Boxy and imposing, with synthetic upholstery in two-tone salmon (in impossibly like-new condition!), a brute of a club chair has been kicked to the curb in my west-end Toronto neighbourhood in the midst of an August heat wave. The companion sofa sits beside it. They are old, but not old-fashioned, representing an aspirational design choice for an average homeowner probably seventy-plus years ago. These objects were designed and manufactured, chosen and purchased by a consumer, installed in a home, and used in daily life. Now, it appears that the matched set has come to the end of its useful life. Garbage day pickup looms like an executioner.
Like all aspects of our designed and built environment, this furniture has history: it has a cultural, material and aesthetic context; it has spatial and tactile presence that represents its era; in form and colour it brandishes clues to an aesthetic code rooted in the fashions of a far-away elite market. Who – what collection of designers, crafts people, and furniture makers – designed and made it? Which tools, machines, materials, textiles and hardware were required for its manufacturing? How was it promoted and merchandised? Where and how was it sold? What lifestyle visions did it support and how was it used?
Cultural heritage and values are part of any investigation of material culture. What questions do you have about this piece of furniture? How can we develop new lines of questioning? And how does this investigation help us to connect design history and theory with contemporary design practice?