Shelter: Our First Architectural Act

By Rebecca Irvin

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It might be an ambitious construction of blankets and cushions with a complex pulley system of sheets and scarves knotted together; it might just be a duvet hastily pulled up over two conspiratorial heads to make a secret, tented world lit by a torch. The pillow-fort: an architectural phenomenon borne of the human impulse to construct spaces in which we feel safe, in which we feel sheltered. Or simply put: that childhood game of making dens.

As children, we begin to organise space around ourselves, to work out exactly how our clumsy little bodies fit into the world. Along with our awareness of ourselves as spatial beings comes the corresponding urge to create abodes which accommodate us physically, places of refuge and comfort where we can hide away from the reproachful eyes of the grown-ups.

A foundational base of pillows and cushions, quilted duvet-walls held together with clothes pegs, a sheet-roof stretched over the back of a sofa, flapping coverlet-windows and the warm, ethereal glow of fairy-lights seen through draped fabric: these are the elements that make up the topology of the childhood imagination. The closing of a blanket door opens up a space of boundless potential. Like the interior of the creative mind, the inner sanctuary of the pillow-fort can conjure anything: a spaceship, a castle, a boat, a magic cave. These are also ephemeral spaces, structures that stand only briefly before their inevitable collapse into a pile of pillows, crumpled sheets and stuffed toys. Much like our childhood, indeed, these soft shelters are temporary, providing us with momentary refuge from the adult world that lies outside the blanketed walls.

Architect Sam Jacob’s installation for London Design Festival, in collaboration with design journal Disegno and Swedish bedding manufacturers Hästens, recalls the childhood practice of building bed-forts. The immersive, experiential installation presents visitors with a playful construction assembled using the Swedish bed specialist’s products and materials in combination with architectural elements and methods.

Sam gives us some insight into the project:

What was it about this project with Hästens and Disegno that appealed to you?
It’s always fun to engage with a different kind of site and different kind of medium – so Hästens’ world of beds and sleep seemed like an exciting place to make new work.

Does the project resonate with your own childhood?
There is always the amazing way in which apparently ordinary things take on fantastical possibilities through the imagination of children. So this installation draws on that idea of a place or thing you know to be one thing beginning to become another – how a bed could become a kind of architecture, how things you normally think of as hard become soft, how things that are big become smaller, things that are outside become inside… and how a bed could become a whole other kind of landscape.

In what ways were you able to apply architectural knowledge and design principles to the childhood practice of making pillow-forts?
It’s more about framing ideas of architecture through the lens of ‘play’ – a somewhat surreal way of making a bed into a landscape of architectural possibility. Hopefully it makes the act of getting into bed stranger, more exciting, full of unexpected possibilities of adventure.

Why is the building of a pillow-fort an important architectural act?
Making a bed, making a pillow-fort – both are real architectural acts. One is a construction of elements which creates the space for sleep, the other transforms the everyday into something fantastical. For kids, this kind of play is a way of experimenting with building different kinds of space – of having the agency to make and remake the world in their own image (at least for a while).

What kinds of dialogues emerge from this alliance of architecture with the materials of comfort, sleep, softness and safety?
I think the idea that architecture could be something soft, something you wrap around yourself, that exists in a more direct relationship to your body, is an interesting way to think of the world around us. Maybe all architecture is really like this – even if it doesn’t feel quite like that most of the time.

What has your participation in this project brought back to your architecture?
I think in a sense that everything is architecture… that all the rituals and habits of life, even at the scale of these intimate domestic moments, are actually designed, and that in consequence, they can be redesigned.

Finally – what are your tips for constructing the perfect pillow-fort?
Just bring your imagination, and maybe a picnic too…

With that in mind, let’s step inside.

You descend the stairs to Hästens’ basement showroom. Before you lies a colourful landscape of thick red duvets and scattered, plump pillows spread over squidgy mattresses – the soft, snug fantasies of your childhood realised in luxury bedding materials. Suddenly you are five years old again: your eyes grow wide, the palms of your hands begin to tingle, your stomach fizzes with creative possibility and you can feel your toes twitching, ready to propel you from the brink of reality and responsibility into a pillowy dream-world.

You throw yourself backwards onto the heap of bedding with the impetuous abandon and simple trust of child plunging headlong into a ball-pit with their eyes squeezed shut. Cushiony arms rush up to catch you and you sink back into the padded layers. Puffy pleats of duvet fan out all around you. Your body is cradled among the squashy folds and you lie, breathless and seemingly weightless, as if on a bank of thick cloud. You kick up your legs and point your toes towards the encasing canopy of blue gingham stretched taut over your head. You are in the world of the imagination, where the sky is a picnic blanket and the ground is as soft and as fluffy as cotton wool.

The comfort and support of a Hästens bed is due to their use of exclusively natural materials and traditional processes, the key element being horsetail hair which has been used in bedding since the 1800s, complemented by swathes of cotton, yards of pure wool and layers of flax. Nestled in the very substance of nature, you could be lying on the mossy ground of a woodland glade, staring up at a blanket of leaves overhead and surrounded by foliage on all sides. You stretch out on the carpeted forest floor and let your eyelids slide shut. You might have lain here for a hundred years, the vegetation slowly creeping over your arms and legs until you are swaddled like a seed in the fabric of the earth…

Suddenly a noise from the world outside cuts through your reverie and you sit up, rubbing your eyes. You are back in the bedding store, and the noise of the city floats in through the open door. Buses are rumbling past, people are rushing from place to place, doors are swinging open and shut. But for a moment, just for a moment, you were there, back in the land of childhood, back in that unbounded universe, back in that secret little world within the world.

DSCF6434Pillow-fort in Hästens’ basement.

DSCF6479Architect Sam in his pillow-fort.

 Photographs courtesy of Chris Tang

 In conjunction with Sam JacobDisegnoHästens

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