New Desk!

When I was young, my parents became possessed of the notion that we needed to have all of our personalities tested. There wasn’t anything terribly dysfunctional about my family—at least not more so than most other families, which are mostly all dysfunctional—but the tests held a certain alluring promise. Before the tests, we were free-falling in chaos, but after the tests, we would know things about each other. We would regard each other with understanding and compassion, communicate more clearly, and we would be better for it.

I was twelve at the time, and I remember sitting in my bedroom and answering simple, repetitive questions for two hours. It was fun and relaxing and, when the results came in, made me feel exceedingly special. Here was a written report explaining in scientific-ish terms that I was, essentially, a terrific person. Of course, everyone’s results come out this way, so I’m not bragging, but the test told me specifically why I was terrific. The test had a way of putting a positive spin on all traits. Instead of being needlessly and irrationally emotional about the problems of other people, I was just very empathetic. I could give up on the dream of pursuing anything very practical or profitable career-wise because ultimately I was just too literary for all that. I was an intellectual, and this made me feel as though I was more interesting than my siblings, which was more or less all I wanted at 12.

The biggest takeaway for my family, though, was that instead of just being a lunatic spaz, I had a high change score. I was the kid who was constantly rearranging my furniture and always questioning why we couldn’t just move some stuff around in the house or paint a room or four. Prior to the tests, this sort of behavior was interpreted by mostly everyone as simply irritating. But after the tests, I had a label. There was a chart in a folder that said this was just who I was, irrevocably.

Because permanence and stagnation freak me out, I often try to avoid them. I don’t mind permanence much where my life is concerned (oh hey, live-in boyfriend and two dogs in the space of a year), but it drives me crazy in my living space. I like things best when they’re easy to reverse and modify. It drives me crazy that each room in my apartment only has one truly viable furniture layout (trust me, I’ve tried everything!), and I don’t like feeling married to certain pieces (with the notable exception of my grandparents’ Eames lounge chair. I’ll marry that.).

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Oh hey there. Lookatchu.

The only reason anyone reads this blog is probably because I once made a desk. It was one of the first things I ever built, and I was really proud of that thing. I had no idea what I was doing or the best way to go about anything (some of my advice in that post is, uh, really bad), but the point was that I had an idea and I made it happen and it totally worked and it looked cool. And then Anna blogged about it and I felt really cool, which led people other than my mom to read my blog and led me to eventually counting Anna and some other people I met through blogging as some of my best friends.

So that desk meant a lot to me. I’ll admit that. I’m not made of stone!

But while I loved that desk in my old apartment, I could never really make it work here. I schlepped it from the bedroom (where it was NEVER used) to the living room (where it sat for months and was rarely used). It took up precious space and provided so little storage. Eventually, the desk just became frustrating, and I realized I was keeping it around mostly out of some weird sense of obligation and sentimentality. But it had ceased to be very practical (which was the whole goal when I built it) and when the MDF top started to bow slightly and some of the paint chipped, it just didn’t look so great anymore.

Enter the light of my life, fire of my loins: Craigslist. For a while I just wanted to get rid of the desk and replace it with some kind of small, low dresser on this wall next to the sofa or maybe a smaller desk, and then I realized I could have both! I quickly found a listing for a cute Swedish secretary-style desk for a couple hundred bucks. Oddly, there was another listing for the exact same desk for like $1,200 at the time, which is a total rip-off.

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I totally love this cute little desk, but it’s a piece of crap! The teak veneer is pretty, but I think the entire thing is made of just chipboard and cardboard and some little dowels and wood glue. It seemed like the entire thing was going to fall apart when we dragged it up to the apartment, and it had little floating storage compartments inside the desk part that did totally fall apart and now need repair. Whoops. Anyway, not all things vintage are synonymous with quality.

Oh well. It works. And now that it’s in place, I don’t think it’ll fall apart as much anymore. Also, I KNOW that arrangement on the top is not working, but I need to rearrange the art to make room on a wall for that painting. I guess. I don’t know. High change score. Don’t rush my process.

Anyway! The desk is super cute, super Swedish, super vintage, and has a lavish amount of storage space. When you live in 500 square feet with one small closet, it’s amazing how much a change from 4 small drawers to 4 less-small drawers just feels absolutely spacious. The desk holds all of our office supplies, electronics crap (extra cords, chargers, external hard drives, etc.), and most of my tools (thereby clearing up space in the kitchen cabinets!). It’s great.

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I don’t have any pictures of the new lounge chair and the old desk in the room at the same time I don’t think, but trust—it was feeling very crowded and dumb. Here’s a before-ish picture for reference-ish? I’m shitty at this.

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I love how the new desk has totally opened up this end of the living room. I moved the Fiddle Leaf Fig (still going strong!) out of the corner and it seems to be pretty happy there in the middle. The proportions of the desk are small enough that it works off to the side of the sofa in a way that most other furniture (including the old desk!) just looked really awkward. Feeling it.

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I moved my Patrick Townsend String Light from the kitchen to the corner behind the chair, and I LOVE IT there. It’s the perfect lighting after the sun goes down, and is just so soft and beautiful. It’s unfortunately exceedingly hard to photograph well, but it really is one of my favorite things. Like, in the world.

I kind of wish we could get away without a side table next to the chair, but I’ll admit that it’s nice to have something to put a mug or a book down on. It’s a vintage knock-off Saarinen tulip side table from the amazing Maya! I kind of want to replace the top at some point (it’s just wood with a bullnose edge), but I don’t know. It’s feeling very mid-century-modern-museum up in here, so fake tulip might have to be relocated. Hmmm.

I want to change all the things always.

string

I love String.

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I love desk.

I’m out of words.

 

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Linus!

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Linus is the sort of dog I generally associate with the elderly: sleepy, cuddly, a little vacant, with a hairstyle that must be maintained. I’ve only ever owned big dogs and figured I always would, yet here we are. People are always confused when they find out that Mekko the Pit Bull is the dog that we willingly, intentionally adopted, whereas Linus—the fancy white toy breed—was a stray who we just sort of took in by accident. But that’s how it happened. Even though he’s the sweetest, most gentle, good-natured little animal I’ve ever known, the fact remains: we did not ask for him. Sometimes, I’ll just find myself marveling at how very tiny he is (12 pounds!) and pondering how it is that he’s even real and not just, say, an animatronic stuffed animal with a funky-smelling face. It’s sometimes truly puzzling that this creature looks to me as his caretaker.

Roundabout 6 times a year, I get to have the best day ever because Linus goes to get groomed! I like Linus to look a little bit scrappy (it just matches his personality better), but I live for the shocking reveal when he’s unveiled at the end of his session. It’s disorienting having a dog who can transform so much in the course of an hour or two, to the point that I’m positive I wouldn’t recognize him on the street. It’s like a perpetually thrilling magic act and I look forward to it immensely.

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Here was Linus this morning, right before grooming. I had to take the picture on my iPhone because I was too lazy to go grab my camera.

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And here he is this afternoon! Hilarious, right? I could laugh and laugh for days. I asked for a shorter ‘do this time for summer, and I can tell Linus is totally digging it. He’s a very subdued dog at home, but out on the street is where he lets his true colors shine through. And trust, the strut on this dog after grooming today was that of an animal who feels free and sexy and invigorated by style.

I know it’s hard to believe, what with the perfectly-coiffed snout and the blunt-cut ears and the pipe cleaner tail, but he’ll go back to being a scrappy mess within a few days. I promise! But for now, I’ll just be admiring the magic of it all. So fresh, so fancy.

No, we have no idea what kind of dog Linus is! I think maltese-miniature poodle cross, but we’ve literally heard everything! Poodle, Maltese, Bichon, Havanese, Coton de Tulear, maybe with a little terrier, the list goes on. They all look the same to me.  

Linus gets groomed by Jenny at the Petsmart on Atlantic Avenue, and we all LOVE her. She’s so great.

Life
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Tiling: Part 2!

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It only look me about two months* from start to finish, but I finished** the tiling in the kitchen!

*I took a lot of breaks on account of having work and life and class and being sick twice and The Biggest Loser was on.

**It’s actually not totally finished but that isn’t the point leave me alone.

Basically every person under the sun told me not to tile with black grout, but I love it. Like a ton. 3 different people at 3 different tile stores all told me to stay away from the black grout, and a couple friends also expressed concern at the extreme griddy pattern that would dominate my walls till the end of time, but I went for it. I mean, check how good black grout can look on square tiles and tell me I’m wrong. Black grout forever.

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Once again, I have chosen to photograph my supplies after they got all mucked up because I am a classy ass blogger who knows what they’re doing.

  • Polyblend Non-Sanded Grout in Charcoal. You want to use non-sanded grout when the grout lines are this small. Otherwise you will rue the day.
  • A bucket. Fill this about halfway with water.
  • A sponge.
  • A float. I used a bigger float when I did the first part of laying the tile, but I thought it might be easier to use a smaller one for the grout.
  • A small coping saw. (for special cuts!)
  • A small-ish container (not pictured) to mix the grout in.

grout

Grouting is honestly incredibly stressful and kind of messy and annoying, but SO satisfying when it’s done. I kind of got used to living with un-grouted tile and it wasn’t bothering me so much, but then I grouted and realized how totally miserable my entire life was because grout is the best.

The box that the grout came in had handy little instructions on the back, and the whole thing was fairly straightforward. I mixed small batches (using only about a cup of grout powder at a time and enough water to make a peanut butter-like consistency) to keep things feeling manageable, which was a good system. Basically I spread the grout on the tiles and then scraped off my excess, holding the float at a 45-degree angle, which is what you’re seeing in that first picture.

Then, after 20 minutes (which was about enough time to use my whole batch of mixed grout), I went back and started wiping everything down where I started. I found that the key was not to get overly-aggressive with the wiping, but enough so that there weren’t any big globs of grout left where there shouldn’t have been. At this point, everything looked totally nasty and horrible and like it would never be OK again.

You might remember that this part of the tile was already here when we moved into the apartment and was grouted with white grout (which had seen much better days). I bought a grout scraper (kind of like this one) and just went over all of the old grout lines. Not all of the old grout came out, but the point is to remove as much as you can to provide enough depth for the new grout adhere and fully cover it. It wasn’t terribly difficult, but it did take kind of forever just to scrape all those grout lines.

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After letting the grout set for a couple hours, I just came back with more sponge action and a final paper towel wipe-down to reveal the full-on tile hotness. So fresh and so clean.

And oh hey, I moved the bubble clock! And oh hey, I put up the second half of the shelf! I had to trim about 6 inches off of the shelf in order to allow the cabinet door to open, so I used a blade for cutting metal on my miter saw and hung it up. It’s awesome having such a super long ledge, and I love that it allows us to get more things off the countertop. We don’t have that much counter-space, so it’s important to maximize what we do have.

Obviously the two bottom cabinets still need to be re-faced to match the rest of the white cabinets. It’s kind of ridiculous that it’s taken me this long to deal with that situation. Not cute. Also, I want a new faucet because that one is THE WORST. Also, we badly need door/drawer hardware. Also, maybe the walls need to be black? This dumb kitchen will never be done.

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But the tile! I love it! Now that the grout is done and the shelf is in place, the old tile and the new tile really blend super well together, which I’m really happy about. It’s not perfect, but it’s close enough for me not to care.

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The hardest part of this whole tiling job was that one stupid tile that wraps around the power outlet.

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I bought this little coping saw with a diamond-encrusted blade (like my teeth) online and just sawed away at it until it fit over the outlet. It took about 20 minutes, which felt like an eternity to deal with one stupid tile, but was totally worth it.

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To bring the power outlet out to the new depth of the wall, I picked up these handy outlet extender do-hickeys at Home Depot, which worked perfectly. The pieces just sort of fold together until you get the necessary thickness, then you can cut off the excess and put it between the outlet and the wall (the screws are long enough that they’re still secured to the box in the wall. Then the whole thing gets covered by a switchplate and it looks very snazzy and amazing and professional.

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And oh wait? What’s that? You didn’t think I was just going to tile one side of the room and leave the other all sad and tile-less, did you?

Course not. I’m not a fucking monster.

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BOOM. Tile everywhere. Tile to the floor. Tile like you wouldn’t believe.

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One of my favorite things in the room now is our portrait of Martha! Max painted this likeness of the venerable Miss Martha Helen Stewart a few years ago, and I love having her watch over us while we attempt to cook and take care of our guests and live up to her standard of amazing. Also, she covers our breaker box perfectly.

Martha Stewart is literally the perfect human and if you don’t agree with that, well, you can just show yourself right out the way you came.

Yeah, I really need to paint that little piece of trim, too. I need to paint all the trim. I’M GETTING TO IT.

otherside

There is so much delicious tile. Also, Max got an espresso machine so now he is bouncing off the walls like a total psycho.

One of the things I’d love to do someday is replace this countertop with butcher block. I really don’t know why I chose this white laminate, but it’s not very practical as it shows EVERYTHING and I want to bring more natural wood to this side of the room. Also, I have three different countertop materials going on in one very small kitchen which is just not a good idea FYI. But I LOVE the section of butcher block that we do have and I’d really like some more of it pronto.

I make mistakes.

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I still need to caulk everything, like where the tile meets the bottom of the cabinets and the walls and the trim and the baseboards and in the corners, but I have to order the black caulk online because all home improvement stores hate me.

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I’m so happy about my tile. I totally did that and it looks legit and everything.

The friendly folks at Ball sent me a set of adorable blue limited-edition Ball Heritage Collection jars, produced for Ball’s 100-year anniversary, and I love them! The blue is so cheery. So far we’ve just used them to put flowers in and drink out of, but maybe when the kitchen is done and I’m itching for projects, I’ll try my hand at canning? Sounds like fun scary chemistry science times?

Looks like the jars are sold out on Ball’s website but still available some places if you google around for them.

The white cheese board is from Crate&Barrel and the marble one was a lucky thrift find this weekend. $6!

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I am very happy with how far the kitchen has come. I swear I’ll show wider shots of the room soon, but something very exciting is happening with the floor that I have to save for another post. Soon! It’s good.

In case you want to see the kitchen evolve from the beginning, here you go!

1. Let’s Talk About the Kitchen.
2. Kitchen Happenings are Afoot.
3. Dear Kitchen: It Gets Better.
4. One More Kitchen Thing.
5. As-Is, You Win Again.
6. Stopgap Measures in the Kitchen.
7. Tiling: Part 1!

Apartment
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Real vs. Fake: The Eames Lounge

beware-of-imitations

I know this post is kind of a departure from my regular programming ’round these parts, but what can I say? It’s Monday, it’s almost the end of March, it’s snowing, possibly this is the rapture, my apartment building has no heat, and I woke up feeling like it was high time to nerd out over chairs.

So. Remember how I used to have a fake Eames lounge chair? Back when my living room looked like this:

enje

Yeah. Well. When we received the very special things from my grandparents’ house, there was a brief hot second when I had two Eames lounge chairs—the real deal, straight out of Zeeland, Michigan circa 1972, and the fakey guy who I think was manufactured by Plycraft, probably a few years later.

“Reproductions” and “replicas” and “inspired-by” designs have been around for forever, but it seems like only in more recent years have these unauthorized replicas inched closer and closer to looking like the real thing. Now. There is a whooooollllleeee long debate to be had about “real” vs. “fake” and the legal standing of intellectual property surrounding furniture designs and who is getting ripped off and how and what this means for society and design and quality and whether the sky is blue. Frankly, I’d rather not get into that because everybody has their own opinions and I find that type of squabbling annoying. Personally, I can’t picture myself buying a newly-produced knock-off piece of furniture for a number of reasons, but I think the rules change a little when you’re talking vintage and secondhand. Nobody’s getting hurt, it isn’t perpetuating the lousy knock-off furniture industry—it’s just good clean old-fashioned thrifty fun times. I support that.

Point is, people often wonder what the differences are between authentic and knock-off furniture—Eames lounge chairs, specifically—and it’s hard to find a good guide explaining it. So being in the unique position of owning both concurrently, I thought it would be a good time to put together a little show and tell.

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The first thing you’ll notice is that the knock-off Plycraft (left) is huge. This is a pretty standard issue with knock-off furniture: getting the proportions all wrong. One of the many things the Eames’s did very well was scale—the 670 has all the comfort of a larger lounge chair, but is really only as big as it needs to be without sacrificing comfort. The elimination of that kind of bulk is a big part of its charm. Even modern-day knock-offs are usually too big or just proportionally super weird.

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The base is often the most telling difference between an authentic chair and a knock-off. Vintage knock-offs usually have a base like Plycraft, or a flat chrome X base. The Herman Miller base is powdercoated black with chrome on the top, and each foot has a height adjustment to accommodate uneven flooring. Clever!

Modern knock-offs usually get the base wrong by designing the legs with an incline that’s way too steep. It makes the chair look like it’s frightened or standing on tip-toes, which is just not all that pretty.

tilt

The design of the base also affects the incline of the chair. Vintage knock-offs (and some modern ones) try to make the chair into more of a recliner by adding a spring mechanism that allows it to tilt forward and back, but the base position is much more upright than the 670. The real chair is at a constant stationary position that’s something between upright and reclining. The wood shells and rubber shockmounts give the chair a little flex, but it doesn’t actually tilt at all. Some people find this prescribed positioning wildly uncomfortable, but that’s a matter of personal taste. I found the Plycraft chair really uncomfortable because it required effort to tilt back and remain there, so as soon as I took my feet off the ottoman it would spring forward to its upright position. The 670, for me, really is just right. I love that thing.

sideshock

The biggest difference, structurally, between vintage knock-offs and the real thing is that the plywood shells on the Eames chair are continuous, without any exposed hardware (except, of course, the vertical braces holding together the middle and top shell). Charles and Ray Eames are known for their honest use of materials and exposed structure, but they also believed in elegant solutions to vexing engineering problems—like how to hold this gorgeous thing together. The solution they came up with was the rubber shockmount, which is basically a metal disc encased in rubber. The Eames lounge has 4 oval shockmounts, bonded to the inside of the wood shell at the upper tips of the bottom shell and the “ears” of the middle shell. A black metal plate attaches to both shockmounts on each side, and then the upholstered armrest is fitted on top of the metal plate and secured from underneath. That’s a little hard to explain.

The knock-off chair, however, just says fuck it! and screws directly through the wood shell from the outside instead of into shockmounts from the inside. Make sense? Additionally, the cushions in the authentic chair are secured by clips on the inside of the wood shells and the backside of the cushions, whereas the cushions on the knock-off chair are held on by small screws that go through the shell and into the back of the cushion (which in this case is a lower-quality, thinner plywood shell covered in foam and leather). This all adds up to plywood shells that look OK from afar but are actually covered in screws holding everything together. Not so elegant, but it gets the job done.

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Often vintage knock-offs will have a small metal brace between the bottom shell and the middle shell, which takes some pressure off the sides as the main structural support. Whereas the authentic 670 gives the impression of three floating wood shells, it’s pretty plainly obvious how the knock-off works.

Most modern knock-offs look more like the originals because they’ve gotten more ballsy about directly copying both the style and the engineering of the original chair. This is partly where the problem of “quality” comes in, because even the Herman Miller chair is prone to problems. Tragic, horrible problems. Like so.

Broken

I debated even sharing this because it was pretty sad and SUCH a headache, but here you go. Consider yourself warned.

The main engineering failure of the 670 is that it relies solely on the adhesion of four rubber shockmounts to support the weight of a human being reclining in it. What I really wish I had known is that after about 40 years, give or take a few, the rubber tends to shrink and become brittle and the adhesive tends to fail. So, one day, a person—say, your adorable boyfriend named Max—decides to sit in the chair. The bond between the shockmount and the shell fails on one side, putting the pressure of all his weight on the remaining side. In the course of a split second, the middle shell swings backward under the weight, bends, and snaps completely in two. You hear a sickening sound from the next room and know something terrible has happened. You enter the room to find your boyfriend on the floor, your chair lying in a depressing, crumpled mess around him.

I may not have many strengths, but I have one that I’m fairly confident about: I don’t cry over spilt milk. Which is a stupid saying, because really, who would? But for somebody as into stuff and pretty little things as I am, I really don’t sweat it too much when stuff breaks. I break things with decent enough frequency to recover pretty fast. Shattered dish? Whatever. Ink stain on my favorite shirt? Shit happens. Cherished Eames 670 lounge chair inherited from my grandparents?

This was a tough pill to swallow. We’d only had the chair about a month or so, and it had been all smooth sailing and fancy recline-y times, and now it was totally broken and unusable.

My grandparents weren’t the sorts of people who were all that precious about stuff, and I think that’s healthy. For everything the chair symbolized and recalled for me, it is, ultimately, just a thing. It isn’t my grandparents and it isn’t my memories. It’s metal and wood and leather and foam and rubber and some stupid glue that just didn’t hold. Which is shitty, but not as shitty as a lot of other things that are shitty. So there weren’t any tears or real dramatics. We just picked up the pieces, disassembled the whole thing, and got to work trying to figure out what to do.

I found out that this isn’t altogether uncommon. It happens mostly to vintage chairs, but even some new chairs as well. Turns out that Herman Miller only warrantees the shockmounts for 3 years, and after that, you’re on your own. I don’t blame the Eames’s for this—after all, this chair was produced in 1956 and was totally revolutionary at the time. The shockmount technology was an innovative and incredibly elegant solution, and it seemed strong. It did last for 40 years on this chair, to its credit, and had I known that this might happen I would have had the shocks replaced preemptively.

I asked a lot of smart, wood-worky people about what it would take to fix the broken shell, and the news was pretty consistently disappointing. Because the wood breaks at a major stress point, it isn’t something that a little wood epoxy can really fix, and the repair is highly specialized and expensive. A new shell can be ordered from a couple third-party retailers, but I couldn’t imagine that the new shell would match the 40 year old sun-faded rosewood veneer of the remaining original shells. Herman Miller recommends buying an entirely new set of shells from them (the design has changed slightly, and I was told that the new 7-ply shells don’t interface properly with the old 5-ply ones), but that was basically the cost of a new chair and was even more depressing because all I really wanted to do was repair my grandparents’ chair, maintaining as much of the original materials as possible but making it functional, strong, and something I wouldn’t have to worry about. The last thing I want in my living space is something I’m scared to use or uptight about other people using. I don’t believe in “showpieces,” and this chair is no exception.

I even considered this DIY fix, which sounded kind of amazing until I read in other places that it wasn’t likely to hold for very long, at which point the shell really would be irreparable.

So we saved up and let the chair sit in sad pieces for a while before finally biting the bullet and getting the repair done by Olek Lejbzon, a furniture restoration company in New Jersey who specialize in this repair.

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If you click the link, you can see that this repair wasn’t done with quite as much finesse as advertised. If I were more concerned about maintaining the monetary value of the chair for resale or whatever, I probably would have been pissed with how obviously mis-matched the grain patterns are and all that, but honestly? I don’t care. The work has a great guarantee and I think was the best solution for us. It seems really strong, and most importantly I can sit in the chair without feeling like I could break it at any moment.

There’s a certain honesty about it, too. It isn’t perfect, but that’s what gives it history. It was my grandparents’ chair, and then it was mine, and then it broke and I did what I could to make it whole again. And it’s all right there, in that awkward little line where something will never look quite right again. And that’s OK.

65.

desk

The neighbors wondered whether a motel might be going up during construction. In the Chicago suburb of Highland Park—composed mostly of large, traditional houses—they weren’t used to seeing anything like it in 1963. Single-storied, flat-roofed, vaguely linear, and covered primarily in bright white stucco, it didn’t look like much from the outside. At best, they probably thought, it was uninteresting—a tacky architectural carry-over of California modernism. At worst, it was offensive. There were certain codes of conduct in places like this, and judging from the architecture alone, rule #1 was to color inside the lines.

My grandparents weren’t the original owners of the house, but I never really saw it that way. They were more like adoptive parents: maybe they didn’t build it, but they were the ones who treated it the way it was supposed to be treated. They hired a decorator when they moved in in 1972, and together they conceived and executed a plan, resulting in something not unlike what would happen if Woody Allen’s Sleeper mated with 2001: A Space Odyssey and birthed an entire house.

hallway

But that wasn’t how I saw it, either, at least not until I was older. I didn’t see it as mid-century modern or 70s glam, and I certainly couldn’t appreciate the curvilinear design scheme that gave the house shape or the particular balance of materials that gave it form. It didn’t strike me as odd that my grandparents owned a sofa made entirely of foam, or that the rug was made of strands of yarn longer than my hands, or that the coffee table essentially amounted to an enormous plastic cube. It was all just part of them.

My grandparents were both people for whom modernism wasn’t any kind of intentional decision or contrived style choice, but just something they kind of emitted and diffused into the air around them. Like Steve Jobs, my grandfather always seemed to be wearing some slight variation of the same understated uniform. He accessorized with slim plastic watches that looked like they’d been flattened by a steamroller. He was a constant consumer of information and news: if there was a new technology, he wanted to know about it. His whole ensemble—the house, the look, the attitude–added up to being the sort of person who embraced the future with open arms.

They fit, together. For as long as I can remember, my grandma stuck to a basic wardrobe of black and white. But there was always a twist: a line of decorative buttons there, a pair of glasses so elaborate and substantial that it was hard to imagine the bridge of her nose supporting the weight. She always carried with her a set of Paper Mate Flair felt-tip pens, a packet of tissues, and little pill-sized tablets of Equal sugar substitute in a plastic dispenser. She was the kind of person who thought everybody she encountered was entirely fascinating, who could listen to a person talk about nearly anything, and do so with utterly rapt attention. Everything was “nifty” to her, and if it wasn’t, you felt as though it was. Profoundly so.

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And there they were, in that wild 60s house—colored by vivid 70s technicolor—floating around it all like little punctuation marks. They were a part of that house and it was a part of them. And I thought it was the most beautiful place I could imagine.

My grandfather died in 2001, and everybody more or less figured that my grandma would move out of the house in favor of something more manageable and suited to a woman approaching her 80s. But she refused. I found out a couple of years ago that my grandma never actually liked the house—that it had always been my grandfather’s passion and that she had complained about it constantly. But his death brought about a sort of desperate clinging, the despair of leaving it worse than the despair of living in it alone. This went on until she, too, passed away in 2007.

I went back to the house twice after my grandma passed away—the first time, to sit shiva, and the second time, about a year later on a trip to Chicago. To a stranger, it probably would have looked the same. But it felt different. Where before the air always held a slight tinge of her perfume, now it was flat and vacant. The house was still an amazing place by all counts, but something essential about it had dissipated, leaving only a spectacular shell in its place.

clips

Though it would now be regarded more as pathology than habit, my grandmother was a perennial keeper of things: old receipts, letters, coupons, photographs, and other documents. She had a cataloguing system all her own, enabled mainly by binder clips and paperclips, and stashes hidden all over the house. What began as a daunting but straightforward process (“we’ll rent a dumpster…”) turned into an ordeal that took weeks, then months, then years. As middle children often do, my aunt Janis took on nearly all of this work, separating the trash from the treasure, sitting alone in the middle of the living room with mounds of paper building up around her, a pile for everybody. I wonder if she ever considered carrying it all out the back door, walking a rickety stairway down to the beach on Lake Michigan, and just setting it all ablaze. But she couldn’t do that. Instead, she spent nights and weekends, early mornings and late afternoons commuting between downtown Chicago and her parents’ old suburb to take care of things for the rest of us. For Janis, the house became both a thorn in her side and—if not the final—than at least the largest tether connecting her to the past. Anybody who has ever taken detailed stock of somebody else’s belongings knows the feeling: it isn’t just sorting. It’s communing. And when it’s over, there’s a deep feeling of emptiness and finality. There’s no more to be seen or found, and it’s time to move on.

Everybody wanted to keep the house. Janis and her husband, Tom, considered moving in briefly, and my parents even toyed with the idea of relocating from Washington, D.C. to live in it, but it just wasn’t practical for anybody. Once it was finally listed, the large lot on the lake immediately attracted the attention of developers rather than families, who saw in the house only an easy tear-down and the potential for three houses in its place. And that wouldn’t do.

So we waited. For two years, the family refused enticing development offers, hoping that the right buyer would happen upon it and see what the rest of us saw. But it didn’t happen, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sinking feeling in my stomach when I found out that we—the estate—had accepted an offer from a developer. The carrying costs and the maintenance had become overwhelming, and we’d all just lost hope. We negotiated salvage rights, giving us the opportunity to bring in a crew of contractors and remove anything we could—lighting, built-ins, even the doorknobs were coming with us. Admittedly, the idea that pieces of the house could be dispersed and reused across the country was a decent silver lining, but it didn’t help much. The idea of a bulldozer destroying the house all at once was only slightly less palatable than us going to rip it apart from the inside out.

But then something fell through, as they often do when real estate is concerned, and the developers backed out. Amazingly, it wasn’t long after until the right buyers did come along, and saw the house as something special and worthwhile and significant, and offered to buy it. And then it was time to really say goodbye.

Most of the furniture, art, and other stuff got loaded on trucks and sent around the country—to my aunt, just an hour away in Hyde Park, Chicago, to my uncle in Utah, to my parents in D.C. and to my sister in Los Angeles. And we got a few things, too.

closeup

This chair was one of a pair that sat in my grandparents’ bedroom for almost 40 years (my dad has the other one), and now it’s mine. Of course, I know what it is and what it’s worth, but that’s really not something I think about. I love it because it belonged to them, and because I grew up climbing all over it, and because sitting in this chair feels different than sitting in any other chair exactly like it.

chairfromafar

Not surprisingly, it’s also very comfortable and has basically become my permanent office in the apartment.

art1

The other biggest thing that came our way on a truck were these two lithographs that used to hang on the wall behind my grandparents’ bed. They’re really sun-damaged and worth very little, but they’re two of my favorite things. I love them hanging over the bed like that, and every time I peak into the bedroom I’m so happy that they ended up with me.

art2

My grandparents didn’t live to see me become an adult or the sort of life I’m building, or the ones who get to share these things with me. But I think they’d be happy, too.

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