Wednesday, 21 May 2008

HOW TO COVER UNFRIENDLY FURNITURE.



A year ago this week, I sat on a sofa with it's own voice. 
I was invited by Ella Gibbs, to work with the residents of Look Ahead Housing in Bow, East London. I held weekly workshops called "Freestyle Haberdashery," in the Common Room of the hostel at 64, Campbell Rd. 
We opened to suggestions from the residents, and the pressing issue seemed to be the 'toxic' sofa. How anyone managed to design such a thing is an interesting question.  It was possible to sit on the sofa, but it didn't particularly invite you. The itchy fabric covering, a dull blue with some token red swirls, was designed to be hoovered, rather like the office floor tiles at our feet. Placed to the side of the television, it was impossible to collapse, relax, put your feet up, or think.
What should we do? Dismantle it and see what it's made of? Freecycle it? Write to the designer and ask for an explanation? We decided to make use of it and cover it. 
While Ella fitted a J-cloth over the CCTV camera,  and Cameron and Ayo tried to watch television, I set to work making a paper pattern of the sofa, covered it in calico, (cotton canvas) and invited the residents to make their mark on it and take full ownership. 
Rabena looked on and said " It can't be clinical." She explained how none of the furniture in the building fitted the people living there. As I finished making the cover, we thought that even if we didn't feel comfortable sitting down, the sofa could be used as a canvas, to draw and write day dreams, moments, beliefs, observations, patterns, doodles and tags. The sofa had a possibility of taking on a personality at last. Lids came off pens!
The first pen marks were a combination of beautiful paisley designs, phallic cartoons, bloodshot eyes, spliffs and smoke. It was a good start, but the staff at Look Ahead Housing didn't think so. We decided to keep going, fill the sofa with everything the residents wanted to say when they wanted to relax. We knew it would be honest. If the staff found phallic images disturbing, then some transfer prints from 'Grey's Anatomy' would make it serious. With an iron, on they went. Some residents found the scientific drawings disturbing, but at that point the flood gates opened and the drawing really started. Ella had given everyone disposable cameras, and I started transfer printing some of the photos on the sofa. Each resident had something very special to give and in one month, every inch oozed with stories, fables, humour and love.
We loved our sofa. 
And then the cover got confiscated.
They said it was "Pornographic."
Apparently they locked it in a cupboard. 
Ella spent about a year trying to get it back.
The toxic sofa just stood there, waiting.
Last week, one year on, Ella delivered the good news. The sofa cover is back! Many of the residents I knew have moved on, but their work is there to welcome new residents and the sofa holds all the evidence that 'they were there'.
I feel very priviledged to have worked on this piece. 
For videos of the sofa action, and more stories from Ella Gibb's 'Common Room productions' at 64 Campbell Rd, I urge you to visit  www.commonroomproductions.org
The website is offered as a resource for creative living, and Ella hopes it will be of use to others beyond the scope of the origional project. 

1 comment:

Felix said...

What an amazing project!

I am so happy the sofa cover got put back on the sofa.

I can't believe it got conviscated in the first place... that really illustrates the limiting power of censorship.

I like how your approach to this project was to give the residents of the house the confidence to find and use their own voices and reclaim the sofa on their own terms and I'm sad it got temporarily silenced but happy it is back out there and shouting joyful, irreverant, life-loving sofa-ness back into the hostel!