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My year of folding chairs

There’s more to the ubiquitous, utilitarian furniture than meets the eye

No one tells you that the path to sobriety is paved with metal folding chairs. People will instead speak of meetings and steps, enlightenment and redemption. But there is little mention of how often you’ll be sitting on cold, collapsable industrial steel.

The church basement I’d found myself in one slate-gray, early-spring evening last year felt big and familiar, like back-to-school night when I was a kid. I remember feeling defeated and nervous, and that my anxious eyes darted to avoid any direct contact with the strangers looking back at me.

In situations like these, when I’m off balance and unnerved, my glance instinctively goes to the first inanimate object I can find. In this case, it was an empty folding chair.

The folding chair has the uncanny ability to render the crowd in any room a group of equals. There is an inherent sense of commonality when everyone is sitting in the same chair and talking about the same things. For the first time—as I sat side by side and eye to eye with more recovering alcoholics than I could count—I realized my own seemingly impossible struggle wasn’t singular. The faces and stories in these meetings changed from week to week, but I quickly learned the metal folding chairs, and that feeling of togetherness, are heavy things that stay in place.

I used to believe that folding chairs were a cold byproduct of the military or government that served some hyper-tactical purpose. But a few months into my recovery, I learned that, at least in the United States, the contemporary folding chair was designed with the purpose of community at its core.

In 1911, Nathaniel Alexander created a collapsible chair for use in schools and churches. Alexander’s design even included a book holder for the person in the seat behind it, making the chair ideal for study, worship, or choir.

In 1947, Fredric Arnold, a World War II veteran turned artist and inventor, streamlined the design even further, creating an aluminum-and-fabric foldaway chair better suited for mass production. Arnold’s design was cruder and less sturdy than today’s metal folding chairs, but the guiding principle was intact: Transform any nondescript space into an arena that could support a group of people gathering for a common purpose.

A decade later, Arnold’s company, the Fredric Arnold Company of Brooklyn, was manufacturing more than 14,000 of these portable chairs per day. The folding chair soon became a staple of homes, schools, churches, and community centers everywhere.

Folding chairs are a relatively unremarkable fixture of everyday life. They’re one of those objects that we all interact with over the years, but likely haven’t given any real attention or afterthought. All industrial folding chairs look relatively alike; the ones in that church basement in Brooklyn looked the same as the chairs from my high school, my childhood churches, and pretty much every other folding chair I’ve had to sit in.

I never gave them a second thought until I found myself sitting in one every week as I listened to others talk about alcoholism and sobriety. A couple of months into my recovery, as I struggled with aspects of AA’s 12-step process, I found myself wanting a different path to sobriety, something that was less uniform and felt more personal to me.

During the midcentury industrial design boom, designers of the era played with the concept of the folding chair, elevating it from its simple origins to include geometric curves, upscale types of wood, and glossy finishes. Egon Eiermann, a prominent German architect, designed one 1950s folding chair in beechwood, now in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.

Decades later, architect David Chipperfield created the Piana folding chair, a high-minded, fiberglass-reinforced version that you can purchase in upscale decor boutiques to this day. Even the affordable furniture giant Ikea offers its own spin on the folding chair, its Gunde and Nisse models, which are colorful and aesthetically pleasing enough to earn spots in stylish homes across the globe.

The modern folding chair has crossed over into something that feels more personal and better designed than its original iterations. Designers knew not to view the original concept as inflexible. Instead, they pushed it forward as larger cultural design sensibilities shifted and when they saw there was a desire for folding chairs that felt unique to people’s individual tastes and preferences. Finding one’s path to sobriety can have a similar “make it your own” quality.

During my previous attempts to quit drinking I learned that there was a limit for how long I could white-knuckle my way through sobriety. I’ve tried a lot of things to curb my drinking: denial, self-improvement, personal discovery, new hobbies—you name it. I eventually forced myself to go to an AA meeting. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found myself listening to impassioned tales from transformed people. There were equal doses of warm camaraderie and grating personalities; it’s enough to both make you melt in your chair and want to walk out of the room.

Like many others who find sobriety outside of a multistep program, and similar to the designers who cherry-picked pieces of the original folding chair design to create their own version, I decided my sobriety was going to come on my own terms.

While I didn’t follow the 12-step program or seek a sponsor, I still attended occasional meetings: I sat, I listened, and I rarely spoke. But absorbing the stories while sitting in that folding chair did more for me than I ever could have imagined. I’d walk out of the room with a new sense of strength. It pushed me to be open about my struggles with drinking and express what I couldn’t articulate—and got me out of my own head. And the more I opened up to my friends and family, the more in control of that struggle I felt.

When I see folding chairs in my everyday life—at my office, in cafes, or tucked away in the corners of art galleries—I can’t help but think of how terrifying and humbling it felt to walk down that short stairwell for the first time. I can close my eyes and imagine looking around that too-big room with its tiny collapsible furniture and kind resilient people. I can still picture how the chairs sat in four rows to form an open square, so that everyone faced each other. These details, like the metal folding chairs, are intertwined with my memories of how I got sober.

I’ve spent the last year thinking about sobriety and folding chairs, and how both require design and discipline that can be as unique or as uniform as you’d like it to be. You can follow the blueprints—the measurements, the angles, the book, the steps—or you can break out on your own. Ultimately, it’s about what works for you. But it turns out that the feeling of designing your own fate can be a pretty powerful catalyst for change.

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