; ; ; ; 25 Jan 2017

The Second Life of Things

The Re-Activation of a Furnishing Toile by Marta Franceschini

I was introduced to the design history practice by this object, which was the focus of the first essay I have written for the HoD course. It is a banyan: a male dressing gown, a garment intended to be used at home. The textile and its characteristics are the most prominent features of the object itself: it is a so-called toile des personnages, probably produced in Nantes, a kind of fabric usually intended for furnishing rather than clothing. The toile presents five different scenes, which make it look like a storyboard, a sort of display of the salient moments of a novel.

The creases and interruption in the print caused by the construction of the banyan propose that the textile has had a life before being used to make this garment; the unusual length of the garment confirms this: it reminds more the length of a redingote than that of a dressing gown, which would usually hit the floor. This suggests that the textile was in a short supply, not allowing fulfilling completely the task it was rearranged for. So why choose to use it?

Recycling textiles was quite an everyday practice since the Renaissance, at all social levels and for reasons other that simple necessity [1]. Margaret Ponsonby proposes that people do develop relationships with things no more in use but which still carry an emotional value [2]. Kevin Hetherington states that recycling is a method of disposal, something implicated in the way people manage absence [3]. He defines the family – and its spatial arrangement, the household – as a ‘conduit of disposal’ through which things can be passed down. The fluidity of the passage is facilitated by the possibility to ‘interfere’ in the agency of an object, changing it according to material – and emotive – needs.

The ways in which objects acquire agency has been analysed by French psychologist Serge Tisseron, who links the value of textiles also to their sensual qualities [4]. In seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cotton was valued as the most suitable fabric to convey ideals of security and intimacy inside the house, becoming the fabric of election of the ‘age of comfort’ [5]; using it to tailor a dressing gown may have been a way of transferring these ideals on the body.

Furnishing textiles and banyans generally share the space in which they perform their agency. What does it mean if this fabric was intended to furnish the inside of a house and it had previously been, let’s say, the dress of a bed, the main accessory of a room? The environment of the home was changing between 1830s and 1840s, when the ideal of home as the place of affection and privacy was raised to the level of cultural norm [6]. Home becomes a threshold, a liminal space: the realm of affection and authenticity, and also the place where to receive friends and hold meetings, presenting ourselves in the way we want to be perceived by others. This ‘two-facedness’ belongs also to textiles: for Walter Benjamin textiles are mediators between the body and the outer world [7]; Jacques Derrida defines the lining as tangible covering and conceptual state of transition between the experience of exteriority and interiority: the betweenness [8].

Making a banyan with a textile so overtly linked to furnishing seems more a statement than a coincidence or a necessity. In this case, reusing a dismissed furnishing textile can be seen as a way to keep its material memory, giving a certain role to an object whose position is uncertain; it addresses to the emotional relationship people establish with things in a place considered safe, and to the unconscious need not to dismiss them, but to keep them within the home, ‘the comforting refuge from public life’ [9].  Since objects ‘corporealize’ the need for physical softness [10], this banyan could respond to the need to wear a memory, satisfying the subconscious necessity to not let go. It seems to affirm that the fabric was owned and treasured, carrying some sort of value besides its primary function. The absence of the first meaning – or agency – comes up again, transfigured by the creative ‘secondary’ use; in this view, recycling means reactivation, and becomes a stage of consumption – a creative consumption that takes place while reusing, producing something new.

1. Elizabeth Currie, ‘Textiles and Clothing’, in Marta Ajmar-Wollheim Marta and Flora Dennis, At Home In Renaissance Italy (London: V&A, 2006), p. 342
2. Margaret Ponsonby, ‘Towards An Interpretation Of Textiles In The Provincial Domestic Interior: Three Homes In The West Midlands, 1780–1848’, Textile History, 38 (2007), p. 166
3. Kevin Hetherington, ‘Secondhandedness: consumption, disposal, and absent presence’, Environment and Planning D, 22 (2004), p. 163
4. Philip Sykas, ‘Serge Tisseron on how objects acquire agency’, Research Talk, Manchester School of Art, 14th May 2014
5. Joann DeJean, The Age of Comfort: when Paris discovered casual – and the modern home begun (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009)
6. John Tosh, A Man’s Place (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 30
7. Alexa Griffith Winton, ‘Inhabited Space: Critical Theories and the Domestic Interior.’ The Handbook of Interior Architecture and Design, 40-9 (2013) p. 40
8. Freyja Hartzell, ‘The Velvet Touch: Fashion, Furniture, And The Fabric Of The Interior’, Fashion Theory, 13 (2009), p. 52
9. Hartzell, ‘The Velvet Touch: Fashion, Furniture, And The Fabric Of The Interior’, p. 60 and Mary Schoeser and  Kathleen Dejardin, French Textiles: From 1760 to the Present (London: Laurence King, 1991) p. 143
10. Hartzell, ‘The Velvet Touch: Fashion, Furniture, And The Fabric Of The Interior’, p. 55

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