An Extraordinary Chair

Extraordinary things often enter your life in unexpected ways. Call it a chance encounter, a coincidence, an accident. Call it luck. These things, however they enter your life, can have a profound impact on how you think about the world. They can impact how you behave. One particularly extraordinary thing in my life warrants a story.

Priorities Change.

In the summer of 2017, my wife and I were busy figuring out all the flowery details of our Maine barn wedding. The property we had rented for the ceremony and reception was absolutely stunning. A beautiful manicured yard, a picturesque garden and apple orchard, a rustic yet charming barn, and a backdrop comprised of a serene New England forest. The only problem was that the barn was just that – an empty barn. No seating, no wedding décor, nothing really. It provided us with a blank canvas to carefully reflect our personal style, to make it our own.

We had a vision for how an eclectic assortment of various things would help us create the magical environment we envisioned for the greatest party of our lives. We spent most of the year leading up to our wedding collecting a diverse collection of items to customize the property for our wedding. Colorful upholstered chairs, ornate sofas, patterned pillows, and vintage rugs in every shape, size, and style you could imagine. We frequented vintage swap meets and antique festivals, including the colossal collection of stuff known as the Brimfield Antique Show.

For those of you not familiar with the Brimfield Antique Show, do yourself a favor and go. The Show, as they call it, is an expansive and entertaining collection of people and their things, spread out over 23 old farm fields in rural Massachusetts. There are typically over 6,000 vendors at the Show, selling everything from broken tchotchkes to high-end furniture.

The year of our wedding we spent several days at the Show, hoping to find good deals on furniture, rugs, and décor. In one mid-century themed tent I caught my wife-to-be eyeing a rather unassuming upholstered chair. It was simple, clean, and had a nice stance to it. The upholstered upper half was separated from the tapered wooden legs by a small gap, or “reveal” to use the parlance of the industrial design community.  The physical gap was thoughtful and considered – a visual, and perhaps metaphorical, distinction between the functional legs and the comfortable seating area. A single piece of fabric wrapped the entire back and side arms, minimizing the number of seams and adding to the overall simplicity of the design. There were 3 cute buttons centered on the slightly reclined back, an interesting interplay of seriousness and whimsy. We took turns sitting in the chair, circled it several times to visualize the chair in its entirety, and inspected the fabric with our finger tips. And we fell in love with it.

Our plan was to buy furniture we could use for the wedding and then sell the pieces afterwards to recoup some of our expenses. Our plan did not include buying furniture for our home. The Show, however, has a funny way of helping you change your priorities, and this particular chair did not belong in a tent at an antique show. It belonged in a home. The vendor and I haggled back and forth a little before we settled on $247, which was exactly the amount of cash I had in my pocket. We were satisfied with the price, proud of our negotiating success, and giddy with our charming new chair.

The Discovery.

At home, we inspected every detail of the chair: the seams, the odd feet added to the base, the upholstery, the finish of the wood. On the underside was a tag that read: Jens Risom Manufacturing. The name sounded familiar. I conducted a cursory search on the internet, and soon realized I should have been ashamed for not immediately recognizing the name. Jens Risom, after all, is responsible for some of the most iconic pieces of furniture of the 20th century. His collaboration with the esteemed furniture manufacturer Hans Knoll is well documented. When Hans Knoll launched his first line of eponymous furniture pieces in 1942, Risom’s work accounted for 15 of the original 20 pieces. The impact of this original line of furniture was significant, inspiring generations of designers and setting the standard for the Mid-Century Scandinavian design aesthetic in America.

The piece that we had purchased at the Brimfield Antique Show was designed and produced after Risom had left Knoll to start his own furniture company, the Jens Risom Design Company. From 1946 through 1970 the Jens Risom Design Company designed and manufactured a wide array of home, office, hospital, and library furniture. Many of these pieces have become design classics. Today, Risom’s work is on display at museums throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Slowly, more and more articles about Jens Risom started to show up in my life. The more aware of his legacy I became. I learned that he grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark, studied design at the Copenhagen School of Industrial Arts and Design, and was classmates with another well-known furniture designer, Hans Wegner. He later moved to New Canaan, CT, home of some of the most celebrated architects of the mid-twentieth century. I imagined Jens Risom rubbing elbows with Philip Johnson and Marcel Breuer at a cocktail party. Did this ever happen? I don’t know. But it could have. I ran across an article in Dwell that mentioned his affinity for creating custom holiday cards each year, and how the whole family waited in anticipation each year to receive his fun, often humorous, and always thoughtful cards. The more I learned, the more I appreciated the man and his work, and the more I came to appreciate the purchase we had made at the Show.

Naturally, I started to look at the chair differently. Not only was it beautiful and thoughtfully designed, it had historical significance. It represented one small moment in a celebrated designer’s evolving design career. Today, when I talk about the chair (yes, I talk about this chair), I not only talk about the design, but I also talk about the designer and the influence he had on design in America.

When We Care.

When our newly adopted Great Dane puppy, Grouper, decided to take his little puppy angst out on our new chair, it never crossed my mind to throw it away. Why? Most of our previous furniture was used until worn and then sold on Craigslist, or worse, tossed in the landfill. This chair was different, it was important. It was not only well-crafted and elegant, but also reminded me of so many things: the chance find at the Show, the positive negotiating experience, the year of my wedding, and most importantly, it reminded me of the designer Jens Risom and everything I had learned about him. We had the chair reupholstered within weeks.

No other piece of furniture in our lives had ever occupied so much thought, commanded so much attention, nor required so much care. This is how extraordinary things operate. For various reasons (many of which are perhaps outside the designer’s control), you naturally stop and think about them. A healthier relationship between you and the object begins to develop. An extraordinary object does not simply speak of itself and its utility (e.g., I’m a chair, sit on me), but rather it speaks of many topics: the design decisions made, the person or persons responsible for making those decisions, the history behind its design and production, the memories experienced in and around the object, and perhaps, the very meaning of its existence.

Extraordinary things elicit dialogue, discussion, emotional responses, and in doing so open the door to alternative ideas and new experiences. Most importantly, extraordinary things demand care, and when we care about something and its well-being we treat it differently. We act differently. When we care, we take time to make decisions. We act more responsibly, more respectfully, and more thoughtfully.

Extraordinary things make us better people.

Throughout this series of short stories, I’ll continue to explore different aspects of everyday objects that not only cause us to enjoy them (much has already been written about this), but also aspects of everyday objects that push us further – objects that provoke reflection, thought, and responsible action. I’ll begin explore what it takes to become an extraordinary design.

Cuts Like a Knife

Anthony Bourdain suggested I buy a Global brand knife and use it for life. So I did.

I’m not exactly sure why I trusted Anthony Bourdain’s recommendation. Perhaps, I thought to myself, Global was a sponsor of Bourdain and he was getting paid good money to hawk their products. But maybe not. I’ve read several of his books and watched pretty much all of his food-themed tv shows. He didn’t seem like the type of guy to throw out an opinion lightly. I enjoyed his dry sense of humor, admired his willingness to take risks, and for some reason unknown to me, I tend to trust people who are generally cynical. Cynical people don’t lie. So, my wife and I bought a Global knife, a whole set in fact.

More interesting, however, is how I started to behave after we acquired the set of knives. I was enamored by the product as soon as the set arrived at my door. I opened the package immediately, inspected the 4 knives closely for any imperfections, and handled each of the knives individually. I enjoyed the various weights in my hand, the softness of the metal material, and appreciated the small dimpled design details highlighting the grip. As a designer with a degree in Human Factors, I considered the ergonomics, the balance, and the overall utility – and was generally impressed. I read carefully through the history of the brand and the care instructions. I practiced my chopping skills on a few sacrificial vegetables. I washed the set by hand as instructed, dried them with a microfiber cloth, and stored them carefully in the new knife block we purchased to display the knives.

In hindsight this behavior was quite strange. I had never been interested in knives before. Most of our previous kitchen knives were random and dull hand-me-downs. I don’t remember complaining about them once. I don’t remember discussing them with anyone either. They were just there, available, ready to be used when needed. Pedestrian but functional, and certainly not worthy of reflection. As time passed, however, I noticed that my new Global knives demanded quite a bit of attention, care, and oddly, reflection.

With each dinner preparation I carefully selected the knife most appropriate for the job. After dinner I hand-washed each knife with care and attention so as to prolong the life of each dangerously sharp blade. I dried them off dutifully. I watched YouTube videos on how to properly hone them, and then honed them regularly. I even took them to a local shop to have them sharpened – twice in the same year. I didn’t mind all the extra work, care, and attention. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. And two years later, I still do. I’ll never go back to a lesser knife, even if they purport to require less care.

This behavioral change is what interests me the most. These simple yet beautiful knives created new habits, both positive and constructive. I’m doing more work without hesitation and without complaint. These knives demanded care and required additional attention, and I obliged willfully. The care they required created moments of pause and reflection, and in doing so created a sense of responsibility for sustained long-term use. I plan to keep and use these well designed and manufactured products until they can no longer perform their function. And when I’m done, the remaining metal can be recycled and made into future Global knives.

I’m curious to know why this behavioral change took place. Why would I take on all this extra work? Why did I seem to enjoy it so much? It got me thinking: Can the products we use every day to complete basic, utilitarian tasks achieve the same results for others? Can these so-called “everyday objects” promote positive behavioral change, such as care, attention, reflection, and sustained use? And if so, would it be too much of a leap to wonder if common everyday objects can inspire responsible productivity such as environmental sustainability and social responsibility? I’m talking positive, productive, and actionable change. Meaningful change. If so, how?

Much has been written about the positive impact that art (music, dance, literature, motion pictures, fine art, etc.) can have on individuals and society alike. I’m interested to know if pedestrian everyday things, and the simple tasks they support, can waken us from the solipsist everyday we typically experience to promote more positive, productive, and meaningful behaviors, attitudes, and actions. These are the types of ideas and questions I’ll be exploring in my research and discussing with you in this blog.

Can we use design to turn everyday utilitarian things into far more meaningful things? Can we turn everything things into Extraordinary Things?