“The walls are white, the floors are grey but the chairs, they are red.”
“The walls are white, the floors are grey but the chairs, they are red.”
He liked to put things simply. He liked to tell it how it is. He’d come to Stockholm to study design, at the school of art and design, a year and a half ago. Then sixteen weeks ago he had taken on the project of redesigning the interior of his school as the final assignment of his Master program. There were still four weeks to go but he’d finished ahead of schedule and now, here they were sitting around the corner of a table in front of his model. It was scale 1:100, constructed from foamboard, colored card, paper and plastic, and complete with classrooms, corridors, seminar rooms, a cafeteria, library and other rooms with other functions. He’d also made a large number of red chairs, 800 to be precise. There were 300 hundred in the cafe, 15 in each of the 15 seminar rooms, 20 in the lunchrooms of each of the 8 departments, 40 in the library, 40 in the offices of the administration, and 35 spares. Now here they were, him and his professor, sitting in front of his model.
“Why are all the chairs red?” she asked
Of course she couldn’t see colours. She’d never been able to. Achromatopsia, a condition she’d had from birth meant that her world was greyscale, monochrome, colour-less. She took the job as a tutor on the Interior architecture program ten years ago and recently she had acquired the title of professor. It’s not like she’d needed to try hard to hide her colour blindness, it didn’t even seem to cross her students minds that she couldn’t see the colours in their work. Her style was direct, forthright, sometimes verging on antagonistic. She was, much of the time, the most prominent voice in the room. Her method was to ask why, regularly and repeatedly. She thought of herself as an object standing in front of her students, forcing them to define their paths and their goals around the things she threw in their way.
“It’s an accent colour” he said
“An accent colour” The three words sounded, when she spoke them, like bricks being thrown into a lake. “An. Accent. Colour”
He’d used colours a lot in his work before. Red was his favourite. He’d colour the legs of chairs he designed, or handles of cupboards he’d drawn. He’d used it in interiors too, on walls at the end of corridors or on the facings around doors. He’d tried it in various shades and then he’d found this red, his red. Actually his red wasn’t that different from orange. Sometimes in some lights it could even look pink. The point was it was strong and it made his furniture stronger. Of course he knew she couldn’t see colour, somehow he’d suspected it right from the beginning. Perhaps this was why he’d begun using it more and more frequently, he knew that she couldn’t see it and wouldn’t pick up on it or criticise it.
The more red he used the better things seemed to get for him. People understood why he used it, they got it. It had become a bit like a signature for him, a critical moment in all of his designs. When he’d taken on the assignment of the school he knew straight away he would use it as an accent colour on the chairs. Positioning of walls, floors, other colours had all followed afterwards, had been made to fit around the red chairs.
In one way it had been easy. He knew well enough the position of the students, what they needed and what they wanted, he was after all one of them. Once he’d divided up the spaces with central corridors and rooms leading off them it was just a matter of fitting everything in. What had been more difficult, hugely difficult, was the production of the scale model he’d undertaken and he’d worked like a dog to get it all done. He wanted people to be blown away by the scale of his ambition and audacity of his efforts. Early on his desk had been the site of production. There was a certain irony in his mimicking of factory production to make miniature chairs for the interior of his school which, after all, used to be a factory. He’d learnt as he went along, becoming faster and more efficient in his methods. And then there were 865 and he’d finished and the rest had been easy. Now here they were sitting in front of his model, looking in.
“Why?” he heard her ask “why red?”
He thought about confronting her with it, coming straight and blurting
“But you can’t even see colour!!”
But something in her voice was troubling him. It was clear that she hadn’t been blown away by the scale of his ambition or the audacity of his efforts but what wasn’t clear was why she was asking about the chairs, or even if she really was asking about the chairs. Something about the question wasn’t right, the answer seemed so obvious, so straightforward and yet it couldn’t be.
“Rethink everything” she said.
The door clicked closed as they walked out of the classroom and into the model.
* * *
It was some time before he realized what was different. First of all there’d been the smell to overcome. The whole place reeked. Of course it was the glue he’d used on the chairs. He’d bought it the other day, the kind which can be dripped precisely out of a small bottle and which sets almost upon contact. He’d used it to stick the small black rubber feet onto the legs of the chairs and to stick the legs to the bodies. Now the whole place was stinking of it. In the minute or so he’d been standing there at the intersection of the two corridors outside his classroom, the smell had begun to shift to the back of his consciousness, becoming like background noise. It was then that he noticed it. This world was different. This was a world without colour, a world before colour, a world of shadows, desaturated halftones.
After his nose had grown accustomed enough to the reek of the model to allow his legs to move, she’d accompanied him up the corridor. Seminargatan he’d called it. He liked the idea of fashioning his school after the metaphor of a city. Gridded streets with names like seminargatan, verkstadsgatan, bibliotekgatan made up the city that the students would occupy and live in. He’d heard about the work of Baron Hausmann during the nineteenth century in Paris and liked the idea of making his corridors as wide and tall and high as boulevards. There would be no winding paths or narrow lanes in this new school.
The corridor as they walked down it depleted of its colours and accents seemed to him dull and repetitive. Overhead was all structure. The construction that he’d imagined to hold up the roof and hold the glass in place seemed to follow their movement like the ticking of the second-hand in a clock. When he’d designed the corridor he’d imagined it as a place where people would meet, sit for a while, perhaps bringing out some of the red chairs from the seminar room. Now that he was walking up it he thought only of getting to the end, reaching his goal. The corridor seemed less street and more highway.
He was a surprised to see people occupying the model. He’d been focusing so much on the architecture and the smell that he’d not noticed the signs of life about the building. Now as they approached a girl who was moving fast in the other direction he couldn’t decide whether to maintain eye contact or look past the girl into the distance at the end of the corridor. He settled on the half solution of an barely noticeable nod in her direction. The girl seemed to resort to the same.
In the wall he’d cut a number of openings. Doors, windows, ventilation shafts. They finished at the same height on the walls, their tops forming horizontal lines which ran down the corridor. He was pleased with how even at this scale the openings in the wall were clear cut and accurate. Some of the upper windows had already been covered with something that looked like grey paper, perhaps already the rigorous standards of the building were beginning to be overthrown. He noticed some people sitting in front of a projector screen listening to someone talk in one of the darkened rooms. As they reached the end of the corridor they came to a big, open space that he’d imagined functioning like a public square. Vita havet he’d called it.
“Shall we have a seat?”
It seemed less like a question than a command but anyway he answered “yes” and they crossed to the other side of the square. They entered the cafeteria and took a table in the corner, the only round table amongst a lot of rectangles. This had been the table he’d most wanted to sit at when making the model. It felt sheltered in the corner and he gratefully took a seat that allowed him to face the whole space. The rubber feet of the chairs had bumped uneasily along the concrete floor, as they’d pulled them out, causing vibrations to travel up through the legs and come out of the board of the seat, as a loud deep sound. All around them the air was full of the noise of chairs farting in and out of conversation.
The next sound that was heard in the grey world was
The word was repeated so rapidly and so many times that it seemed to lose its meaning, becoming only another sound in the room.
“Why are all the chairs red?” she asked again, this time not looking at him but looking instead at the chairs around the table and the chairs occupied and unoccupied stationed all around the cafe. Hesitating and without knowing what he would say he began,
“Well . . .”
Each dot marked the beginning of a new cycle in the activity of his brain, an activity returning again and again to its point of origin. He tried to think about the colour scheme and about his red, but then he remembered that the chairs weren’t red anymore. He tried to think how red made his furniture strong and how it made him feel stronger, but then he remembered the furniture here wasn’t red. He thought about how to tell her that the chairs were red because the floor was grey and the walls were white but then he remembered that the chairs were not red, they were grey. Each time he came upon an explanation which had made sense to him before, the immediate environment in which they were seated, seemed to contradict him, stalling his thoughts.
“But the chairs, they’re not red. At least not here, not to me!” he exclaimed
And when he said it he had the feeling that this is why she’d brought him here, brought him into her world. And the answers that had before seemed so rational, so straightforward, no longer matched up to the reality. Here things were different and as soon as he realised it, he began to see how. It wasn’t just that the colours were missing, this was only the most obvious shift. The whole balance of perception had altered. Sounds sounded louder, they were more noticeable and more part of their conversation than before. His elbows, feet and buttocks as they touched the table and the floor and the chair seemed to contribute more to his experience of space than he had previously recognised. And the smell. Oh the smell.
And now when she spoke, it was clear where she was speaking from. And by bringing him here she was letting him know where she was speaking from. And it was clear to him that he had also been speaking from. And it was clear to him that he was speaking from and she was speaking from but that the from they were speaking from wasn’t the same from. And all around in the cafe were stationed his ‘red’ chairs. And some of them were empty and some of them were full. And in the full ones were sitting people. And some of them were silent and some of them were speaking. And of the speaking ones some of them were speaking from here and some of them were speaking from there. And it was clear that though there was only one letter between the two positions, here was clearly different from there.
“Lets speak about freedom” she said “Have you thought about what you can say and can’t say and how you can say it and can’t say it and where you can say it and can’t say it and how I can see it and can’t see it. Have you thought about that.”
And he knew that he hadn’t but he knew that he would.
“Did we speak about what is red and what is not? Are these chairs red? Perhaps it is just the light. After all colour is dependent on its surroundings and the eyes of the person who happens to be looking at it. Have you checked all the chairs to see if they are all red? They too depend on their position in the world and the direction in which they face from that position. Did we speak about what red is and what red is not?”
Now he was lost in the tangle of her words and the mess of his own thoughts. Where once had been clarity and sureness, now was only uncertainty. Where before she had asked why and he had answered, now she didn’t even wait for an answer.
“Do you understand what I’m asking when I ask you ‘why are all the chairs red?’? There’s the question of red. What is red and what is not, what red is and what red is not. There’s also the question of chairs. If I asked you ‘Why chairs?’ how would you answer? Then there’s the question of ‘all’. Why are ALL the chairs red? and this question too can be answered in many different ways. Perhaps what I’m trying to show you is that there are other ways to answer these questions. And perhaps the reason you’re still sitting here is that, although you may not have known it before, you want to see these questions in a new light”
. . . Another three revolutions and before he was able to respond, she continued.
“And so I brought you here. And now you know that there are other ways in which to answer the question that I keep asking you. Your problem is now that you are lost, you don’t know how to answer. I have taken away the tools which you were so reliant upon and replaced them with a slightly altered set. You will find, like I have found and like I still find, that its not all about colour. The eyes are no longer the sharpest tools in the box.” she said with a laugh before continuing on the tool theme. “There are other tools too which you can make use of and you need to learn how to make use of them. And you can hopefully see that its not all about you and its not all about me. There are other answers. And I have other students and now, thankyou, I should get back.”
And she stood up, pushing out her chair with the back of her legs, the chair emitting a noise which he had now come to recognise as it bumped unevenly along the floor. She gave him a meaningful look and a little smile and then she said
” Why are all the chairs red?” and she left.
. . .
He sat. All around him was the background noise of the combined conversations of enough people, at distance enough that he couldn’t make out a word. There were only pitches, tones and volume. He closed his eyes and tried to think of the sound as a material. With his newly tuned ears he tried to distinguish each individual sound and pin it to its source and to trace its path as it was reflected from surface to surface. The wall, the floor, the ceiling, the sound in its movement seemed to reach to the corners of the architecture, to give form to its interior. And he thought about all the colours of the rainbow that he knew how to name and wondered why he didn’t know what to call colour in sound. And he tried to imagine how he would have designed this interior if he had used his ears a little more and his eyes a little less.
As he was walking back, back to the classroom and back to the old world, he varied the rhythm of the steps which took him down the long corridor. He listened to the noise his shoes made as they tapped out a rhythm on the foamboard of the floor. He tried altering the point on his feet which reached the ground first and he listened as the slap they made upon impact echoed back off the flat hard floor. As he arrived at the door he was carrying one leg slightly heavier than the other causing him to walk at a peculiar angle and he was thinking about the things that we rely on, the things that we think are natural.
* * *
The door clicked closed as he walked out of the model and into the classroom. Somewhere inside him, unconciously, during the time he’d spent in the model, he’d thought that when he came back, through that door, things would return to normal. But now looking around he saw that he wouldn’t be going back, that this was how things would be from now on. The classroom was greyscale, monochrome, colour-less. He walked over to his model where they’d left it on the table and he sat down in one of the chairs they’d left empty. He eased forward in the chair, positioning himself to look down into the model and he began to work.