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 supposed 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.
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?
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!