The Cultural Fault lines of Furniture

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Cody McClain Brown
Cody McClain Brown
Autor je dvaju bestsellera uz povremeno bavljenje stand-upom. Četiri godine je pisao tjedni blog za HRT i trenutno predaje na Sveučilištu u Zagrebu na Fakultetu političkih znanosti.

Americans, especially well-off couples (you know, one’s who can actually afford a house), like to do this thing where they go look at, and buy old stuff. There’s even a name for it, a noun turned into a verb and it’s called “antiquing.” It often involves driving through scenic old towns and stopping to buy antiques from special stores that sell antiques. In whole towns, this is their industry: selling old stuff.

Observing this phenomenon in the posts of my American friends like a social-media anthropologist, I was thinking about how you can’t really do this in Croatia. How can you go antiquing when your apartment is already filled with old furniture? Nobody throws away anything here (and if they do, they don’t sell it but leave it piled up in the building storage, hallway, or dump it by the curb). Most times it’s just stored in another room, or if you’re lucky enough, in another apartment. And then you rent that apartment to… students.

For me going antiquing just means going into my punica’s living room. You want to go antiquing, well, look there’s an old couch in the living room. Here’s an old armoire. Here’s an old… I forget what that’s called in Croatian. 

As a result of my life’s Croatian context, unlike my fellow Americans, rather than acquiring antiques, I want to get rid of them. One day I suggest this: let’s get a NEW couch! (Gasps from the family) What? That couch is from Yugoslavia! That’s quality! Look at what good condition it’s in! It’s 45 years old! It’s just as uncomfortable now as it was when we bought it!

I’m imagining an advertisment from the early 1970s: Yugoslav furniture, so good it will outlast the country.

Out with the Old

Then one day a miracle happened. We planned to get rid of the whole living room and buy new furniture! And it actually happened. We got rid of the big, large, has to be from socialism thing that my wife just calls the “komoda.” I dismantled it for hours, felt how heavy and quality its wood was and decided there was no way I was going to haul all of that out to the street. So, we called a guy who brought some guys and moved it.

This was it! I was now part of the elite circle who actually had space for new furniture! It might not be an antique, but it was something my wife and could pick out together! Marriage was one thing, but this, this was a rite of passage in any modern, urban, consumerist, first world-relationship. We were definitely on our way out of the Balkans and well into Central Europe, emotionally speaking. I imagined us like a couple in an ad in a Swedish-based furniture catalogue, smiling, thrilled with the bond we’d forged in finding the couch and shelves we could agree on. Life was and would be good…

Oh, wait. No? Right? Turns out furniture shopping is the great fault line on which our relationship rests. And being in a Swedish-based furniture store triggers all kinds of cultural earthquakes, tremors and destruction. After all, in the Croatian context, we aren’t just looking for furniture, we are looking for furniture that supposed to last years, decades, eons! That new couch and new “komoda” are supposed to be more durable than a socialist federation!

I also learned that American and Croatians buy furniture for very different reasons. Americans purchase things according to comfort and aesthetic. Whereas the Croatian criteria for furniture is how many relatives can sleep or eat on it, and how much stuff can you store inside of it.

Somewhere in the back of every Croatian’s mind is a doomsday event where all the aunts and uncles, and cousins arrive at the same time! In preparation to this scenario every piece of furniture has to be big enough for the biggest cousin to sleep on.

That means my wife wants us to buy a Stanko-sized couch. Because in the rare and unlikely event that our Dalmatian nephew Stanko shows up, we better have a couch that’s big enough for him to sleep on. And well, that couch should foldout in the rare and unlikely event that Stanko and Mate, and maybe Damir all show up at the same time, well and what what about Teta Ruža. Hell, we should just buy two more large, forever-lasting, permanent couches! 

On our tenth or maybe 100th trip to the Swedish-based furniture store I got the suspicion that they didn’t just specialize in Swedish design, maybe their true specialty was… divorce. But, in the end we prevailed. We bought a new couch that both fits my criteria for comfort and aesthetic, and is large enough for Stanko. And all I can think about is what would have happened if we had a smaller living room.

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