A Sofa is Not Just a Sofa

Furniture as art, in confidential spaces not usually exposed to public scrutiny

Flipping through the pages of Elle Décor, World of Interiors, or Nest and fantasizing about my dream home has ameliorated many a long wait at the doctor’s office. Shellburne Thurber’s current solo exhibition at Participant Inc., “Psychoanalytic Interiors,” brilliantly conflates these two conceits and begs the question: what is the ideal setting for getting one’s head shrunk?

The show consists of 30 chromogenic photographs of unoccupied psychoanalytic offices culled from an on-going project shot in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Buenos Aires, a town that has three times as many analysts per person as does New York City.

Playing on notions of taste, desire, and class anxiety encoded in glossy interior design magazines, Thurber’s pictures invite the viewer to look closely at a set of spaces that are traditionally off-limits, spaces where confidences are exchanged. What kinds of rooms elicit self-revelation? Where should the couch be placed in relation to the window for maximum exposure? Each unique arrangement of the mundane tools of the trade (Kleenex boxes, clocks, and egg timers) becomes a specific geometry of solicitation. Even the calculated space between the “head” of the patient’s couch and the analyst’s chair becomes a projection for the possibility of intimacy, transference, and detachment.

Reiterating the furnishings of Freud’s own Vienna office, the personal collections of African masks, mythological statuary, paintings and photographs (of Freud!) contained in these rooms appear as shrines to the Great Analyst himself as well as a reminder of the old-fashioned, often comic trappings of the iconic Western unconscious. In the midst of the current psychopharmacological revolution, the overstuffed bookcases, “Oriental” rugs, rich colors as well as the leather, velvet, and wood surfaces signal a kind of nostalgia for belief systems and upper middle-class gentility deeply rooted in the previous century.

Where the offices begin to look like clinics, the palette and light changes. Dirty pastels, musty and “soothing” pinks dominate. Pairs of utilitarian straight-backed chairs face each other. Filing cabinets, computers, TV monitors, Winslow Homer prints, and the white boxes of sample medications transform the voluntary bourgeois “indulgence” of psychoanalysis into cool evidence of social control.

Thurber’s restrained, intelligent photographs remind us that the choice between ruminating weekly in a room filled with Matisse prints rather than sad clown paintings is more often a matter of class than of taste.

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