Posted by: bluesyemre | July 1, 2021

The Library’s Furniture

Physical library buildings were once–and in many institutions still are–viewed as “warehouses for books.” However, they’re starting to become warehouses for furniture. It’s a specific type of furniture clustered in our spaces, that of the institutional–with its vague eye towards some idea of design trendiness, a nod to durability, and even technofunctionality. They are specific, sturdy, and contain multitudes.

I’m a student of every day objects, something I latched on to and ran with during a few seminars on material culture in college. In this sub-field of art history we analyze the physical, spatial, and cultural world an object inhabits. And as a lifelong fan of all furniture I have particular thoughts on the institutional behemoths and soon-to-be dated chairs scattered and clustered about our libraries.

The Clarke Library at Central Michigan University in 2003

The advent of the Learning Commons in the early 2000s has truly precipitated the growth and glut of library furniture and with it are unique varieties and issues. Earlier versions of furniture for computers in these spaces had to handle substantial CRT monitors and beefy towers. Early aughts library furniture focused on thickness for the thick machines they held, with colors, corners, and lines from postmodern holdouts. Deep navy, Forest green, Rich Teal contrasted by sage, tan, and earthy browns.

The Learning Commons at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Business

Learning from the mistakes of our expensive heavy tables for the towers and monitors of bygone computers, a new word entered our libraries:  flexible space. Around the turn of 2010 suddenly everything had wheels, could be folded up and stored, could glide across any surface with grace and ease! Much like they were billed to be, these pieces of furniture are too good to be true. Excessively wheeled furniture poses accessibility issues due to the tables’ dependency on locking to be useful as a table (if the previous user/mover does not lock the wheels the next user will be unpleasantly surprised). My own experience with wheeled chairs is that they can and will end up anywhere.

The current trend in library furniture design is all in a gimmick–Power, cushion, odd designs. While the power element is attractive, it serves as an expensive and unsustainable solution for poor building design. A furniture salesperson tried to convince me that whiteboard table tops would be a great idea. Everything is supposed to be a living room but not. Furniture is subtly just uncomfortable enough to discourage a full slumber.

Design renderings for a Learning Commons at Marywood University

Is there such a thing as timeless library furniture? My usual home desk chair is a discarded piece of mid-century Thonet institutional furniture discarded from an undergrad residence hall, acquired at an auction for $1–A well-designed and manufactured piece that can last for decades and beyond. However, that’s not how our libraries (& the institutions that house them) are trending with their furniture consumption.

The components involved in commercial furniture are allegedly sturdier and designed to withhold more use than a standard piece of consumer-grade furniture. They are made of better quality wood and the fabrics are treated and developed to allegedly endure the rigors of thousands of asses grazing their surfaces day in and day out.

Design renderings for a VCU Learning Commons, from KSS Architects

It’s often in fabric selection that institutional furniture directionally errors the most. A pattern, color tone, or even just the fabric itself isn’t quite durable for the usage location. I’ve seen institutional furniture brown and turn threadbare after only a few years of usage. Some of these problems could be solved with routine cleaning, but we al know how maintenance is treated within the innovative neoliberal university…

Many institutional furniture fabrics encourage the choice of loud color palates and patterns–any number of geometric circles, jazzy swirls or god knows what else someone has decided to repeat on a fabric. Believe me when I say that no pattern is timeless and will not adequately hide the filth of a thousand asses. Similarly, trending towards en vogue color patterns or university pallets aren’t always the best decisions either. Remember the burnt orange tweed libraries of the 1970s (i’m acutely aware because my high school media center was a sea of burnt orange, built in the 1970s)? Considerate design around current trends can help us make more conscientious choices about what designs have actually been both timeless, usable, and will endure.

Fun facts about fabrics:  the durability of an institutional fabric is measured in “double rubs.” the number of Double Rubs is calculated using the Wyzenbeek Machine, wherein a piece of heavy cotton canvas is repeatedly rubbed over the test fabric using a mechanical arm. Every back and forth motion of the arm counts as one “double rub.” Many institutional fabrics are rated at over 30,000 double rubs and upwards of 100,000. By comparison, most consumer grade fabrics are under 15,000.

With the increased emphasis on cushioning the library over the years, and doing away with the hard-sided but infinitely durable wooden chairs of the past, we’re also forced to face the impact of an increased manufacturing and replacement cycle of library furniture. What would once last 50+ years is now lasting only 20 or so.

With this change in replacement in mind, it’s important to look at the ugliest side of institutional furniture:  the manufacture thereof.

Oregon Prison furniture shop. Photo by Dana Sparks for the Daily Emerald

It is a not-so well-hidden truth that many makers of institutional furniture–including that which will replace the destroyed and vandalized desks of congress from the January 6 attack–comes from the underpaid and coerced labor of inmates in prison facilities. The largest vendor of prison made furniture is a Federal Government supply agency, now known as UNICOR.

UNICOR also works as a labor sourcing agency and contractor for other companies such as OEI, which is a part of Kruger International (KI), a well-known seller of institutional furniture and office space solutions. Their chairs, tables, soft seating, custom solutions, desks, privacy panels, filing cabinets, etc occupy numerous libraries, archives, computer labs, classrooms and more throughout colleges, universities, and offices in the US and Canada.

Other vendors are not immune. Much of the residential hall bed frames, desk, and chairs come directly from contracts with state departments of corrections, such as the requirement in Virginia that all Public Universities buy from Virginia Correctional Enterprises. In Wisconsin, the residence halls furniture procurement contract is with Blockhouse, a manufacturer out of Pennsylvania that uses prison contracted labor. Washington and Oregon have similar state-contracted arrangements with correctional facilities and/or companies that use inmate labor in their supply chains.

Libraries tend to have more choice, however. Higher end manufacturers like Herman-Miller and Steelcase both explicitly state that their suppliers can not use coerced, slave, or incarcerated labor in the manufacture of products. Furthermore, some companies offer sustainably sourced wood and materials for their products as well, such as the lines from Sustainable Furniture, Inc a company that works primarily with schools on the west coast recycling pieces of discarded institutional furniture. From all evidence thus far, they do not use inmate labor, but the firm is still quite small.

Kalamazoo Public Library, Alma Powell Branch Library. Renovated in 1999 photograph from 2016

So what can we make of all the noise in library furniture? Are we destined to become rapidly passé and wasteful at the suffering of society’s most vulnerable and exploited workforce–those incarcerated folks forced to assemble, stitch, hammer, screw, and staple all the bits together below minimum wage so we can have our luxurious and loud palaces of learning?

Part of the work of destroying a legacy of white supremacy in libraries and higher education is abolishing ties to modern forms of slavery that disproportionately alter the health, social, emotional, and economic fabric of black, brown, and indigenous lives in the United States. The fact that so many of our universities have ties to the prison industrial complex through numerous contracts and decisions in purchasing that trickles to everything from library vendors (such as RELX and Thomson Reuters’ ties to ICE), to furniture, as well as food services (Cafeteria staple Sodexo operates in adult prisons throughout the US, South America, and Europe) screams how deeply invested the university is in systemic racism. Until divestment can happen, our diversity statements and the missions of our DEI committees will be meaningless.

There’s that, or you can just, uh, build a bunch of inaccessible stairs to nowhere.

york university stairs
York University Learning Commons Stairs

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