Death to cheap modern furniture

I’d been planning a thoughtful post today about the importance of community in living sustainably, and how we can build a sense of belonging with those around us. Then I spent two hours pulling my desk apart, moving the pieces an entire 1.5 metres then putting it together again, half-destroying it in the process. Now instead of reflections on interpersonal connections you’re getting a rant about poorly made modern furniture and our disposable culture.

My desk is your standard cheap office furniture piece, made of laminated fibre-board, with panels that slot together and fasten with fiddly little clips. Oh, those clips… We tried pulling the desk apart to move it to the cottage, but the clips broke apart under the screw-driver and jammed in tight, so my friend and I decided to just move the beastly thing in one piece. We manoeuvred it into the cottage with barely a millimetre to spare: one more coat of paint on the door frame and we’d really have struggled. Relieved, we moved to manhandle it into the small room I’d set aside as the study, only to discover the door to that room was smaller. $@*#!

So my desk, enormous and ugly piece of modern furniture, was left sat in my too-small living room where it taunted me, taking up far too much space. Silly object should have known I wouldn’t give up without a fight: I ducked out to the manufacturers today armed with a phone photo of the offending clips and a hopeful expression. Five minutes later I was on my way out with a fistful of new clips and instructions on how they were supposedΒ to unclip and how to insert replacements. Yeah… even armed with clear instructions I only managed to get 2 of 12 clips out unbroken.

Eventually I finished fishing out the broken clip pieces (fine tweezers should be a staple of every tool kit, I swear) and could pull the desk apart, get it through the door, put it back together again and fasten it all up with the new clips. In the process, however, the fibreboard holes got a little bigger and the desk doesn’t hold together quite as well as it used to and I swear that when it leaves this room it will be to go to the tip.

A three-year-old piece of furniture, not built to last. Big, bulky, cheaply made and designed to be thrown away. There’s nothing I can do to repair it: no sanding back scratches, screwing on new legs or gluing together worn out joints. Just take it to the tip, a mouldering pile of plastic, timber pulp and adhesives; pointless landfill. What a pointless waste of resources.

Blue Door

Age should enhance and add character!

Now I look around my new home, over 100 years old, designed for durability and efficiency. The space is small but nothing is wasted; the build is solid, the materials hard-wearing. There’s a couple of pieces of old furniture that came with the place: an ancient chest of drawers and a dresser. They’ve been trashed by previous tenants, the timbers are worn, the drawer stops and runners are busted, but they’re still solid and with a little love and attention these pieces can be rescued and restored. They stand in stark contrast to my disposable desk and it’s matching bookcase.

I look at my lounge suite, another cheap modern affair, that sits overly-big and over-stuffed in this efficient space and it gets me thinking. Modern furniture is bulky: compared to older pieces of the same dimensions more area is given over to the frame and stuffing, sacrificing functional space for cheaper manufacturing techniques and fashionable appearances. My arm-chair needs to go on a diet: I could have the same seating surface for 2/3 of the space. I’m wondering if the bloat of modern furniture is there just to fill up space. As our houses got bigger and we had more room to fill, did our furniture get fatter? Are we now building over-sized houses just to fit flabby furnishings?

Here in the cottage my budget modern furnishing annoy me; their over-stuffed aesthetics grate. I can see how badly they’re ageing and realise that sooner than I find acceptable I’m going to be throwing them away. I bought cheap in a hurry on a small budget, but when the time comes to replace them I’m going to think hard about a better way of buying.

The couple of real timber pieces I do own are ageing far more gracefully than their glue-and-wood shavings companions, but my budget doesn’t stretch to hardwood and modern pine furniture means modern pine plantations with their suite of ecological problems. Trading durability for land degradation doesn’t sound like the most sustainable choice! I’ve started staking out my local op-shops and second-hand / antique stores, pricing out solid old pieces that can be restored and repaired. I’m trawling Gumtree‘s online listings for people selling treasures at under-valued prices. I’m wondering just how hard it could be to learn to build or repair simple pieces and have begged assisted access to a friends’ workshop. I’m dreaming of a laminex free future!

What are your thoughts on modern furniture? Do you share my frustrations or have you found pieces that work for you? Got any clever tips or secrets you can share?

Blue Monday

Hobart’s heritage gives this little city a great sense of character

Note: I’m without internet access for a few weeks due to moving house. I’m doing my best to keep posting and responding to comments but it’ll be a little quieter here until I have a home connection again. Sorry for the delay in replies, I really appreciate your comments!

15 Comments on “Death to cheap modern furniture

  1. Buy a sander and always use it when rescuing old furniture, the revarnish or paint. Scour hard rubbish and charity shops for things that can be resuscitated. I’m a great believer in painting/tarting furniture up, even new stuff. Stick on decals or stickers can disguise laminate nicely, if paint doesn’t behave on a surface. New (or old) handles can make something look much nicer.

    Do not wear your favourite trousers when painting anything. I learnt that the hard way!

    • Do not wear your favourite trousers when doing anything practical around the house! Good clothes do not go with household maintenance or cookery: this I have learnt the expensive way.

      I’ve been putting off replacing my furniture, waiting until I can buy a place so I know the furnishings will fit. I also need somewhere dry and clean to do the work and store the tools, which is a particular struggle in the cottage, but I will see what I can do!

  2. Yep – I’m the same. Buy antique stuff and restore it – it’s a really enjoyable hobby, and you end up with something that’s really yours at the end of it, and that will last ages. You don’t have to pay out tons of cash for most pieces, and the only thing you probably can’t do yourself is upholster armchairs and sofas – the rest is very doable.

    • I can’t wait until I have a place of my own so I can invest the time and effort into furniture I know will fit (and have somewhere I can actually do the work). I suspect I’ll quite enjoy restoring furniture – it’ll suit my nature. πŸ™‚

  3. I actually own nothing furniture wise (except my bedroom stuff), the joys of moving in to sharehouses that were already furnished. My bed has been a monstrous pain in the rear to take apart each time and I have sworn for the last 3 houses that I would get rid of it, but it does match my stuff and I don’t want to throw it out whilst it still does function in the in between time. (And don’t get me started on the ikea wardrobe.)

    When I move into my own place, I will definitely be fitting it out with as much second hand stuff as I can (including kitchen items – Savers is brilliant up here).

    I must say though, the majority of older couches I have come across do not make for hugely comfortable seating for TV marathons, which I’m partial to from time to time πŸ˜‰

    Some sites you might be interested in:

    http://www.freecycle.org/group/AU/
    http://www.garagesaletrail.com.au/

    • Savers is indeed awesome, though I have recently discovered a couple of excellent op-shops here in Hobart that have furniture and things (and too many books for me to resist, oh dear).

      I suspect most older couches could be made more comfy with restoration: new springs, new padding. Well, at least I hope so as I do enjoy curling up for a few hours with a good book!

      Freecycle hasn’t really taken off in Tas for some reason. Gumtree is definitely the popular choice down here. Garage sale trail looks eeeeevil! Thanks for the link!

  4. Me three. I’ve mostly old (antique and second hand) furniture which belonged to my dad and grandmother and some I’ve picked up which I’ve sanded down and repainted or varnished. I have a small wooden desk in our entryway which belonged to my dad when he was little (it must be 60 years old) and it’s solid as a rock. I swear it’ll be around when we’re all long gone, it’s amazing how well they made furniture back then. My computer desk is also a desk which belonged to my dad around 30 years ago – the height is a bit wrong, as oh&s standards have changed since back then it was a writing desk, but I don’t care, it has sentimental value and is so well made I can’t imagine having some modern piece like my husband has. I did have to find a decent chair as I was getting back pain from it.

    Another piece of advice is to make sure you paint or varnish in a well ventilated area – I painted an old kitchen hutch a year ago and even though I had all the sliding doors open and it was a breezy day I had a headache for 24 hours afterwards. It was worth it though as it looks great.

    I think furniture got bigger because everything got bigger and more affluent in our society – food, cars, white goods, people … and now we’re having to scale things down which is a bit of a lesson for us I think. A lot of people can’t afford houses and have to live in smaller spaces so maybe furniture will become smaller and people will stop buying stupid stuff they don’t need. I can only dream.

    Sorry for the ramble!

    • Don’t apologise, this was a great comment!

      I’ve been holding out on buying furniture because I wanted to own a place first so I could make sure the furniture fit the house, but I think I’ll start replacing things now if I find pieces I like. I’m quite keen to try my hand at restoring though it’s hard not having a covered work area (or enough ventilation inside the house). There’s so much satisfaction in fixing something yourself. I can see dusty varnish in my future!

      Your place sounds great, and looks lovely too from your photos. Small is beautifu;l and far more sustainable. πŸ™‚

      Cheers,
      T.

  5. “Designed to be thrown away.” You hit the nail on the head. I too destroyed my way to heavy and way to ugly desk trying to move it. It sits in the dumpster now. The clips you wrote of were made of pot metal and stripped themselves right out. I am now the proud owner of a vintage cherry desk that is beautiful. I’m no longer angry my ugly desk died. It knew it had to go. Thank you for the great post.

  6. Pingback: Shivering my timbers « Shape of Things to Come

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  8. It depends on how long you intend to keep the furniture and for what purposes. For a short time and for a student for example would be great. But i agree in the long term….. maybe not

  9. Second hand = recycled; the best furniture there is. Unfortunately the richer the society the less weight this argument holds; but you do get better second hand goods πŸ™‚

  10. Pingback: This dismantled life | Shape of Things to Come

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