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Dirty Furniture

When design leaves the showroom

Issue 1/6 – Couch

Will the Honourable Gentleman Please Sit Down?

Usually considered a site of arch inactivity, the sofa has become one of modern Britain’s political battlegrounds. Will Wiles explores the surprisingly fraught symbolism of lounge furniture.

Is the sofa immoral? Is it against the spirit of the times? Can it, to take an extreme case, contribute to the decision to wage aggressive war against another country? The word ‘sofa’ does not appear in Lord Butler’s 2004 official inquiry into the decision to invade Iraq – in truth the review doesn’t concern itself with soft furnishings at all. But it does have this to say about the inner mechanics of the Blair government: ‘[We] are concerned that the informality and circumscribed character of the Government’s procedures which we saw in the context of policy-making towards Iraq risks reducing the scope for informed collective political judgement.’

Here, the sofa casts its malign shadow. Butler is referring to Blair’s preference for ‘sofa government’ – ad hoc decision making between small numbers of trusted advisers, seated on the plump, corrupting cushions of a settee. This is in contrast to the less comfortable but more rigorous and numerous chairs around the cabinet table, where wiser collective deliberations might have reached different conclusions, all properly recorded. ‘Decisions are often taken over a cup of tea on the sofa in Mr Blair’s No. 10 office – known to insiders as “the den” – rather than in formal, minuted committee meetings,’ BBC correspondent Brian Wheeler wrote in the aftermath of Butler’s report. Post-Butler, ‘Mr Blair’s comfy office sofa could find itself consigned to the nearest skip – or, at the very least, traded in for a larger model, with room for a civil servant to perch on the end, notebook in hand.’

But Blair did not change his sofa-loving ways after the Butler review, and allowed the upholstered Machiavelli in the den to continue to undermine his administration. ‘Many of those who have witnessed at close quarters “sofa government”… believe that it has been a disaster,’ wrote historian Max Hastings in 2006. ‘Far from creating a climate of healthy informality, it has indulged chronic indiscipline. Much good practice has been abandoned that should not have been.’ And the outcome was disaster. In 2011 the new Labour leader Ed Miliband blamed sofa government for costing Labour the 2010 election: ‘We went from six people making decisions in a smoke-filled committee room to six people making the decisions from a sofa in Whitehall. Sometimes less than six.’ Lost in this cosy world, Labour’s high command lost touch with the wider party, not to mention the electorate.

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It’s easy to understand Blair’s fondness for the sofa: he had always viewed it as an ally. Analysing Iain Duncan Smith’s numerous failings as Conservative leader, a 2002 BBC report identified Blair’s manner on the couch as a distinct strength. ‘You never feel that Duncan Smith is relaxing,’ the BBC quoted English language professor John McRae as saying. ‘He sits on the end of the sofa when he is talking to Sir David Frost, whereas Tony Blair lies back and then he leans forward and changes his tone of voice.’

But Blair’s fondness for the easier couch-bound interview was not an unalloyed advantage. ‘The prime minister has…clearly been stung by jibes that he is happier with fluffy “on the sofa” interviews,’ wrote BBC political correspondent Nick Assinder in 2002. And the sofa could prove to be outright treacherous. In a 2005 report headlined ‘Tony’s trial by sofa’: ‘After a nicely plumped- up interview on the lovely cushions of the Richard & Judy show, Tony Blair must have been feeling relaxed about the way it had all gone,’ Assinder wrote. The prime minister had been lured into a gaffe during an ostensibly ‘soft’ interview: ‘The sofa had done its job of enveloping [Blair] in homeliness. You could almost smell the pot pourri.’

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When the Camerons moved into Downing Street in 2010 and Samantha began remodelling the apartment ‘[o]nly four designer Howard sofas made the grade and were allowed to remain.’ These were all in bedrooms – when the prime minister’s wife hosted Michelle Obama, the pair were photographed chatting on a mustard yellow ‘Fancy Nancy’ sofa (‘from £1,431’, according to the status-conscious Daily Mail). But if anything has characterised the Cameron administration, it’s the mismatch between the bright, fresh, informal modernity of its styling and the hairshirt austerity neoliberalism of its message. ‘This government is taking government off the sofa and putting it round the cabinet table,’ David Cameron said upon taking power. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition had, it believed, absorbed the lessons of the Blair government.

The coalition has also spotted an ugly stereotype about the sofa and given this cliché official approval. When reporting cases of what they see as ‘excessive’ benefit payments, tabloid newspapers have a tendency to dwell on the home furnishings of the claimants, differing from the cheerful way they handle the contents of the Camerons’ Downing Street flat. Take this example from an August 2010 Sun story about an unemployed couple in Somerset:

A family of benefit scroungers who rake in £42,000 of taxpayers’ money a year have been given a new seven-bedroom home – worth £300,000. Jobless Kevin and Sharron Bishop get £3,500 a month in handouts to keep them and their nine kids clothed and fed. …The layabouts have now been moved down the road to live in two houses next to each other – knocked through to form one seven-bedroom address at a cost of around £50,000. Neighbours watched as they moved from their old four-bedroom home… on Friday. Their belongings included flat screen TVs, sofas, armchairs, beanbags and DVDs.

The sofa and the flat-screen TVs are the recurring emblems of this kind of reporting. A 2009 report about an asylum seeker housed in a £1.8million apartment ‘like something out of Channel 4’s Grand Designs’ included this line: ‘Luxury touches include leather sofas and other designer furniture, a flat-screen TV and huge wall-length wardrobes.’ A story in The Daily Mirror from March 2010 shouts: ‘Couch potato clan defend their £22k benefits payout’; according to the article the family members are ‘squashed together on the sofa scoffing crisps and swilling fizzy pop as they sit goggled-eye in front of the telly.’ And here is The Sun again, from January 2013:

We get £17,680 a year in benefits, buy 40 cigs a day, have a laptop and a home with 47-inch TV…why work? Danny Creamer, 21, and Gina Allan, 18, spend each day watching their 47in flatscreen TV and smoking 40 cigarettes between them in their comfy two-bedroom flat…Their lounge is dominated by the huge TV and a leather sofa.

Ill-gotten luxuries? Some years ago, maybe, when a flatscreen TV would have been an expensive gadget of the kind readers of these newspaper stories might struggle to afford; now, however, it’s hard to find a non-flat-screen TV. And sofas are surely common to every household. More important is the dog-whistle signal the sofa and the flat-screen television send out when prominently paired like this. ‘Sloth,’ they shout. They are the conjoined symbol of idleness.

The Sun stated this outright in its leader article the day after the Danny Creamer story appeared: ‘The welfare state was set up…so nobody ever went hungry or needy again. It’s not there so the lazy can sit on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle’; the significance of the Jeremy Kyle Show being that it’s broadcast during the day when most people are at work.

It’s not new to associate sofas with idleness – as Edwin Heathcote puts it in his book The Meaning of Home: ‘Whether it belongs to The Simpsons or The Royle Family, the TV-focused sofa has become shorthand for the blue-collar dwelling, amiable slobbishness.’ But the right has turned the sofa into a symbol of workless sloth as part of a concerted effort to portray the unemployed and other benefit claimants as layabouts. The shift is described in the book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class by journalist Owen Jones. He quotes Independent columnist Christina Patterson, writing in 2009: ‘Perhaps it’s because we’re all middle class that we tut at the tragic transition of aspirational working class to feckless, feral underclass, and sneer at the brainless blobs of lard who spend their days on leatherette sofas in front of plasma TVs, chewing the deep-fried cud over Jeremy Kyle.’ (What is it with columnists and Jeremy Kyle? A subconscious association between unemployed television viewers and Kyle’s fractious, chaotic, inarticulate guests?)

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The association of sofa with sponger has now been taken up by the political class. In 2007 former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe made a television program about benefit dependency that looked at the case of Mick Philpott, a father of- seventeen who later caused the death of six of his children in a house fire. In a piece accompanying the programme, Widdecombe wrote: ‘He says he can’t get a job. What rot! I found him three, very easily. Unfortunately, he’s learnt he can stay at home on the sofa – we, as a nation, have taught him that.’ Confronting a benefit claimant couple on ITV’s Daybreak this year, former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins again put the sofa at the heart of a condemnation of welfare: ‘I have no sympathy at all for your situation…People are getting up at 6am to go to work they are getting home very late…What they are seeing in return is you are sitting on a sofa all day not going out to work but being supported by their taxes.’ So mainstream is the association that the annual British Social Attitudes survey for 2012 illustrated its section on the public’s (not very supportive) view of welfare with a picture of a man seated comfortably on a sofa.

It’s an image that’s deployed at the highest levels. David Cameron’s speech to the 2010 Conservative party conference raised the spectre of people ‘sitting on their sofas waiting for their benefits to arrive.’ The Conservative party has attempted to campaign on that same image. In 2012 Tory chairman Grant Shapps launched a poster and web advertising campaign that contrasted a young middle-class family with a sofa-bound slob. The accompanying copy read: ‘Who do you think this government should be giving more support to? Hardworking families or people who won’t work?’

The sofa certainly forms an integral part of the picture the government has chosen to paint of the housebound, parasitic oaf. But is it culpable? Has it contributed to the fraying of these individuals’ moral upholstery? Is it in itself immoral?

No, you might think – it might equally be where the honest taxpayer takes his reward with the rest of his Hardworking Family at the end of a long day of Doing The Right Thing. But we should hesitate before letting it off the hook. Britons, apparently, have a possibly unhealthy relationship with the sofa. Ikea’s experts design new sofas in the knowledge that British people flop more than Swedes or Germans: ‘Swedish people sit on their furniture. English people sit in it.’ National character and national furnishing habits may thus be linked in a degenerate vicious circle. In his 1947 ‘explanatory history’ of furniture, David Reeves makes a bold and interesting attempt to apply a moral framework to design. Good design, he says, reinforces good, useful habits – and bad design serves bad habits. ‘In a house there should be no room for bad habits,’ he writes, ‘there should be only things designed either to save energy or to allow good use of it.’

This method of judging furniture casts a harsh light on the modern sofa and its deadbeat brother, the easy chair. They have lost their way – they have lost track of what they are.

When the upholsterers decided to cover up all the woodwork, they lost interest in what chairs looked like inside the upholstery – and tried to make their chairs look as if they were composed of nothing but upholstery, unsupported by any structure…People have grown so accustomed to chairs made in this way that they do not care what the insides are like; they scarcely think of themselves as sitting down in chairs – rather on ‘something soft’.

Having lost our sense of the chair-ness of chairs, we have fallen into sin. Reeves continues:

The chairs of the eighteenth-century gave the impression of being intricately made, carefully padded wooden frames, and in using them people could not help being pleasantly aware of themselves: the chairs encouraged comfort-taking, but not lazy, thoughtless ‘flopping’…The modern easy-chair looks like a bundle of stiff pillows, and a person using it can have no respect for it as a piece of furniture. People sit anyhow in such chairs, perched on the arms, slumped back on them as if they were in bed. They are the clumsiest and untidiest pieces in a room instead of being the most inviting in appearance…Most modern upholstered pieces are bad habits, none the less bad in being very comfortable.

Perhaps the modern sofa has embedded itself so deeply in the symbolism of austerity politics because of its design: its structure concealed, it appears dishonest; there being no visible means of support behind its apparent largesse. As such it can readily be pushed into service as the emblem of the profligate state and the feckless individual. It slots neatly into the bleak moral universe of demagogic austerity Toryism – protestantism without heaven, work as the basis of a moral right to exist – as the symbol of skiving ultimately because of the way it is made. Can design therefore contribute to solving this alleged national problem of idle worklessness? We could confiscate the plump, deceitful sofas of the unemployed and replace them with more honest versions that properly express their structure. Given that the state already feels it has free rein to intervene in every aspect of the lives of workless people – from prescribing the sort of employment they should accept to the number of bedrooms they should occupy – it’s hardly a big step.