Crisis of Faith
I’ve had a crisis of faith.
As most of you know, Josh and I collect Mid-Century Modern furniture, focusing mainly on Eames. I admit that though I love the style and had collected a bit on my own, Josh is the real devotee. I come along for the hunting and pick-up adventures and offer opinions but he is the one scouring Ebay and Craigslist, locating the best dealers and waking up at 5am for nerve-wracking online auctions.
Our friends and family tease him relentlessly because he is very…particular. There are certain chairs NOBODY sits in. The upholstery is too rare or the shock mounts need replacing or he simply doesn’t trust that the piece was meant to support the weight of a 21st Century American. Guests who come to our home often move towards the nearest seat before they remember, freezing wide-eyed and hovering 6” above the seat to ask “Is this one OK?” Even my denim is given a once over for zippers or rivets before I am allowed to test out the latest acquisition.
I will admit I’ve been feeling a little bitter towards the collection lately. I grew up in a home where it was important that you felt relaxed and when guests were asked to ‘make themselves at home’ it was sincere. I want chairs people can throw themselves into while telling an involved story. I want cheerful cocktail parties where guests aren’t concerned about where their glasses can go or whether they can put their feet up. I want my two cats to be able to sit wherever they want without getting scolded. I want a chair I can stand on if I need to reach a higher cabinet. Hell, I want a chair I can stand on so I can do a little dance and say “WOO I AM STANDING ON A CHAIR” because it’s my house and I am sort of an adult. “Furniture is mean to be used,” I have argued; “I don’t want to live in a museum.”
This past weekend we spent a couple of days in New Hampshire with friends. The Air B&B we stayed in had a massive La-Z-Boy recliner, the kind with huge rolls of stuffed leather that makes it look like you are curling up on the torso of a fat guy. It was ugly as sin and Josh spent the entire stay blissfully glued to it. I laughed at him as he nested on the leather monstrosity with a blanket, “See, this is what life would be like it we had comfortable furniture.”
The next day on the drive home, we stopped off at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Zimmerman House for a tour. In the late 1940s Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman had asked Wright to build them a house that would be different than all of the others in their New England town. They wanted something that fit their personalities. They wanted a work of art. When they finally moved in, only a Steinway piano had made the transition from their old life. The designer and his team chose every other element of the home from upholstery to the art. The couple became like acolytes of their own house and of Wright’s vision. They even sent the tableware they had chosen to Taliesin to receive his blessing before using it in the house. Wright famously hated designing chairs so their home is filled with awkward, low hassocks with the exception of a high-backed banquette than runs the length of the wall in the living room. None of it is particularly comfortable nor was that a consideration. Lucille had remarked ”One must learn to sit properly in Mr. Wright’s furniture.” Every last measurement is proportional to the overall grid pattern of the house, producing mathematical harmony but leaving those who had to live with it completely absurd proportions. The dining table is 4’ high. If that was too low, well, too bad; it was about unity. The Zimmermans couldn’t have cared less. They lived in a work of art and they adored it. If they had to run their wastebaskets by an 80-year-old man in the Midwest, so be it. He was the genius, after all.
If you walk into the house today, almost everything is original. It’s the same upholstery, the same lamps and the same stem glasses. Nothing was damaged or replaced (save for 2 Danish chairs and an ill-planned heating system) in the 36 years they lived there. They lived as though they were simply custodians of this work of art and not its masters. They knew all along that the house belonged to the future and that they would endow it to the public when they were gone. I can’t begin to imagine the level of discipline you have to have to keep your fucking bedspread immaculate after 36 years. I have to assume my cat is currently puking on mine.
On the shuttle bus back to the museum the guide asked if anyone would like to live in the Zimmerman home. Most of the women said, “Well, I mean, maybe if it was a second home. I couldn’t live like that all the time. I need to be comfortable.” There it was: my least favorite declarative statement in the English language. “I need to be comfortable.” Ew.
If people actually said those words and were referring to the comfort of basic human needs like food, warmth and sleep, that would be one thing. What they actually mean is that they would like to be horizontal and covered in fleece as much as possible. Putting comfort, ease and convenience over beauty, change and hard work has been something I have been bucking all of my adult life. We live in a cultural environment in which humans believe everything should exist solely to make us comfortable and happy at all times. We’re like spoiled children. People choose to go to Ikea and spend $300 on a table that they can abuse relentlessly until it falls apart 2 years later so they can buy another. It’s wasteful. Yes, I have had to alter my lifestyle a bit. I make people take off their shoes so they don’t track dirt on the vintage rugs and I have a sitting sofa instead of a flopping sofa but I realize I get to live with beautiful things I love and be this generation’s custodian for them. We have pieces that have lasted 60 years and I feel we have a great responsibility to make sure they last at least another 60. People should see these things generations from now and know about the people who made them and understand what makes them beautiful. It all feels rather ascetic in a way, which I guess appeals to what remains of my Catholic upbringing.
So, I’ve changed my way of thinking. Perhaps this is Stockholm Syndrome but I love my weird, uncomfortable home and I want to protect the things in it to the best of my ability. I will use Frank Lloyd Wright’s perfectly worded quote on the Zimmerman memorial as my mantra:
“Beautify your own life and you beautify the life of everyone around you.”
…as long as those around you are using a coaster.