During uncube’s investigation of all things animal this month, we unearthed a curious article from 1896 showcasing and describing the bygone phenomenon of “animal furniture” – design objects made from exotic animals that once adorned the homes of upper class Brits. Correspondent Crystal Bennes delves into this strange world of giraffe armchairs and monkey coat racks to question how far we’ve really come from the Victorian age in terms of our attitudes towards animals. We also present the original article in full for your reading pleasure and/or horror.
“We have all seen hunting trophies…but he was a ’dreffle smart man’ who first thought of adapting these trophies to every-day use.” In other words, if you’re going to have a hunting trophy in your abode, it might as well serve some useful purpose. Welcome to London, 1896, and the opening lines of an article straightforwardly entitled “Animal” Furniture.
Published in The Strand Magazine, a popular monthly most famous as the distributor of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories, this article by regular contributor William G. Fitzgerald’s introduces us to the unusual world of “‘animal’ furniture”. Walking his reader though its former incarnations, Fitzgerald explains how, in the 1860s, women were crazy about game birds as headwear – “more grouse were worn than were eaten” – and tiger- and bear-claw jewellery was à la mode, before the fashion shifted to embrace the use of animals in their entirety for the construction of novel and useful objets d’art.
Most of the designs, Fitzgerald says, were concocted from animals shot by the aristocracy while on grand hunting tours in Africa, Asia and North America. A baby giraffe shot in “British East Africa” becomes an enveloping arm chair; a giant argus pheasant shot in Singapore is transformed, rather ingeniously – as Fitzgerald is fond of proclaiming, into an uncannily beautiful fire-screen; an elephant’s enormous foot is given a hinge in order that it may serve as a liquor cabinet. All quite extraordinary, really.
Stranger still from today’s vantage point is that, while Fitzgerald explicitly states that creating useful articles from animals that have died from natural causes is “ingenious and praiseworthy”, he refrains from making a value judgement about the fact that many of the animals concerned have been shot by humans on hunting safaris. Is hunting for sport so obviously a fine thing that it need not be stated? Perhaps the question is seen as redundant given the implied brilliance of the objects featured in the article. The quotation marks around the word animal in “‘animal’ furniture” also intrigues. Is this an attempt at distance? A de-animalising of the animals? It’s difficult to say.
However, one thing that can be said about the article is how sharply it throws into relief our own complex relationship with animals today. It’s perhaps too easy to look over our shoulders at the Victorians and their Empire-fuelled fashion for furniture made from animals – exotic or domestic – and judge such practices as cruel, disgusting, unnatural, etc. But fashion is an appropriate word, for while we may think our attitudes are more progressive, in general this line of thinking masks a number of lingering issues related to contemporary human-animal relations.
Were a contemporary equivalent of the article to be published today, one imagines many readers would immediately take to various social media networks to proclaim their outrage at such barbaric behaviour. Indeed, two years ago, when a stuffed lamb side table by designer Oscar Tusquets Blanca, referencing a painting by Dalí, was published on Dezeen, a number of commenters made clear their disgust at the use of lambs for luxury goods. But refreshingly, a number of commenters also pointed out the rather hypocritical stance of said disgust, given how much of the luxury industry is utterly dependant on the use of lambs and other animal-related products for the production of its goods.
This brief exchange of views highlights but a small percentage of a vast minefield of ethical issues underpinning questions of luxury, visibility and industrial processes, as well as about scarcity, wildness, conservation and shame. Moreover, given that these issues bisect not only design, but class, gender, agriculture, consumption, politics, ecology and more besides, it’s no wonder we’re quick to judge the Victorians while burying our own heads in the sand.
Today, arguably, it’s the question of visibility which is most germane. Here, gastronomy provides a nice counterpoint. Despite the current trend for “nose-to-tail” eating in the restaurant industry, meaning that all parts of the animal are used, diners still don’t want to see, for example, the head and feet attached if they order a roast chicken. That would be regarded as “other”, foreign, and yes, even barbaric.
Visibility and its handmaiden, shame, seem also to be linked to the fact that we no longer like to see animals used in their whole form – the reason we find Blanca’s lamb table or Fitzgerald’s “animal” furniture so unsettling. It’s hard to know which came first: our desire to no longer see the use of whole animals or the processed animals industry. But we seem to find it much easier to ignore the fact that animals comprise food, clothing, design and architecture if we don’t see them in their complete forms.
Visibility is also related to scale: the rapid and vast increase in the industrial production of animals used for food, clothing and a number of other things, which leads in turn to scarcity of certain species. Perhaps this is why hunting wild animals is widely perceived as being a greater evil than purchasing dead domesticated animals in the form of everyday shoes or luxury sofas. Not only have we manufactured a world in which there are more domesticated cattle than wild bears, for example, but we have also determined that wild bears are of significantly more value than domesticated cattle.
Scarcity plays its part, here, both in the sense of the desirability of luxury goods as dependant on their rarity, but also to the extent to which we tend to assign greater significance to wild animals if they are more rare. Of course, as any conservation scientist will tell you, aesthetics (like cuteness) also help to determine which endangered animals are more likely to receive greater public sympathy and financial support. But then it’s fascinating how often this logic fails to translate to the world of domesticated animals, given how cute we find baby farm animals, yet continue to rear them by the millions for fashion and food.
Victorians famously repressed the visibility of all things sexual. The extent to which we have switched places in that regard, in comparison with our attitudes toward animals, is almost ironic. Socially, we’re far more open about sexual mores, but have pushed visible consumption of animals behind closed doors. We don’t mind seeing leather handbags or shoes or chairs that don’t look like cows, but are bothered by a piece of furniture that is literally a cow, because seeing it makes things complicated. It makes the ethical minefield visible and unavoidable, and highlights the extent to which we draw arbitrary lines between using certain kinds of animals for certain kinds of objects but not others. Reading Fitzgerald’s article now, one wonders how we would explain ourselves to a culture looking back on us in 100 years as to why we protected bears in the wild, raised cows for clothes and food, and kept cats and dogs for pets rather than, say, turning them into animal furniture.
– Crystal Bennes is a writer, curator and artist based in Finland. She is co-editor of Pages Of and contributing editor of Icon. She runs the blog Development Aesthetics and is one third of the London Research Kitchen.