From Socialist Modern to Super-Natural Organicism: Cosmological Transformations Through Home Decor

Peer Reviewed


Although the trend of bringing the “natural” world indoors took off in many parts of the world with the end of the Cold War, this article focuses on the case of Hungary, where the shift to and then away from state-socialist versions of modernist design was particularly politicized. From the 1960s to the present, Hungary witnessed a shift from the dreams of modernist utopia imbedded in “man-made” miracle materials like plastic and concrete to the neoliberal social order imbedded in “natural” (in fact super-natural) materials like organic wood flooring and high-quality roofing tiles. I draw on scholarship working with the Peircean category of qualisigns to elaborate an approach to aesthetic styles in material worlds that can track transformations in such styles over time and link them to wider political cosmologies. I argue that the “organicist” materialities that emerged to humanize socialist apartments in generic modern buildings were part of a critique of the modernist project and its “unnatural” attempt to dominate nature and engineer human souls. After the fall of state socialism, the continued affective appeal of this Organicist aesthetics worked to legitimate neoliberal ideologies even as people bemoaned the suffering and inequalities generated by the new order. The emerging middle classes embraced the powers of a “natural” order that included a free market as much as it included a natural lifecycle. In so doing, they are inscribed as moral persons, and as such deserving of material worlds in which nature is enhanced and controlled. The morally justified search for quality produces inequality. The article is thus an exploration of the constitutive relationships among things (like residential housing and furnishings), people (esp. people’s embodied experience), and ideology (of the state, market or of a particular group).

Krisztina Fehérváry, "Dunaújváros panel concrete construction buildings from the 1970s with new OMV gas station in foreground. ." October 20, 2012.

About the Author

Krisztina Fehérváry is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include consumer and material culture, political economy, middle-class culture, built environment, domestic space, body, transformations, film and popular culture, Hungary, postsocialist states.

Author's Publications

2011 "The Materiality of the New Family House: Postsocialist Fad or Middle-class Ideal? City and Society, 23(1): 18-41.

2011 "Polgári Lakáskultúra (Bourgeois Furnishings) and a Postsocialist Middle Class. Journal of Hungarian Studies. 25(2):267-286.

2009  "Goods and States: The Political Logic of State Socialist Material Culture." Comparative Studies in Society and History. 51(2):426-259.

2007 "Hungarian Horoscopes as a Genre of Postsocialist Transformation." Social Identities. 13(5):561-576.

2006 "Innocence Lost: Cinematic Representations of 1960s Consumerism for 1990s Hungary." Anthropology of East Europe Review. 24(2):54-61.

2002 "American Kitchens, Luxury Bathrooms and the Search for a 'Normal' Life in Post-socialist Hungary." Ethnos. 67(3):369-400.

1997 "'My Home is my Castle': the meaning of the family home in an ex-Socialist city" (in Hungarian). Cafe Babel (Budapest): (3)137-145.

1989 Editor/Translator of The Long Road to Revolution: The Hungarian Gulag 1945-1956. By István Fehérváry. Santa Fe, NM: Prolibertate Publishing.

Krisztina Fehérváry, "Imre Makovecz chapel, with wings and other anthropomorphic features at Siofok, Hungary." October 20, 2012.

Cultural Anthropology has published many articles on consumption, including "Making Pigs Local: Discerning the Sensory Character of Place" by Brad Weiss, "Empty Citizenship: Protesting Politics in the Era of Globalization" by Ritty Lukose, "The Work of the New Economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation" by Robert J. Foster, and "Consuming Interests: Water, Rum, and Coca-Cola from Ritual Propitiation to Corporate Expropriation in Highland Chiapas" by June Nash.

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on aesthetics, including "American Stiob: Or, What Late-Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal about Contemporary Political Culture in the West" by Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak, "Conforming Disconformity: “Mestizaje,” Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism" by Ana María Alonso, and "Percarity's Forms" by Kathleen Stewart.

Krisztina Fehérváry, "Organicist wall of undulating ochre stone with shrubs and iron lamppost plunked down in the otherwise modernist square in front of a socialist-era department store." October 20, 2012.

Discussion Questions

1) How does Fehérváry define "natural" in this article, and how does this definition relate to the material aspects or qualisigns of socialist products in Hungary? 

2) How does this idea of "natural" (or rather "supernatural") contribute to inequality? Is inequality inherent to the idea itself, or is that simply a matter of historical coincidence in Hungary?

3) What is the importance of time in this article, particularly in relation to the idea of project? How does an apartment become representative of a "future past?"

4) How would you describe the different conceptions of personhood embedded in socialist modern and organicist aesthetics? How did changes in perceptions of these styles effect shifts in how Hungarians understood each other?

Krisztina Fehérváry, "From a feature entitled “Happy Panel” (“Vidám Panel”), in the home décor magazines Ter és Rend 1996, v. 18 (3). Note the use of wood and wicker, bright colors, and rounded elements (including mirror with undulating edge in the hallway)." October 20, 2012.
Krisztina Fehérváry, "Single family house in the style of organicist architect Imre Makovecz, with white curved walls, exposed wood beams, and red tile. 1997." October 20, 2012.

Related Readings

Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff 1992 "Homemade Hegemony". In Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Pp. 265–295. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Drazin, Adam. 2001. "A Man Will Get Furnished: Wood and Domesticity in Urban Romania." In Home Possessions. D. Miller, ed. Pp. 173–199. Oxford: Berg.

Harper, Krista. 2006. Wild Capitalism: Environmental Activists and Post-Socialist Ecology inHungary. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, Columbia University Press.

Humphrey, Caroline. 2005. "Ideology in Infrastructure: Architecture and Soviet Imagination." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (n.s.) 11:39–58.

Manning, Paul, and Anne Meneley. 2008. "Material Objects in Cosmological Worlds: An Introduction." Ethnos 73(3): 285–302.

Schneider, Jane. 1994. "In and Out of Polyester: Desire, Disdain and Global Fibre Competitions." Anthropology Today 10(4):2–10.

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