How a room of your own can really shape you

Watching: A bust of the civil rights activist Rosa Parks arrived in Joe Biden’s office yesterday.

Does your room help form your character? Joe Biden removed a bust of Winston Churchill from his office yesterday and replaced it with Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King.

A row is brewing over Joe Biden's removal of a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office, five years after Barack Obama provoked a storm by having the British leader's image relegated outside to a landing.

In keeping with tradition, Joe Biden has transformed the Oval Office, swapping Donald Trump’s gold embellishments for a dark blue rug and symbolic reminders of America’s past.

In place of Winston Churchill stand the figures of civil rights leaders, a huge portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt, and a single moon rock.

For deputy director of Oval Office operations Ashley Williams “It was important for President Biden to show who he is going to be as president”.

But others say that Biden believes the new inhabitants of his office will help him to be a better president.

Meanwhile, far, far away high up on the clifftop, protected from the crashing waves below, stands a magnificent palace.

Inside, from the vast theatre to the opulent casino, everything is covered in gold.

No expense has been spared in this millionaire’s playground. Guests can drink in the cocktail room, worship in the Byzantine-style church, hold ice hockey tournaments in an underground bunker and relax on ornate Italian furniture at the enormous spa.

But first, they will have to get there. Set in a 190,000 square foot estate, 39 times the size of Monaco, this is more of a fortress than a home.

It has its own harbour, border-checkpoints and even a no-fly zone.

According to an extraordinary documentary released this week by supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, this is in fact the £1 bn Black Sea home of President Vladimir Putin.

Now, more than ever before, as lockdown turns office meetings into home video-conferences, people’s rooms are on display.

In Wiltshire, author Vikram Seth’s music room is filled with family photographs, a Tintin-inspired ship and an 8-metre long scroll of Chinese calligraphy.

Others take a more practical approach. For novelist Fay Weldon her desk, bought on sale in 1980, is an essential item. “That’s all you need to establish yourself somewhere; a big desk and a bed.”

And some rooms are simply bizarre. When artist Polly Morgan could not find enough animals in unconventional poses to furnish her flat, she began to make them herself. Now, she is the owner of a stuffed fox with octopus tentacles protruding from its stomach, inspired by her experience of a burst appendix.

So, does your room help form your character?

Space control

Yes, say some. It is undeniable – the more time we spend in a room, especially during lockdown, the more the items within it come to change how we think and act. FDR is remembered as the man who led America through the darkest days of the 20th Century. By putting his portrait centre stage, Joe Biden hopes it will inspire him to face the coronavirus crisis with the same strength of character.

No, say others. The items someone chooses to have in their room are merely a reflection of who they already are. Building a lavish mansion on the Black Sea did not make Vladimir Putin an extravagant person; rather, he built the palace because he already was one. Interior design is a vehicle for creative expression, not a pillar of somebody’s personality.

You Decide

  1. Which do you prefer – Putin’s over-the-top mansion or Biden’s toned down Oval Office?
  2. Is a big desk and a bed all you really need in your room?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are in charge of redecorating the Oval Office for Joe Biden. Draw a picture of what your redesigned office would look like, with labels explaining your choices.
  2. Make a list of five things you have in your room and explain what each item means to you. Do you think someone could gain an understanding of who you are as a person from your list?

Some People Say...

“A room hung with pictures is a room hung with thoughts.”

Joshua Reynolds (1723 - 1792), English painter

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that people have spent more time at home in the last year than at any other point in living memory. One September 2020 survey found that British adults spend an extra eight hours at home per day than before the pandemic. And as people spend more time at home, they are also spending more time looking into the homes of others. When a Twitter account was set up in April to rate the bookcases in people’s videoconference backgrounds, it soon gained more than 100,000 followers.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether you can really judge somebody’s personality just by looking at the objects they have in their room. Some say that no amount of style choices can help you judge a person’s character. But others, like University of Texas psychology professor Sam Gosling, say the many weeks, months or years of accumulated information in a person’s bedroom can be a “more reliable indicator of what someone is like” than even an hour of conversation.

Word Watch

Alexei Navalny
The lawyer, politician and opposition leader returned to Russia from Germany, where he was being treated for Novichok poisoning, on January 17th. He was immediately arrested.
Vladimir Putin
Putin was a mid-level KGB agent before he became the Russian President. He now has an estimated wealth of £160 bn.
fox
Morgan’s taxidermies were the start of a lucrative career. Her pieces are worth up to £85,000 and today she works almost exclusively with snakes.
Oligarch
Business leaders from the former Soviet republics who made vast fortunes following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Navalny alleges the palace was financed by illicit funds from Putin’s inner circle of oligarchs.
Winston Churchill
The bust of the British wartime Prime Minister has moved a lot in recent years. The bust was moved out of the Oval Office by Barack Obama, then returned by Trump. Now Joe Biden has moved it again.
Franklin D Roosevelt
Known as FDR, Roosevelt was the US President from 1933 to 1945. He is known for the New Deal, the spending policy which helped lift America out of the Great Depression.
Moon rock
The moon rock, placed on a bookshelf, is intended to remind Americans of the ambitions and accomplishments of earlier generations.

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