I’m looking right at my most treasured piece of furniture, but I can’t actually see it.
What I do see is a pile of T-shirts, sweatshirts, bras, pants, a shopping bag filled with tulle for a yet-to-be-started craft project, and who knows what else (probably a few New Yorkers and some junk mail). I feel kind of guilty that my favorite chair is choked by stuff. It probably deserves better. But sit in it? I wouldn’t dare.
The chair—a Shaker-style ladder-back with a herringbone caned seat—holds a special place in my heart since it reminds me so much of home.
I grew up going to estate sales and garage sales, and practically all of the furniture in my parents’ house is secondhand.
My dad got this chair from a neighbor. It was just a frame with no seat. I loved it because it was different from all the dark, bulky behemoths in our living room. The frame was featherweight and finished in oil. It looked modern.
The chair languished in our crowded garage for years, surviving our own yard sales and trips to Goodwill. It was sturdy and solid wood, and therefore valuable in my parents’ eyes—even if it was in a totally unusable state.
But one day, my dad decided the chair needed a seat, so he borrowed some library books with instructions on how to weave a splint seat, bought some flat reed, and taught himself to make one. I remember it took a lot of time—and a lot of broken reed—before the chair was finished. But when it was done, it looked beautiful.
It also symbolized so much about how my parents taught me to think about stuff. If you need to buy furniture, you get something well-made. If something is broken, you fix it. And you try to fix it yourself before enlisting a hired gun.
These days, I often see chairs dumped out on the curb—some that have splintered, but some that just need a little TLC. Every year 9 million tons of furniture go to landfills, a symptom of buying too much and buying things that don’t last.
I love how my chair—yes, I’ve since claimed it for my own apartment—showcases a way of valuing furniture through maintenance and repair. It’s also highly functional, just not for sitting.
The back is very straight and the seat pan is shallow, so you’re forced into a rigid upright posture. (That’s why I sometimes call it my interrogation chair.) But using it as a temporary home for things I’m too lazy to put away? That’s its highest and best use to me.
There is furniture designed specifically for this purpose—called valets—and, of course, there are some verrrrry fancy ones, like the Hans Wegner design from the early 1950s or the Sacrificial chair from independent design studio Thing Industries.
But you can also find plenty of secondhand Shaker-style ladder-back chairs just like mine on Etsy and Craigslist. If you choose to bring one of these into your life, do pick one with back posts that stick up a little higher than the top slat, so you can hang even more stuff on it.