Where Furniture Design & Government Identity Intersect.

Whether you realize it or not, humans showcase their herd identities all the time (in anthropology this is referred to as “tribal identity”). We wear certain clothes, style our homes, and buy products that reflect our identity. We use these to tell people what our values are without having to say it, and we gravitate towards individuals who reflect our own identity. Our workspaces apply this same type of herd identity, an often aspirational identity for the workspace, a space that showcases a company’s playfulness, collaboration, innovation, etc.

After the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol yesterday this question was posed in my design circle: “Do you think the interior decorating style of government/capitol buildings will ever shift from 1800s style furniture to look closer to modern office environments? I would imagine being surrounded by furniture and decoration from 200 years ago would have at least a small impact on the type of discourse had in those rooms.”

Let’s dive into where some of that furniture comes from.

Due to a government mandate, the government must (for the most part) purchase furniture for its offices from Federal Prison Industries, Inc. otherwise known as Unicor[3][4]. For those not in the loop on Federal Prison Industries, Inc. this is a company whose products are made by inmates at Federal Prisons. A few things to note here:

  1. Despite recommended safety guidelines, Unicor kept its factories open during the pandemic[1].
  2. Under federal law, inmates deemed capable of labor are required to work for Unicor or another prison job. These inmates are only able to earn between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour (see Title XXIX, §2905 of the Crime Control Act of 1990)[2].
  3. Unicor’s revenue in 2019 was $531,453,000.

Within the walls of our government, lawmakers use furniture and furnishings reflective of a time when this country stole land from its indigenous people and owned slaves. This furniture is devoid of modernity. Within the context of the herd identity of the government, it is a sea of sameness. With very few exceptions, our elected officials have looked the same throughout the entire history of America, and do not reflect the country. The very furniture lawmakers sit on is made on the backs of people in a system that disproportionately affects minorities whom this country has already historically disenfranchised through slavery and systemic racism.

In Industrial Design we talk a lot about where our products come from and why. The supply chain is important, customers (especially younger customers) expect transparency on fair labor practices and eco-friendly products are pushing the design industry forward. All of this is happening as we try to get the government on board with stricter legislation around Climate Change and Social Justice. Obviously, furniture doesn’t tell lawmakers to keep things the way they’ve always been, but one has to wonder if the separation we often feel between regular citizens and elected officials is reflected down to how they choose, receive, and interact with the products in their lives.

This is not to say a furniture style is an end-all-be-all of enacting positive change in our government. It’s to acknowledge that the furniture used in the Capitol is both a reflection of the history of oppression in this country and it is largely created by those who still feel the effects of that oppression today. This is a call to examine the ways that the objects around us reflect our willingness or unwillingness to be open to and accepting of change. To show especially at the highest levels of government we need to dig deep into the systems on which this country was founded and ask “what needs to change?”. In the realm of Industrial Design, we approach life in a way where we ask who is this designed for and why? Who does this product help? Where does this product come from? How can this product improve life and be accessible to more people? Our government should be asking themselves these same questions. Yes, they should consider the furniture they buy and how it’s made but more importantly, they need to ask these questions of their ethics and policies and potentially, be in an environment that reflects something more than the harmful legacy of this country.

1 Aspinwall, C., Blakinger, K., & Neff, J. (2020, April 10). Federal prison factories kept running as coronavirus spread. The Marshall Project. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/04/10/federal-prison-factories-kept-running-as-coronavirus-spread

2 Crime Control Act of 1990, S. S.3266, 101st Cong. (Nov. 29, 1990).

3 CRS Report for Congress Federal Prison Industries, Rep., at 14–15 (July 13, 2007). https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32380.pdf

4 Department of Justice. (n.d.). OFG Office Furniture, Seating, and Accessories. UNICOR. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://www.unicor.gov/Category.aspx?idCategory=1417

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