- The Politics of Furniture: Identity, Diplomacy, and Persuasion in Post-War Interiors ed. by Fredie Floré and Cammie McAtee
The Politics of Furniture: Identity, Diplomacy, and Persuasion in Post-War Interiors is an important publication that engages an essential area of material culture with academic rigor and global perspective, opening a field of inquiry that has not received such concentrated attention before.1 Although midcentury modern furniture and interiors enjoy great popularity as a vintage style in the world of antiques, shelter magazines, and the consumer retail market, academics, including the readers of Buildings & Landscapes, have not engaged with the subject with quite the same fervor. Interiors and material culture remain a peripheral topic within architectural history and vernacular architecture. The most sophisticated analysis comes out of the fields of material culture, decorative arts, and social history. Notable examples include the work of social historians: Richard Bushman's The Refinement of America; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's essay "Hannah Barnard's Cupboard"; Katherine Grier's analysis of the parlor; Lizabeth Cohen's "Embellishing a Life of Labor"; and Will Moore's discussion of Masonic lodge rooms, to name just a few.2 These fine examples, which focus on aspects of gender and class identity, do not, however, extend beyond the first half of the twentieth century or directly engage with the issue of politics.
It is within these gaps that the study of "the modern interior" has developed in recent years. Supported by Routledge and Bloomsbury Academic Press and anchored by key institutions like the Modern Interiors Research Centre at Kingston University and the Pratt Institute, a new kind of scholarship has emerged. It explores "the interior" as an interdisciplinary constellation of discourses and practices devoted to the shaping of public and private interior spaces. Intertwined with, but distinct from, architecture and merchandising, interiors history encompasses a broad range of people, contexts, and practices involved in a collaborative enterprise comprising art, design, manufacture, commerce, and identity construction.3
It is within this framework that we should understand this new volume edited by Fredie Floré and Cammie McAtee. The product of several conferences and symposia, it reveals the in-between status of the interior, which they define as "the inside of a building or urban environment" (6). In a strong introductory essay they lay out an interdisciplinary framework that draws upon Joseph Nye's concept of soft power, Bruno Latour's actor- network theory, Tony Fry's analysis of design and power, and Grace Lee-Maffei's discussion of design and mediation, as well as ground-breaking works on politics and midcentury architecture by Annabel Wharton, Jane Loeffler, and Greg Castillo, among others.4 Together, these support an interpretation of furniture and interior design as active players in the negotiation and mediation of power relations between government, cultures, buyers, and sellers.
Ten well-researched chapters follow, divided into three sections: identity, persuasion, and diplomacy. The first, on the intersection of national identity and international modernism, includes essays by John Lagae on modern design in colonial and post-colonial Africa, Erica Morawski on the politics of interior design in Puerto Rico's Caribe Hilton, Martin Racine on Canadian identity and design education, and Fredie Floré and Hannes Pieters on the significance of style in the design of the Belgian Royal Library. The second focuses on the "promotion of [End Page 125] a positive influence of an institution, company, or country through exhibitions and showrooms," including Margaret Maile Petty's chapter on the role of MOMA and other organizations to promote modern living through modern design in the United States, McAtee and Floré's fascinating discussion of the influence of Knoll's Paris branch on the development of the company's international aesthetic, and Yasuko Suga's intriguing story of the exhibition of prison-made furniture to the Japanese public. The final...