On some small planet somewhere, furniture matters
In fact, it does here. We host our guests at tables, we talk all night cupped in the ease of our sofas, we make love on our beds, we roll to the grocery store in our four-wheeled chairs. The grace and vitality of life depends as much on this exoskeleton we call furniture as the function of our organs depends on the scaffold of our internal bones.
If you still doubt the importance of furniture, step into a room from which the furniture, books and paintings have been removed. What yesterday was the warm, resonant womb of our existence is now as desolate as a mausoleum.
I love furniture’s intimate, indispensable role in the habits of life. George Nakashima, the American furniture-maker, once said that if a great table, made of solid and resplendent wood, were placed in the headquarters of the United Nations, and delegates could sit around it, better decisions might emerge. He was commissioned to make such a table. Maybe, just now, we could have such a table made for the Supreme Court.
I often use furniture as a metaphor in my poetry. My teacher at Bennington, Liam Rector, once gave me a keepsake, a paper napkin on which he’d scribbled: “her illness was the family furniture.” Every adversity, as well as every high in life, is furniture.
I am an enthusiast for great chairs. I was shown through the United Nations by a friend many years ago. What struck me was the purity, sturdiness and modernity of all the furniture. Like the art, the tapestries, the architecture itself, it was thrillingly modern, hopeful, as one would expect in a visionary place. Chairs by Hans Wegner, the great Danish furniture maker, abounded. I know that I retarded our pace, trying out each chair like Goldilocks.
Yet furniture remains the humble step-child of the arts. That said, I actually think it takes its place among the grandest and most outlandishly original art forms of the last century. It delights me that the Indianapolis Museum of Art (#IMA) accords furniture that status. The theatrical director Robert Wilson would also, I think, agree. Wilson’s performing arts center at Watermill is overflowing with great chairs, many of them of Wilson’s own design, and many employed in his avant-garde performances.
Charles Olsen, the poet, felt that poetry had to leave the page, enter the body and come forth as breath. Architecture, for Frank Lloyd Wright, called for the same somatic immersion. Something about that notion applies to furniture as well. Art is not tactile, but furniture is. We touch the fabric of a chair, the wood of a table, the contour of an arm; they enter us and we exhale them as breath, as conversation, as a crazy notion at two in the morning; we exhale them as rest.
Here’s the good news. Very fine furniture is still within the reach of most folks. It is sculpture at a fraction of the cost. It may not be that way forever, but now it is. Our daughter found a museum-worthy Eames chair at a yard sale–like finding a Picasso in your uncle’s garage.
Much as I try to claw religion out of my existence, a few things stick–the way churches or synagogues so effectively make those little sacred zones, magical centers of gravity using a few simple things like flowers, candles, incense, a painting or two, a cabinet or chair. Take that principle home, add a glass of choice Bordeaux, a profane parakeet, a supple conversation and you have a tableau fit for a Bloomsbury queen.