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The Architecture, Furniture Paradigm


Ever since reading about the 1977 exhibition Improbable Furniture, the diverse approaches to the use and envisioning of furniture across disciplinary boundaries has fascinated me. The exhibition, curated by Suzanne Delehanty for the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, considered how furniture, as a ubiquitous element of our lives, can transcend its practical constraints. As Delehanty explained, ‘Furniture inhabits both the world we choose to call real and the world of our imagination.’[i] Furniture has long been historically and culturally significant and here, in Australia, we see this in the continued explorations in interdisciplinary and theoretical contemporary architecture practice. This article reflects on its use in history and ongoing importance through the work of seven Australian offices.

In the accompanying essay for Improbable Furniture, Delehanty develops the concept of ‘play architecture’ – where children transform everyday household items into imaginative forts and the concrete and immaterial realms of furniture meet. Through this lens, mundane furniture items are infused with the emotional life we provide for them. Delehanty's essay underscores how furniture, often overlooked in its ubiquity, mirrors human existence by embodying both the tangible and abstract aspects of our lives. An empty chair can symbolise an absence, while its form is designed to match the anatomy of our body that it's intended to support: arms, legs, feet, and back. A table represents and serves a range of human occupations, from communal dining to spiritual rituals and games of chance. The bed bears witness to life's most intimate moments (conception, birth and death), as well as offering a landscape for our subconscious to manifest in dreams. Our desire for order and secrecy finds its form in the chest of drawers. In Delehanty’s work, furniture emerges as not merely utilitarian objects, but as something fundamental to the human experience; she calls for a re-examination of furniture as central to the production and advancement of culture with a focus on the work of artists who have engaged with it in their output at some point[ii].

Furniture, as an artifice, can be both familiar and evocative. It can assume new functions, change from real to archetypal, historical to vernacular. There is extensive history of furniture’s use as a mediator between pictorial and sculptural forms, moving from the ordinary to the abstract. Artists like Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp exhibited this type of artifice, with painting and sculptural conventions upended by cubist collage and conceptual ready-mades. The Surrealists discovered that they might unleash the viewer's irrational, unconscious connections through the metamorphosis of such emotive man-made objects as furniture. The use of furniture to evoke memories continued in the fifties and sixties when chairs and beds were recontextualized by artists like Robert Wilson and Robert Rauschenberg. Other artists like Yayoi Kusama and Edward Kienholz exaggerated the inherent capacity of real pieces of furniture to assume human qualities by fusing them with other materials. Works by Claus Oldenburg and other pop artists parodied the line between art and utility, while artists like Donald Judd and Scott Burton started to bend our understanding of utility by introducing socio-political narratives into furniture design through minimalism. More contemporary artists like Richard Morris, Vito Acconci and Andrea Zittel among many others, have used furniture to create constructed environments, challenging perceptions of built space and its influence on human behaviour.

It would be amiss not to mention the 1920s as a seminal period that saw the newfound consciousness of the machine aesthetic and the rise of pragmatic approaches to structure. This was influenced by the Bauhaus and its associated doctrine, as well as by the Russian Constructivists and early Soviet ideology. Consider the De Stijl Chairs by Rietveld, the Barcelona Chair by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, Adjustable Table E 1027 by Eileen Grey, the Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer, the LC4 longues by Le Corbusier, Library of the Maison de la Tunisie by Charlotte Perriand and the biomorphic plywood chairs by Charles and Ray Eames. These are a few iconic pieces that transitioned furniture design from mere functionality to become enduring and celebrated works in culture that continue to influence contemporary art and design.

The architect as a furniture designer has evolved into its own practice, which allowed for experimentation and probing of large-scale concepts on a smaller scale. Furniture-making has offered a useful means to grapple with various issues of form, production, lifestyle, an economy of means and even hygiene. Today architects are involved in a lower percentage of new building constructions than ever before. Costs and other commercial barriers toward large-scale building design and construction have left many, especially small or emerging practitioners, grappling with the newly emerging conundrum: instead of production, a much greater concern has become reaction, rooted in the reworking of the existing. This reaction challenges our inherited conditions, including European concepts of land management and modernist attitudes towards architecture that have perpetuated erasure, displacement and exclusion, impacting marginalised communities and the environment. Contemporary architecture now emphasises new systems of sustainability and preservation of cultural memory. In light of this, how has the historical trajectory of more in-depth research evolved to fit this paradigm?

This question is brought into focus in the exhibition Call Out that I recently co-curated with Angus Grant for Do Works, drawing on this rich history and cultural significance of furniture. Presented as part of the National Gallery of Victoria's annual Melbourne Design Week between May 23 - June 2 2024, the exhibition tracked the contemporary trajectory of architects as designers at the human scale, showcasing the work of seven Australian architects at the historic Union Bank in Prahran. The show aims to demonstrate the role of the architect beyond architecture, through the design of furniture and objects that address ecological, political and aesthetic systems through distinct material, formal and social research. The work presents less like the overt authorship of the twentieth-century design attitudes, but rather is more focussed on engaging with a new sense of awareness, attempting to create new modes of practice and systems of knowledge for dealing with and living in our complex contemporary world. Many of the works exhibited deal with reuse and retention of material waste flows and a reworking of expected and inherited conditions, typologies and assumptions of use.

Documentation of Call Out, curated by Angus Grant and Dalton Stewart for Do Works,
NGV, Melbourne Design Week, 2024. Photo by Pier Carthew.

Brisbane-based Five Mile Radius and Sydney-based Second Edition are two emerging architecture and design studios focused on an optimistic approach to designing circular economies. Through architecture, interior design and product design, Five Mile Radius investigates material futures in the Australian building sector, exemplified by their Telegraph Bench. The work utilises decommissioned telegraph poles and concrete salvaged from construction sites across Brisbane, combining two waste streams that would otherwise be destined for landfill. In a similar vein, Second Edition is focussed on deconstruction and reuse through consulting, prototyping and material experimentation, as seen in their Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) project, validating a common offcut CLT waste stream in terms of transport, refinishing, and economic feasibility. Beyond this, though, Telegraph Bench and Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), provide case studies on how the design of new systems through reuse, can also allow material and process to inform new aesthetic and formal languages.

Documentation of Call Out: Five Mile Radius, Telegraph Bench, 2024,
reclaimed hardwood, concrete. Photo by Pier Carthew.
Documentation of Call Out: Second Edition, Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), 2024,
CLT offcuts, stainless steel pins. Photo by Pier Carthew.

Through a critical questioning of inherited conditions, Sean Godsell Architects and EXCX’s projects reflect on the potential of urban infrastructure to offer new approaches to better care for people and places. A prominent figure in Australian architecture, Sean Godsell has been recognized with an Australian Institute of Architects Gold Medal for his renowned experimental designs. Through his practice, Godsell seamlessly integrates practical building with poetic dialogues. For example, Park Bench House (2002), seeks to define the concept of ‘house’ in its most fundamental term, as shelter. It attempts to expose a pressing social need within which a redesign of infrastructure can serve both as a bench by day and a temporary refuge by night. Presented 22 years after its initial design, through archival material, this project continues to be a controversial provocation in how urban furniture can be more empathetic and political.

EXCX (Extra Contextual) is an emerging studio that operates across research, architecture and urbanism, exploring alternative narratives beyond straightforward site limits. Their 2022 Shifting Sand project at Kirrip Park illustrates flood risks through the making of public space and seating. Later restaged at Docklands Esplanade, the project engages the human body in the organisation of hessian bags to create a public amphitheatre. For Call Out, a timber frame, made of discarded exhibition displays from the NGV’s 2024 Triennial, reinterprets this public project through photographic documentation and partial reconstruction.

Sean Godsell, Park Bench House, 2002, steel frame, woven stainless steel ‘bed’,
aluminium roof / seat, photovoltaic cell. Image courtesy of Sean Godsell Architects.

Experimental architecture offices Barraco+Wright and Simulaa present approaches to engaging with historical references, positioning the architect as a cross-disciplinary strategic thinker. Prioritising time-based design thinking, Simulaa engages in conversation about the architecture's entanglement with social, economic, aesthetic, political and environmental issues. Their 2022 furniture project City Bins transform Ian Dryden's decommissioned 1991 City of Melbourne bins into chairs that evoke Charles Rennie Mackintosh's furniture, promoting a re-evaluation of Melbourne's urban history. For Call Out, Simulaa's approach to reuse is further demonstrated in Energy Object #2, a coffee table, USB-power hub, and reading light that harnesses solar energy, echoing Charles and Ray Eames’ Solar Do-Nothing Machine and Superstudio’s Misura series.

Documentation of Call Out: Simulaa, Energy Object #2, 2024, aluminium frame, photovoltaic panel, battery, USB-power hub. Photo by Pier Carthew.

In Call Out, Baracco+Wright Architects contribute their work Nina, Greta, and Anna, which offers a playful personification of furniture items named after real people. This work exists in dialogue with the Danish designer Hans Wegner’s CH36 chair, contributing to the practice of working with existing aesthetics to respond to the vernacular furniture with subtle changes. This approach has been adopted from Italian designer Vico Magistretti. The pieces are named after clients and their children to represent their personalities, overlaying personal and anthropological significance.

The aesthetic reading of furniture is inherently contextual and specific, as demonstrated by Nuud Studio, in the creation of thoughtfully planned built spaces and objects, which honour the narratives of the individuals they collaborate with and pay in-depth attention to the history of the sites they work with. In their winning chair commission, The Dancer, for the 2022 MPavilion, the arrangement of chairs is designed as a single, drawn circle. The separate chairs are created by dividing the segments into equal parts; signified by the potential users. In this way, the pavilion chairs disengage and re-establish themselves, creating new formal arrangements such as arcs and ribbons. For Call Out, they made a new work, The Make Do Lamp, which invites the user into its design through the essential requirement of participation in the use of it. Though the lamp contains an intentional flaw, it requires the user to contribute some object for the lamp to properly stand up and function. In a symbiotic way, the lamp requires additional objects to support its structure, creating a conversation and an exchange with its user, while also expanding its aesthetic language.

Documentation of Call Out: Nuud Studio, Made Do Lamp, 2024, waxed aluminium. Photo by Pier Carthew.

In reflecting on the varied approaches to furniture engaged by artists, designers and architects, the cultural and social contribution of furniture is evident. However, architecture’s urge to respond and engage with the modern socio-political conditions has become more present. This paradigm offers a fertile ground for the exploration of interdisciplinary modes of creative and theoretical practice. Through design, particularly at the human scale, we are able to reinterpret our familiar conditions and consider new typologies, investigate our inherited conditions and relationships with built environments and trial new aesthetic, material and urban systems of knowledge and modes of practice. As learnt from Delehanty, the role of furniture in cultural production can mediate between modes of representation, where we engage with the familiar while also engaging with possibilities of the abstract. This is the underlying preconception of the works exhibited in Call Out, playfully building on the history of furniture design and exploring the bounds of its familiar and evocative nature, imbuing aspiration and new possibilities for our otherwise improbable future through design.

[i] Suzanne Delehanty, Improbable Furniture: Furniture Of Another Order, Exhibition essay, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1977, p. 20.

[ii] Ibid., p. 21-30.

Dalton Stewart has a creative practice that explores the reciprocity between architecture, design and the visual arts, seeking new systems of knowledge and speculative histories, futures and design languages. His work explores deconstruction and reuse, to broach the complex histories and cultural significance of buildings, materials and processes within the built environment.

Supported by Creative Victoria, City of Melbourne and City of Yarra.
This piece is commissioned by one of our 2024 un Extended editor-in-residents: Sofia Sid Akhmed.