Radio smow: A Garden Furniture Playlist…….

With spring approaching thoughts invariably turn to days spent out of doors, and, for those fortunate enough, to thoughts of leisurely days spent sat in the garden.

Leisurely days spent sat in the garden, ideally, listening to music.

¿Listening to music about being sat in the garden; sat in the garden listening to songs about garden furniture……?

Radio smow: A Garden Furniture Playlist

The (hi)story of garden furniture is, inarguably, and somewhat logically, as old as the garden itself; a concept that stretches back to the earliest days of human civilisations and cultures but which, certainly in a European context, becomes increasingly identifiable as a popular extension of the private home, as a personal dominion, a commodity and status symbol, from the 16th century onwards. And very much the preserve of the wealthy. Which the garden remained for many, many centuries, before, and again staying very much in a European context, towards the end of the 19th century reformist ideas began to understand the provision of green spaces as important, essential, for humans, all humans, not just the monied, and saw alongside the development of garden cities and workers’ towns, consideration increasingly made to providing inner-city dwellers with small green spaces they could call their own.

The passage of time, again somewhat logically, also seeing developments in garden furniture and garden furniture design, not least against the background of the changing functions and roles of gardens, and also against the background of the changing social status and disposable incomes of those with a garden to call their own; developments that were to have a relevance beyond the garden, initiating as they did the genesis of numerous new seating objects including, for example, the cheap, insubstantial plastic monobloc chair, an object, as previously discussed, that began life as a chair for the gardens of Europe before becoming a global phenomenon. Similarly the Windsor Chair, at least potentially: one theory as to the origins of the Windsor Chair being that it began life as a lightweight, durable, rustic chair for the gardens of England’s 17th century elite1, before becoming a global phenomenon. In addition Mart Stam was inspired to develop his steel tube cantilever chair by a dislike of “the closed cube of the four-legged chairs that the Berlin week-end gardeners used to build out of old gas pipes”2; week-end gardeners who only could build their own garden chairs on account of the new ideas being practised in the 1920s. While juxtaposed to such notable successes stands the, for us, notable tragedy that, as previously noted, the turf topped bench of the Middle Ages never really caught on as the garden evolved from luxury to utility. Despite its many many advantages and charms. Indoors and out.

That the Windsor and the plastic monobloc were able to establish themselves universally being unquestionably related to colonisation and globalisation in their various guises; colonisation and globalisation that by necessity saw Europeans travel ever further from home and thereby not only take their European customs, rituals and furniture with them, but become acquainted with the customs, rituals and furniture of previously geographically remote nations and cultures. And regardless of how much respect they afforded those other nations and cultures, Europeans were unquestionably influenced and informed by that which they experienced, bringing many of the ideas back home with them, including the furniture for out of doors living common in many, most, of the warmer regions of our planet, and which became effortlessly incorporated into the vernacular European garden furniture canon, and equally effortlessly incorporated into the ongoing evolution and development of that canon. And the evolution and development of garden culture.

Garden culture both factual and fictional: much as the garden has long been a physical reality it has for equally as long been a component of not only religion, but of art, literature or drama, and where it has evolved and developed, taken on new roles and functions, every bit as much as it has in the real world.

Thus today, and again in a predominately European context, garden furniture is not only an integral component of daily life for a great, and ever greater, many, but also has an important figurative and symbolic relevance……

Shine On – House of Love

“In a garden in the house of love
Sitting lonely on a plastic chair”

begins the indie popsters’ glorious, resounding, eternal homage to the insufferable pains of youth.

And just as you know the young man sat in that garden, that garden outside of love, a garden less of Eden as of Perdition, so to do you know the chair he’s sitting in. The lonely chair, for the monobloc is, as previously discussed, an inherently soulless object, a chair that has no function other than to be sat in and which is dogmatically uncommunicative. If there was ever a location to feel utter despair, to feel “so far away” from the world, it’s in a cheap plastic monobloc.

Yet we all know the monobloc can also be location for joy and laughter, being insentient as it is the emotions one feels in a monobloc are those of the context in which one finds oneself, and thus if, when, that young man finds his way back to “the pleasure that I used to be”, moves on from an involuntary desire to fight and hate, and arrives in a place where the sun stops hiding itself away, that same plastic chair in which he is today so alone, so consciously alone, will provide the perfect location to enjoy the rediscovered warmth of life, society and community.

Stay Tranquilo – Brothers of Brazil

Gardens aren’t just places for sitting in, they also places for reclining, be that in a lounger firmly attached to the ground, or swinging above that ground in a hammock.

The latter being widely dispersed throughout geography and (hi)story; near every culture and society knowing since time immemorial some form of hanging bed, invariably crafted from local materials, using local techniques, a reflection of local customs and traditions and adopted for a myriad, invariably local, reasons. As indeed was the reason for the widespread adoption of the hammock by international navies: the cheap, space-saving hammock offering an optimal solution for squeezing a maximum number of mariners into the smallest possible of spaces. While that minimality, and the inherent temporality, of the hammock saw NASA employ them in their lunar modules, meaning those astronauts (after Apollo 11) who slept on the moon, slept in hammocks. Sleeping on the moon!! Imagine!!

Yet for all the varied and various contexts in which the hammock exists, and the myriad ways it has accompanied human civilisations, for all the depth of the connections between cultures, civilisations and hammocks, the popular image of the hammock is an object hung between two trees in a garden, the occupant gently swaying, oblivious to all that is happening around them; something embodied by the popularly perceived inherent calm and peace that arises from swaying gently in a hammock in a garden, an inherent calm and peace and oblivion that make the gently swaying garden hammock one of the more fantasised and idealised of locations.

Whereby while gently swaying in your hammock, or imagining such, you should, possibly, question what your fleeing from, why and if the hammock is the best option.

If, that said, we admittedly can think of little better advice than Stay Tranquilo!

Watching Birds – Stornoway

Sitting in the garden is not only to sit in a different physical environment to that inside, but a different behavioural environment. Who hasn’t, while sat out of doors, thrown away the last dribbles of coffee or juice with a nonchalant flick of the wrist. You can’t do that indoors.

Behavioural differences very neatly illustrated by Stornoway’s protagonist who on account of a troubled mind and the oppressive nighttime heat – and thus obviously not finding themselves in the real Stornoway where oppressive nighttime heat is rarely a thing, and certainly not in June, September possibly, but not June – finds themself not in bed but outside, in the garden, where, as they note, “I’ve got one chair for myself, And another for my feet”. Would you do that inside? Would you sit inside on one chair and pull up a second by way of makeshift ottoman? As an adult. As a child, yeah, but as an adult. No.

However in the garden sitting is a different act, we have a different relationship with our chairs, and see no issue in placing our feet on a chair if we deem that will make us more comfortable; a state of affairs which, arguably, increases the value of a garden chair above an indoor chair, making them as it does an object with whom we have a more intimate, more personal relationship, a relationship defined less by formal convention as by emotion, defined less by the adult world with its rules as by the freedom, lawlessness, of childhood.

Mephisto Iblis – MC Solaar

Back in the day people of all cultures and societies avoided the sun through sitting in the shade of trees, indeed public spaces were often so defined as to place the most shade giving tree at the heart of that space, at the heart of the community; however, as gardens spread throughout social layers, garden owners increasingly had little choice but to take that plot, and that shade, they were given. Meaning a great many had to do without shade. For all in new housing developments in treeless spaces. A solution was however quickly found: the hand-held parasol, an object popular for centuries, was simply upsized and became the garden parasol, a mobile object which could provide shade where and when required.

And when the sun goes down?

“Je sais que quand la nuit tombe c’est l’heure de solder les parasols”, opines MC Solaar, “I know that when night falls it’s time to sell the parasols”.

And while selling your parasol at nightfall may be rash, the sun might come back tomorrow, why continue to fight battles won and demons vanquished? Let that which was remain in the preterite. Learn from your experiences, but move on, for times change, and as they do so do the tools we need to master them.

Beautiful People – Australian Crawl (Design For Living – James Reyne)

According to 1980s Aussie rockers Australian Crawl Melbourne’s late 1970s hip in crowd all had “a Robert Palmer t-shirt in their travel bag”, rode stupidly expensive bikes and venerated the New York disco scene, but also “haven’t really much to say”; were individuals whose vacuous, phoney, vain, stage-managed existences could be succinctly encapsulated by the fact that in context of their domestic arrangements, “the garden’s full of furniture, the house is full of plants”. Both spaces having been styled to the absurd; where show had been placed above utility to the degree that their homes had become functional spaces only in context of confirming that they belonged to a perceived tribe and were au fait and proficient in the correct contemporary t****s. Rather than functional spaces in the sense of aiding and abetting daily life.

And a metaphor for the pointlessness, dishonesty, of seeking to fit in through slavishly following prevailing fashions James Reyne, Australian Crawl’s lead song writer, very clearly liked for some 20 years later he revived it in his solo song Design For Living, a work that in many regards updates the beautiful people of late 1970s Melbourne, and their near pathological adherence to all the correct t****s, with the beautiful people of late 1990s Melbourne. Who were no different. Just the t****s were. T****s that had made their homes status confirmingly functional to the point of being uninhabitable. And that, not uninterestingly, just before the rise of Instagram. Before vacuousness became a recognised profession. Thus, we’d argue, some 20 years after Design for Living, and some 40 years after Beautiful People, there is a real need for James Reyne to revive his plants and furniture metaphor once more, and thereby create a musical triptych of reflections on the follies and fruitlessness of following the herd, on following t****s, of following others, rather than finding your own way through life, and interior design, based on your own beliefs, principles, ideas, predilections and vices.

The Radio smow Garden Furniture Playlist, and all Radio smow playlists can be found on the smowonline Spotify page.

More inspiration?

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1. see, for example, Robert F. Parrott, Forrest chairs, the first portable garden seats, and the probable origin of the Windsor chair, Regional Furniture. The Journal of the Regional Furniture Society, Volume 24, 2010, pp. 1ff

2. Der Kragstuhl/The Cantilever Chair, Stuhlmuseum Burg Beverungen, Alexander Verlag Berlin, 1986 page 91

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