Order of Multitudes

Travels to the Interior: A Conversation with Ro Spankie

Dr. Ro Spankie is a designer, teacher, and researcher and a Principal Lecturer at the University of Westminster in London, where she is also Assistant Head of School and Course Leader for the B.A. Program in Interior Architecture. Spankie is the author of Sigmund Freud’s Desk: An Anecdoted Guide (Freud Museum London). In this conversation, we discuss Spankie’s interest in interior spaces – both physical and psychological – her curatorial work, and what we can learn from one famous psychologist’s favorite piece of furniture. 

Sarah Pickman: Tell us a bit about yourself – what is your educational and professional background, and what are your research interests, broadly?

Ro Spankie: I am an architect by training and a Principal Lecturer in the School of Architecture + Cities at the University of Westminster in London. My expertise is interior architecture, a discipline focusing on the alteration and adaptation of existing buildings. It is a practice that connects the past, the present and the future, focusing on adaptive re-use rather than conservation, and is responsive to the role of memory in how we construct the world around us. More broadly positioned than architecture, adaptive re-use encompasses a range of disciplines including: architectural archaeology, biography of place, social history, identity studies, and material culture, as well as storytelling, narrative environments, and exhibition design. 

In 2018 I completed my Ph.D. at University College London. My thesis focused on the role of drawing, the imagination, and the subconscious in the creation of interior space. Through this work, I developed an interest in psychoanalysis, the subjective position, as well as techniques of mapping out ideas in relation to one another.

SP: How did you first become interested in interior spaces? We don’t often think about interior spaces as “traveling” – can you describe some of your research into how different kinds of interiors “move” through becoming models for other kinds of spaces?

RS: One of the differences between designing an interior, as opposed to the building that contains it, is the lack of control over the end product. Interiors are composed of movable elements, such as furniture and fittings, that the occupant arranges and rearranges according to their needs, tastes, and customs. The act of arranging allows the occupant to establish their identity and create a personal interior architecture.

My research explores this relationship between the interior and interiority, that is to say between physical space and notions of subjectivity. An example is the distinction between an actual space and the memory of a space; one’s house and the psychic construct of home. The latter, constructed from experiences of the childhood home(s), is a place that holds us, contains us, and is instrumental to functions of identity and anchoring. Psychoanalysts refer to this as the “first house.” A gap exists, though, between the actual house and the “first house” as the mind distorts the relationship between physical form and the space in one’s memory.

Architectural theorist Mark Cousins has suggested that an individual’s idea of the “first house” affects the arrangement of all subsequent spaces they occupy. Every time someone moves, no matter what the rooms look like or how they furnish them, there remains some “mysterious repetition.” I have always been fascinated by this repetition – that we repeat spatial arrangements, referring to previous arrangements we have known – often without realizing it. As an architect I have attempted to map out how this process works both for individuals and for institutions – looking at how traditions and customs are passed down over time. One example is the Royal College of Physicians in London, who have moved buildings several times during their long history, each time taking an oak-panelled interior known as the Censors’ Room with them. 

SP: One of the themes of “Order of Multitudes” is collections, and you’ve researched one particular collection through your work on interiors: the objects from Sigmund Freud’s study. Can you talk about Freud’s objects, how they moved with him, and what they represented to him? 

RS: I originally visited the Freud Museum, a house museum in London, soon after it opened in the late 1980’s. My first impression on entering the founder of psychoanalysis’s preserved study and consulting room was that of an overwhelming profusion of things. Not only is there the famous analytic couch with Freud’s armchair at the head, but also his library and his much-loved collection of over 2,000 antiquities. But the piece of furniture that most intrigued me was the large wooden desk that he positioned where he could see the couch, so that on returning to his desk at the end of the day to read, write, think, and smoke, he was also literally reflecting back on his day’s work.

The desk itself is obscured by writing implements, smoking paraphernalia, and antique figurines. This collection of objects has been the subject of much speculation. Described variously as goods, gods, objects, figures, antiquities, bibelots, toys, or trinkets, what is clear is that they were not mere ornaments but represented a more complex emotional content to their owner. Marina Warner has suggested they were “tools of thought or the kitchen utensils of his imagination,” and it’s also been suggested that they acted as markers or signposts to his thoughts. Thus, the desk is not functional in the way a designer might use the term, but rather it created what Donald Winnicott has referred to as a “facilitating environment.” That is, the arrangement on his desk created a secure creative space that allowed Freud to think and to write.

Years after my original visit one chapter of my Ph.D. focused on the arrangement of Freud’s study and consulting room. I discovered that Freud would transport the couch, the desk, and the arrangement of objects on the desk’s surface to his summer residences every year so he could continue to work and that he even took some of his favorite figurines on holiday. When in 1938 Freud and his family were forced to flee Vienna to London, he arranged the objects on his desk exactly how he had them laid out in Vienna. As part of my research I mapped out these movements. I wrote and designed a guidebook based on this research, Sigmund Freud’s Desk: An Anecdoted Guide. The guide uses a combination of image and text to describe Freud and his theories through the sixty-five objects. Each object is described in three ways: their provenance; the figure or function they represent; and what they might have represented to Freud. The latter, sourced from anecdotal and personal stories in private correspondence, is of course the most revealing. I used the maps I created to visualize the connections between what is a bewildering arrangement of characters and scales, attempting to disentangle the dreamlike montage of associations and ideas that Freud surrounded himself with as he wrote. The Freud Museum London published the guide and it’s now in its third edition. I have since been involved in a number of interesting projects with them including building a dollhouse based on Anna Freud’s Toddler Hut for younger museum visitors to play with! 

SP: Another project you’ve worked on recently is curating the exhibition “Travelling Companions” at CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) at the University of Cambridge, which examines the different kinds of objects we bring with us through our lives and travels through the work of artists Fay Ballard and Judy Goldhill. Has working on this exhibit changed how you’ve thought about travel, or about the objects in your daily life? 

RS: I met the artists Fay Ballard and Judy Goldhill at the Freud Museum -our initial conversation was triggered by the objects on Freud’s desk: the prototype “travelling companions.” Fay and Judy had just finished a successful exhibition at the Museum entitled “Breathe” about the role of loss and mourning in their work. Their work investigates memory, home, spirit of place, and the role of evocative objects in people’s lives. We talked for hours and agreed to do a project together.

Professor Sherry Turkle suggests that objects act as emotional and intellectual companions that anchor memory, sustain relationships, and provoke new ideas. Turkle’s ideas resonated with my work on Freud’s desk arrangement, leading me to come up with the exhibition title “Travelling Companions” as a vehicle to explore these issues through Fay and Judy’s work. 

We put a proposal to the ARB Gallery, CRASSH at the University of Cambridge, attracted by its interdisciplinary focus.  As an architect I was fascinated by the contrast in scale between Judy’s huge photographs of the night skies, and Fay’s detailed interior drawings; the two scales representing the collective and the personal, a sense of far away, but also a familiarity of home. Traditionally constellations of stars have acted as navigational tools, guiding travellers and giving direction, and Judy’s depictions of the heavens act as a different sort of travelling companion to the journey mapped out by Fay’s domestic objects. I attempted to curate the exhibition through the juxtaposition of the two.

Alongside the physical exhibition we invited “fellow travelers” to describe their traveling companions in image and text, which resulted in a companion digital exhibit. These traveling companions ranged from representations of self, of home, of someone loved, to more practical things that the individual couldn’t travel without. After working on this exhibition, I think that our traveling companions (be they physical objects or remembered, internalized objects) will always frame what we find when we arrive at our destinations.

SP: Finally, has your work given you the opportunity to travel to any particularly interesting or unusual places? 

RS: While researching Freud, I had read some of Carl Jung’s writings. I was particularly interested in his idea of the Shadow (a part of the psyche roughly equivalent to Freud’s notion of subconscious), that Jung described as a dark and unknown space, associated with largely negative traits, yet at the same time the source of human creativity. As a designer who understands creativity as a core part of my psychic make-up, the location of creativity in the Shadow was intriguing. It just didn’t relate to anything I was working on at the time.

In 2018 the organization Island Dynamics put out a call for a multidisciplinary conference exploring cultural and environmental aspects of darkness. It was a perfect opportunity to explore the Shadow, but the deciding factor for me to submit a paper was that the conference was to be held in Longyearbyen on Svalbard in January – a month of sub-zero arctic temperatures and 24-hour darkness. The best thing about multidisciplinary conferences is that one steps out of the known; both in terms of the other attendees and disciplinary assumptions. Brought together by darkness as a theme in the icy polar night, I met a group of amazing new colleagues, whom I have gone on to work with on some fascinating projects. My memories and impressions of this trip to Svalbard remain just that, as I have no photographs – my phone camera failed to function in such cold conditions. But I’m fine with that, I’ve internalized that experience.