See Something Say Something

Victoria Solan

As a formal composition, IKEA’s Antilop high chair hews to a Corbusian aesthetic. The chair’s lightweight polypropylene mass is comprised of pleasingly simple geometric forms. A compact square seat with a semi-circular backrest rests atop four tubular steel legs, each of which is finished with a not-quite-perfectly-hemispherical foot made of polyethethylene and polypropylene. It is IKEA, after all. But the Antilop does come in pure white, which would please the old master of modernism.

Available for purchase at just twenty-five dollars, the Antilop is the high chair of choice for frugal aesthetes. Sacrificing slightly less than four square feet of kitchen floor space, the adult purchaser gains a stable 10” by 9” rectangular opening into which a live human infant can be inserted. A flimsy lap strap, the subject of at least one recall, holds the child in place. The absence of elaborate five-point harnessing, tufted upholstery, or footrests distinguishes the Antilop from more baroque models produced by competitor firms; a snob might take comfort in noting that this is the high chair of choice in the Louvre café. Without mirrors or footrests, the chair performs the simple material task of holding an infant in an appropriate position for the ingestion of food. The detachable tray, with its raised perimeter rim to discourage the immediate rejection of food and liquid, provides an easel on which the young eater, fingering figs or cheese sticks, might learn the basics of composing an appetizing meal. Frequently used, and nearly as frequently washed, the high chair is one element of a holy triumvirate of parenting material culture (the other two pieces being crib and potty), objects deployed by parents as part of a struggle to impart the rituals of civilized life to their offspring, each generation shocked at the difficulty of completing such a set of seemingly mundane tasks.

Backed up to the splattered kitchen wall, his torso held down by a grubby gray ribbon, my son acquires the rituals of meals and all the social life that surrounds them. It is in the condition of restraint provided by the Antilop that he will begin to distinguish between clean and dirty, sweet and salty, loud and quiet. He has already begun to sway to the beat of children’s music, car alarms and whatever else is swirling around in his head. He giggles with his sister and uses his new fork to insert a fish stick into the dog’s open mouth. He feels time pass, observes holidays, and begins to make the transition from observer to participant in our family holidays and meal times. He is becoming human, and yet it is only in buckling him down that I—as mother/observer/researcher—find time to make note of these transitions, to notice the extent to which the Antilop frames or defines the spatial limits and material terms of our relationship.

I momentarily panic at the plastic shoddiness of it all. This is a lot to ask of a little chair from IKEA, one of a string of semi-durable, nearly-useful products purchased in such non-destinations as Emeryville, Schaumburg, and Stoughton. Nearly any high chair would perform the crucial task of holding my son at the table and away from the stove. Does it matter that this is the Antilop rather than another chair? I can’t know. I won’t have another son to test this out on with another chair, and even if I did, the experiment would not account for individual variation in the human psyche and the infant body. But here is what I do know: the hidden strap is important; the chair is the object around which I pause to reconsider changed relationships: me to the outside world, me to the human that came out my body, me to design and material culture. It frees me, at least momentarily, to count raisins, drink coffee, or simply escape the constant mucky pawing of caregiving. I like this little strap, which buys me time to think, as well as to cook and clean, and I like that it is hidden, a floppy unobtrusive thing beneath the sauce-smeared tray, near the square openings which frame my son’s fleshy legs. Later in life, I know that the straps will be more visible, more serious, he will have to be strapped down, physically and metaphorically, for so many of life’s lessons. For now, I enjoy not seeing the straps, paradoxically visualizing him as free while he is securely held in place by the restraints of the Antilop.

Today, I wipe clean the Antilop, previous scholarly insights and research about plastics and global marketplaces rattling around in the back of my head as applesauce accrues under my fingernails. In an article on archival work, the British historian Carolyn Steedman called this the conundrum of “Intimacy in Research.” How does one navigate the boundary between personal life and professional pursuit? Steedman was writing about a moment of personal transformation at work in the archive, but my moment is in the kitchen, with a chocolate-smeared baby swaying hard enough to the music of his favorite “ceee-deee” to nearly tip the Antilop. The record of my labor is not an essay, but instead a small, briefly-clean plastic chair, a disposable monument to a particular moment in time. Can moments have a Corbusian rigor or morality? Probably not.

Victoria Solan is an architectural historian and lecturer at Tufts University.

In this ongoing series, writers choose and describe a single image.