queen's branded paraphernalia and torn skinny jeans that dominate the campus landscape. I asked myself, "Why are no socks a thing and what is with the see-through sided workout tights. Is there a revival of Jane Fonda or Flashdance that I'm not aware of or were these slinky leggings green washed and presented as having a design element intended to assist with cooling our bodies amidst the sweat soaked carpeted rooms of the cardio studios they were meant for?" My aversion and cynical approach to stinky sockless feet and risque leg wear tells me I am getting old. Lol.
Under the illusion one might actually have time to sit, my gaze shifted to the abundance and variation of couches arranged in corners to create intimate settings within the academic river of coffee that flowed between a sea of talk. Speculating on what unknown materials lay between the seams of these internationally visited interior fixtures, I imagined a collection of biohazard nap-time drool affixed with dust accumulating in every crease, nook and cranny. Assumedly wiped down with industrial chemical cleaners each day and degrading with each use (1), these non-biodegradable, foam filled, carcinogenic (6) fire retardant treated black and red vinyl couches contribute to the blurring of interior and exterior spaces in the era of the Anthropocene or as some demand the Plasticenic age.
Upon a little research I discovered couches only became economically accessible to the masses in the 1900's and weren't always as plush and stuffed as what we see today.(3) Starting over 2000 years ago, and continuing right up until the 19th century, seating and beds were primarily wooden and sturdy, offering immediate firewood for heat or cooking during hard times. Often easily filled or cushioned with a variety of plant material, people would need to change out or replenish their choice of stuffing seasonally to ensure cleanliness and comfort. (2) With the shift from spiritualism to materialism during the early Renaissance, furniture began to take on a more decorative and sleek appearance, with the overstuffed sofas of today only beginning to appear in the Victorian Age. (3)
Still reeling off of environmental data gathered during my MFA, I couldn't help but visualize these chesterfields as future waste, perhaps positioned up and around slopes of undulating hillsides so as to provide the perfect plush perch to watch as the valleys below fill up with other detritus. While writing this blog it then dawned on me how human excess / waste works as an extension of colonization. Uninvited, settled, shifting and seeping, these non-indigenous, non-human materials are far from inanimate, actively affecting and altering the land meant to sustain us.(4)
Before I can finish wondering how often these clunky forms of comfort are replaced and where exactly these synthetic fibre filled boxes of pressboard and steal go, I stumble across a horizontal graveyard of couches on the third floor of ARC (Athletic and Recreation Centre). Stained and soiled right alongside the rugs they sit on, a multiple of dated patterns and textures offer the hesitant sitter a museum of interior design across the ages. As I sit in judgment, the discomfort of sitting on an old wooden chair begins to soften my views about the comfort provided us by excess and yet, the constant "hailing" from the earth to an ecological ideology demands I begin to act on my environmental consciousness for not to do so "that is wicked".(5)
So what might action look like? Below I have brainstormed and researched how we might work to become better consumers, users and disposers of furniture.
As CONSUMERS we might consider....
Buy second hand! Not only are you helping to put money back in the pockets of people who need the money, you are more likely to get that couch you wish you had bought 5 years ago or revive the era you wish you were born in. Do be sure to have the couch properly inspected and cleaned if it hasn't been already. A couch can serve as an awesome resting spot for many living things other than humans.
Purchase or commission the building of a high quality couch that will structurally last a lifetime. It will inevitably cost more upfront, but this will save you tons of money over the long run and prevent you from having to pay disposal or pick up fees when you want to get rid of all those poorly made couches.
Shop local! Find a local furniture designer or craftsman to build your couch. Not only will you be supporting the local community and acknowledging the skill and knowledge embedded in the history of craft, you can have peace of mind knowing your are not investing in the environmental pollution, exploitative labour and high fuel usage affiliated with global trade. On another note, you will know exactly who to go to when you need the couch to be repaired or recovered.
Choose a neutral and solidly coloured couch that can be brightened up and refreshed through a selection of throw pillows that are easily washed and rotatable. This will make your couch that much more timeless and adjustable if you are to relocate to a new space or if your tastes change.
Buy or have your couch designed so that it has washable covers, so that there is no need to throw it out when friends spill a glass of wine or daily grime sets in. I would also recommend buying a second set of covers at the time of purchase to ensure you have replacement fabric in the future.
Choose a classic design or style that reflects your taste versus simply purchasing this year's showroom models. By not giving into trends set by people you don't even know, you are telling our fashion industries that you don't support the excess generated by the increased rate of change that drains our bank accounts and natural resources. Click here to read about different couch styles to help determine your personal taste.
As USERS we can ensure the life of a couch is extended by....
Don't let the grime set in. Create a seasonal schedule to ensure your couch is cared for using oil cutting soaps during soaking to help cut through the oils from our skin resting amidst the fibres of fabric.
Rotate and flip cushions. We tend to sit or lie on a couch a certain way over and over again. By rotating our cushions to different positions within the couch they will wear evenly and bounce back from overuse.
Refill cushions. Why throw out a whole couch when a little bit of stuffing and loving can save your favourite piece of furniture. Just think of all the laughter and tears you've shared with friends and family on this sofa.
Recover to rediscover the beauty of your investment. At some point, certain areas of your couch will start to wear or pill. Pilling is a quick fix. Just simply grab your sweater shaver and give your couch a good massage while watching your favourite Netflix series. Recovering can be both time consuming and expensive, but it will more than likely be less costly than a brand new high quality couch, so why not show your couch and the environment you care. For those who want to try recovering chairs or cushions by themselves, I've been told that working over the existing fabric is always the best approach.
If your couch is beginning to sag but the couch still appears in good condition, insert plywood board beneath cushions as a temporary fix to offer support and encourage good posture. If the couch also needs to be recovered or have cushions restuffed, also have them look at whether springs need to be replaced.
As DISPOSERS, think about ....
Is your couch still in good condition and you could use a little cash? Resell it by using one of the many online platforms to let the world a great couch awaits them. Do you think it's worth more than you can ever get for it? Contact a local antique or resale furniture dealer to see if they might be interested in taking it off your hands at a price that makes sense. If you live in the northern outskirts of Toronto, my favourite furniture dealers are My Paris Apartment Antiques.
Would you like to help someone out? Donate your couch to one of the multiple charities or local service groups that are willing to come pick it up. Don't forget to check with your family members to see if anyone needs an extra couch for kids going off to school.
Was it handmade by a local craftsman? Try returning it to its maker by seeing if they might want to have it for its bones or as a floor model to showcase their work.
Moving and can't take it with you? Include it in the listing price with house.
Are you an artist, professional recycler or good with your hands? Deconstruct the darn thing and see what you can't do with all the different components.
(1) Mcdonough, W., & Braungart, M., 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York, New York, United States: North Point Press.
(4) Bennett, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Durham & London: Duke Univ. Press.
(5) Althusser, L., Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (notes towards and investigation)
(6) Heid, M. (2016, August 24). You Asked: Can My Couch Give Me Cancer? Retrieved from Time: http://time.com/4462892/couch-cancer-flame-retardants/