Tropical Baroque

A rough and partial history of popular furniture

Illustration by Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili

Even when you don’t see me smile, in fact I am smiling.
—Saddam Hussein

When journalist Paul William Roberts interviewed Saddam Hussein in his Baghdad office back in the mid 90s, he went out of his way to comment on the furniture. Saddam, he explains, was “sitting behind the kind of gilt-shanked baroque desk that looks like it will start cantering about the room whinnying at any moment. It looked less like an office than an exhibit. The Baroque Room: You will notice the Gothic touches coming in during this period, but the overall effect is still one of appalling vulgarity and parvenu ostentation. If you want people to think you’re working, pal, I thought, then put something on the desk. There was the kind of telephone Mae West would have favored: big, white, lots of gold.”1

Strange as it seems, Roberts had decided to drop a tab of ecstasy before walking into the palace to interview the head of state. Usually, I would term such a gesture a worthy experiment in political journalism, but in the case of Paul William Roberts, the action does little more than underline the sense of playground exhilaration that the Arab world induces in him. As demonstrated in his book as a whole, Roberts is the kind of writer who believes that criticizing western foreign policy gives him carte blanche to portray any Arab male as a cultural clone of Saddam himself, as some self-centered, uncultured buffoon. More precisely, what characterizes Roberts’s Saddam, whether in terms of the office furniture or his tastes in cinema (“I like vrr much Gudfadder moofy”), is his childlike willingness to ape the West. Baroque furniture becomes a sign of that pure stream of culture — good or bad, high or low — that is supposedly emanating from the West to the rest, much like “Gudfadder moofy,” or junk food and conceptual art.

Seeing as the baroque is always a case of generosity gone mad, crème brûlée with extra sugar and cream, it functions all too well as a sign of cultural corruption or degeneration. Baroque furniture, even more than jewelry or flowers, is something that symbolizes ornamentation in and of itself, and the overwhelming, syrupy profusion of bright color seems to discourage any sober or impartial reading and leads instead to all sorts of exercises in cheap, sneering snobbery.

Baroque has no qualms with the functional: Although you do find the odd gratuitous pillar and quasi-Hellenic portal and such, what is striking about the baroque is its easy combination with the serviceable and everyday. Notice, for example, the dashboard coverings for Kleenex boxes, equipped with tubby little cherubs blowing slender golden trumpets. Pompous and preposterous if you’re not acquainted well enough, in point of fact the baroque never shies away from the most profane of purposes.

In rhetorics, for example, a “baroquisme” is someone making a simple point in an elaborate way, using superfluous ornaments that dazzle — typically kicking off with a starting point that is simple enough, then culminating in a fireworks of confusingly seductive analogies. According to my Gradus “dictionary of literary procedures,” a baroquisme is akin to an “asianisme,” an “underdeveloped and hardly rational literary method” dependent on “gratuitous hypotheses,” widely used in “Arab literature.”

When Saddam’s gothic showroom was bombed, raided, and looted by marines in crew cuts and muesli camouflage some six years after Roberts’s experiment in psychedelic news narrative, the BBC was just as eager to pounce on the Hussein family furniture. “Large bedrooms with hotel-style beds and imitation French baroque furniture lie empty, covered with a film of dust. Other articles and bloggers equally referred not only to the furniture style itself, but to the dust covering the furnishings. Portentous omens peering at us through the billowing sands of history.

And this is the third point of baroque: Aside from being ornamental and embarrassing, it is always allegorical in that pretentious, ominous, biblical bedrock sort of way. For Walter Benjamin, the baroque reflected a mode of fabled, prehistoric understanding of divine communication. Because the earliest rude world was too crude and uncivilized and people could not therefore correctly grasp and understand the teachings of wisdom and heavenly things, wise men had to conceal and bury what they had discovered in order to cultivate the fear of God, morality, and good conduct, in rhymes and fables to which the common people are disposed to listen. And for Benjamin, it was indeed a common practice of the literature of the baroque to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal, and to take the repetition of stereotypes for a process of intensification, in the unremitting expectation of a miracle.

Initially, the baroque was a public relations campaign on behalf of the pope, designed to woo the masses in a context of religious tensions within Christianity, in the wake of the division between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In the 1550s, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on the Counter-Reformation, a program of renewal which resorted to an art of magnificent display that was both doctrinally correct and visually and emotionally appealing. As the century progressed, the style did make inroads into the Protestant countries, but was simply appropriated by the adversary for his own ends and under his own aesthetic premises.

Today, it seems that what we generically call an international appearance of “baroque furniture” is actually a blend of Louis XIV, rococo, American colonial, Queen Anne, gothic — and an occasional smattering of Ming dynasty. Aside from the actual trappings and design, the very choreography, the mise-en-scène of such furniture is equally hybrid and unpredictable, blending interior traditions that are hard to pinpoint. In Tehran, one important feature is the placing of a generous number of chairs in a circle, one that is used almost exclusively to host ones family and friends, which lends the effect of a painstakingly arranged furniture showroom, particularly when the chairs still sport the original plastic wrapping. So the guests — sipping hot tea and discussing the merits of Isfahan over Shiraz, and slandering the government, and wondering aloud when Hamid is finally going to rehab — can convene in a pleasant circular setting of golden loops and crimson curves.

Iran aside, the striking predominance of baroque furniture is noticeable in parts of Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Indian Subcontinent and the Arab world. The style has made such impressive inroads into even the most culturally conservative milieux that I personally know of several Mideast individuals who think baroque is a Syrian invention.

And indeed, at what point is a cultural phenomenon delocalized and entirely appropriated? To take a rather underestimated example, beer was invented by Egyptians during the Pharaonic era, along with the very material — glass — from which it is now consumed. This obviously does not mean Bavarians have to learn Pharaonic drinking songs for the annual Oktoberfest to avoid accusations of cultural alienation. But when it comes to the baroque outside the West (as is the case with art biennials, blue jeans, designer footwear and more), the original, colonial point of reference, and the notion of non-Westerners being endearing lowlifes imitating something that will never be theirs, is tenacious indeed.

Around the time Paul William Roberts was busy with Saddam Hussein and his Mae West telephone, Indian writer and architect Gautam Bhatia published the book Punjabi Baroque in which the new schools of architecture in Indian cities are referred to with terms such as “Chandni Chowk Chippendale,” “Tamil Tiffany,” “Marwari mannerism,” “Bania gothic,” and “Anglo-Indian rococo.” Despite offering an approach that is ostensibly more meticulous, comprehensive and subtle than comparable studies that came before, the bottom line of Gautam Bhatia’s argument, from what I gather, is that Subcontinental baroque is a top-down architecture of resilience preserving the lifestyle of the wealthy against the poor, in a desperate attempt to preserve an illusion of colonial grandeur.

But Punjabi baroque, to borrow Bhatia’s term, can hardly be reduced to an exclusivist mark of social standing. To stick to the Tehrani example, if there are many common denominators that cut across social class, but also gender and ethnicity — like, for example, classical poetry and any type of junk food soaked in sweet ketchup — even these are subject to styles, interpretations, and modes of consumption that differ from one another. One of the few phenomena that truly do unite the city as a whole is indeed the fascination for rococo armchairs with crimson padding and gold trimmings shaped into teeny-tiny crests and purls. The majority of villas, apartments, and even slum dwellings I’ve visited are a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Louis XIV. Interestingly, the one Tehran apartment I know that is absolutely and perfectly free of any baroquisms whatsoever is that of Farhad Moshiri, an artist whose favored subject matter, as it happens, is the way in which the baroque has made its way into so many spheres of everyday life.

Class lines aside, even political boundaries are forgotten under the sheltering radiance of petite leaves and feathers of plaster and gold. Hossein Rahati, a baroque furniture dealer who started his career in the 1970s (and a close friend of my family ever since), claims he never once reconsidered his Elahie furniture assortment. He now sells precisely the same style of furniture to millionaire clergymen that he was selling to the pre-revolutionary royal family. For the Pahlavi monarchists and their entourage, the porno-aesthetic overkill of rococo signified modernization and westernization at all costs. While for the elite that followed, intent as it was on homegrown authenticity, I would imagine the very same French furniture signifies, quite simply, upward mobility, professionalism, and quite possibly, a touch of Emirati glamour. As a friend of mine would put it, a postmodern context spawns postmodern furniture; accept the expected.

To claim that baroque is nothing more than a sign of westernization, or of nouveau riche ostentation, is like saying that gangster hip-hop is arrogant (they’re worse than whites), that Monopoly turns kids into capitalists, or that Dubai is ugly and faceless. On the one hand, the problem here is sweeping and dramatic and, dare I say, global; a problem of language in general, of the dearth of shared criteria, seeing that the trilogy of the good, the beautiful, and the true has become as questionable in cultural analysis as it is in urban studies or art history. But on the other hand, the promise of the baroque is a simple one. Speaking as a former academic, I can say that baroque embodies the advantage of snakeskin boots and a Beckham Mohican over a black turtleneck and a pair of corduroys. To go without any sort of high modernist codex that translates into clear-cut professional command means you’re perpetually underestimated. It gives you a terrific sense of freedom: Nothing to lose, everything to gain.

1. Paul William Roberts, The Demonic Comedy: The Baghdad of Saddam Hussein (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997)