April 1, 2007
Fear of Furniture
Hans Wegner’s daybed is all the more beautiful for having broken decades of personal confusion on the subject.
It may have been an overexposure to early Frank Lloyd Wright, or perhaps too much time spent in boats, but when I was young, and until very recently, I was horrified by furniture. I always thought that a perfect domestic architecture would be heavy on the built-ins. Shelves, benches, various seats and berths—these were the things necessary to finish a space, to tune it for living, to show at least that the designer was not entirely ignorant of how and by whom a house would be used. Also to anchor it. An uncle of mine lived for many years in a very cool Anglo-built adobe in Taos, New Mexico. At the center of the main space was a large circular pit, dug out of the ground and contoured for sitting: a brutal sunken living room, it seemed so much more profound than the loose, impermanent wooden furniture orbiting all around it, sliding this way and that, imported things ready to take up any position, or be replaced.
This aversion grew worse. I found myself unable to endorse almost any purchase made by my parents for my childhood home—not because of taste (theirs is good) but because the new furniture, made far away and trucked in, always seemed somehow irreparably unfitting, and this in the kind of light-suffused, only lightly wainscoted Victorian interior that can generally support any style in style. But new furniture would just squat there. Some would engage in silent battle with previous purchases that had not yet been assimilated—the 1970s laminate dining-room table at war with its black steel 1990s chairs, say, or the new bookshelf glowering at the old.
Until recently I felt the same way about my own living places: furniture is alien, it will fight with the space—don’t commit. For years I tried to scrape by on the disposable or the well used, the tacit understanding being that if you found it on the curb in front of your neighbor’s house, one day it could return to the curb in front of yours. But when needs can’t be met at the stoop sale, one must shop, and that has its own terrors. The contemporary glamorization of all things furniture didn’t help; every piece in the new fashion-furniture economy seemed to have a lifestyle attached, and none that I wanted to adopt. What couch? What future? Which chairs? If you’re suffering from acute furniphobia, the answer usually is: whatever you pass by and can afford.
There was thus another level of aversion to the act of furnishing beyond the disdain for randomness and fear of graft rejection that I’d grown used to. Branding had come home, and the Naomi “No Logo” Klein in me thought it was at best distracting in a living space, and at worst violent to life in it. I sometimes visit friends’ houses and am unable to find them under the weight of their accumulated Pottery Barn. So it was back to the used-furniture shop, or the stoop.
Even before I broke out of this trap and changed my relationship to domestic equipment, there were always some exceptional pieces; hallowed by use and their stubborn presence, grandfathered in, they offered a reprieve from my low-grade terror. I’ve never resented the oak pedestal table—under which I had my earliest datable memory—that I liberated from my parents’ house a few years ago, or the massive maple desk built for me by some hippie carpenter in the 1970s that I’m writing at now.
The big change came when I moved with my girlfriend to a new house—new and, pre-inhabitation, thoroughly anodyne. After years of dark “prewar” living (or previously, growing up pre-pre-prewar), I had found a neutral chamber, detailed in galleryesque default with wood floors, recessed lights, and white walls. It was closer to the kind of space, I realized, that most Americans inhabit; it was new, and it was crying out to be filled with things—the kinds of things that you could sit on and store things in, that could float in space and move around. Built-in anything would be absurd here. Built of what? Gypsum?
The space itself told few stories; it had few hang-ups. Well, there was one: in 1996 our landlord had taken what was an old garage (c. 1860) and gut-renovated it for his then girlfriend. She wanted a sunken living room, but as translated by the builders it became a long ten-inch step across an otherwise open room. Other than that and a column, the space was a blank. But the step, vaguely marking a transition between living and dining spaces, was pretty weird.
Necessity trumped phobia. Or was it love? We eventually solved the problem with a Hans Wegner daybed, the one with the cane back that pivots up to give it the last foot of depth you need for napping. It looks exceptionally uncomfortable, but the angle of the back is such that it hits you (or at least me) just ergonomically so. And it’s low, but on high legs, so it backed up in the middle of the room over the weird step and erased it. The long box in back (concealing the extra depth) overhangs the raised floor; that the shelf on top is an easy reach from the dining-room table is just lagniappe.
Actually, any functional effect of the thing is a pure bonus. It could be a rack and bed of nails in one and I’d still want it, my first furniture love—all the more beautiful since it has broken decades of confusion on the subject. My cohort and I had stalked it mercilessly; after a first glimpse in the back of Manhattan’s wonderful Modernlink we returned again and again. Finally, it just could not not be had. So we bought it. It’s telling that even then we had no idea where it would go.
Or maybe we did. I’m starting to believe that good furniture bridges from the subconscious, and shopping for it should be done in a trance. Other pieces followed, and they all seemed to fit. Kismet is no accident; the vintage furniture store a few blocks away had the perfect Knoll waiting-room sofa waiting for us, and I still love it even after I spotted it on the set of Ugly Betty. The old $300 futon I’d been living on for a year ended up on the sidewalk, was scavenged immediately, and reappeared a month later on the curb three doors down.
I know this new obsession with furniture, particularly—God help me—midcentury furniture, is the stuff of the everyday banal, fueling a whole economy of which this magazine is no small part. But I had to get there on my own and work through some fairly giant blocks on the way, via Wegner, that talented Dane, and this thing he designed that suddenly seems like something I’ve never been without. I’m okay with the fact that the daybed is a foreign object, even that it’s totally on-trend. And I’m very glad it’s not built-in. We’re not going to live here forever, and I can see it in a lot of places, moving around with us, somehow, always, in the sun. And because it’s timeless and built like a truck, you can amortize the cost forever.