Cabinets of Curiosity

This week, two filing cabinets were bought at an ex-government furniture sale. The purchasers were surprised to find them complete with confidential documents inside. As the resulting scandal unfolds, with its serious implications for national security, I can’t help but come back to thoughts of the two filing cabinets. Two unassuming white metal boxes, the cause of a lot of trouble.

In Canterbury, with the removal of a nearby house and some trees, another set of filing cabinets have captured my attention. Now starkly visible on the wall are the faded outlines of an office scene, a desk, chair and filing cabinets. The chair is of a familiar kind: upholstered in black vinyl with a heavy base of four steel legs radiating from a central stem. The legs end in the casters on which the chair is perched. Its kind still lurks in old offices or can be found stranded in sharehouse backyards furnishing the smoking area near the back door.

In this office the chair has been pushed back from the desk, leaving a space between them, as if whoever has been working there has just stepped away for a moment. On the desk’s surface is a pale square, a large document, maybe a map, its details faded beyond legibility. The green filing cabinet nearby has the G-M drawer open and the file folders visible inside, but no further clues as to the business that has gone on here.

This suspended moment is painted on the wall of a cleaning supplies business in Canterbury. In the corner of the office scene is the logo of the company it’s advertising: Brownbuilt. An additional sign for the office furniture business that sold these items is gone, with only the metal supports that once held it remaining poking up from the roof.

Brownbuilt still make steel office furniture and equipment, with a speciality in the most serious of office storage systems, the compactus. Looking back through the archives there seems to be no storage conundrum that Brownbuilt hasn’t developed a solution for. If you were a television network needing a film storage system, a hotel that needed efficient storage for linen, or if you needed a “car compactus” for your parking lot, Brownbuilt could help you. From their factory in Clifton Hill, Melbourne, and then in their large factory in Kirrawee in the Sutherland Shire, Brownbuilt produced all manner of steel contraptions and receptacles. One particularly entrancing photograph of a Brownbuilt factory shows a row of filing cabinets travelling along a high conveyer belt, dangling from it like bunting.

I know the kind of office that’s on this wall. It’s the analogue kind, with a vinyl and wood varnish atmosphere. In such an office the filing cabinets seem sentient; they guard the office’s memory. Still now, in some businesses that have changed little in decades – mechanics, old-school accountants, or rubber stamp suppliers – such scenes can be encountered.

The activities at this office are paused forever. Whoever was at the desk is an absence at the centre of the image, as the plans or instructions that made them step away are faded, unreadable, and the filing cabinet holds its secrets.

4 Comments on “Cabinets of Curiosity”

  1. Ash. says:

    Smashing! I shall be looking for this on the weekend. You have been around Canterbury Road a fair bit of late. How would you compare Canterbury Road to Parramatta Road?

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Ash – when you go to look for it: it’s on the Canterbury side of the Wonga St intersection. Good question comparing Canterbury and Parramatta Rds – in some ways they are similar, in terms of urban decay, redevelopment, commercial and domestic architecture side by side. But Canterbury Rd is smaller-scale, more capricious in shape (I think of it going down the hill towards Canterbury, over the Cooks, then twisted uphill again), and I feel like it’s a more suburban, domestic road, more intimate in atmosphere than Parramatta Road.

      • Ash says:

        In my mind Parramatta Road takes me to the city, Canterbury road takes me home. Old Canterbury road joins Parramatta road just where Parramatta road becomes particularly interesting. I’ve always been fond of the spot around Canterbury Station, around the river and the bridge. In my mind it was always picturesque but now over development has somewhat spoiled it.

        Around Canterbury station there is a marked difference in how the landscape feels. One side feels specifically inner city, where as once you cross the river I know I am on my way to Bankstown.

  2. John Low says:

    Really love the blog Vanessa. I got here via your splendid book of the same name which I received as a Christmas gift and enjoyed immensely. Anyway, just a thought about that blank white square on the desk. Could it be a pad holding sheets of blotting paper, an item common in older offices even into the biro age? My father had one and, in fact, I still possess it and use it. It makes a nicer platform to write on than the hard desk surface. I may be completely wrong but thought I’d mention it as it was the first thing that occurred to me (even though the image is a bit unclear).

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