Willow Wood already had the faint vestiges of furniture – a blue high-back couch on claw feet and a sewing machine table functioning as a microwave stand. Having come so far, I now turned my attention to the next pressing item on the to-do list: Furniture.
Of everything, furniture is perhaps the most challenging to choose. A wall color, while important, is a broad choice, and is, in fact, one choice and one task. Furniture, on the other hand, is a myriad of small and massively important choices. Furniture must blend together as if it belonged to the room and to each piece to each other. It must complement the house, the space, the wall color, and your tastes. It’s an understatement to say that it is very difficult to do… do well, that is. Especially on a budget. But with a little patience and some luck, it is possible.
In my opinion, the easiest (and most exciting) style to do on a small budget is bohemian (which essentially is an anti-style; it essentially proclaims ‘do whatever you want wherever you want’. There are substyles: beach bohemian, western bohemian, rugged bohemian, international bohemian, you-name-it bohemian, but it’s really a sort of catch-all for a maximalism-style living. This is for people who collect things as they go through life; perhaps this item spoke to them, or this one had a story, or this one they picked up from a friend while in Morocco, and their homes are libraries of stories and experiences, captured in physical form.) The reason it’s the easiest style is that it’s collective and doesn’t depend so much on a tailored consistency, but rather a consistency of personality. What I mean is, if you know who you are and are comfortable in your own skin, you tend to collect a consistent style, and your home reflects that. It becomes an extension of ‘you’.
But we were speaking of furniture.
It took me several years to collect enough furniture to the point where I was content with the way things were. I would haunt thrift stores and used furniture outlets, keep my eyes trained on the side of the road for freebies, say yes to anyone who wanted to get rid of something in their house. In general, I made myself as open as possible to the opportunities that presented themselves.
When you do this, there is no telling what may happen, and it is often something you do not expect.
I was looking for an ice cream scoop at a thrift store, which also carried furniture. I rarely shopped there for furniture, however, because it was painfully expensive. The kitchen utensils were at the back of the store, and to get there, I had to pass rows and rows of beautiful furniture. I tried not to look. It was all to lovely, and if I looked too hard, I’d be spending my whole paycheck, which I definitely couldn’t afford.
That was when I almost tripped on a rug and had to glance up to avoid collision with a bar stool. At that moment, I saw a dark, handsome shadow, standing aimlessly between a Singer table and an Edwardian vanity.
Have you ever experienced love at first sight? I have. It’s embarrassing how often. I refused to be embarrassed about this time, though. There was everything I was looking for in life, embodied in a dark, broad shouldered form.
It was the most beautiful wine bar I have ever seen, and likely will ever see in my life.
I stumbled over to it, the whole world dimming away, and ran my hand over the smooth, dark walnut. The sides were carved in a deep relief of an Italian scene – immensely detailed images of houses, fields in the distance, and people cooking, weaving, and smiling, which seemed to both leap from the wood into reality, and at the same time sink into its shadows, beckoning you into the mystery. It stood at the perfect height, right at rib-cage level for me, and the top unfolded to reveal a flat countertop edged with walnut and inlaid with mesmerizing ocean-green marble. The sides swung out to drawers, wine-glass holders, and bottle cubbies. Not only was it beautiful and functional, but it was also mysterious. Nothing about it told me where it had been made, what style it was in, or how old it was.
It was over $400.
I could not be deterred. I needed that wine bar, and from our instant connection, it clearly needed me. I raced to the front, irrationally terrified that someone was up there right now trying to buy it away from me. I stepped up to the counter in a rush and told the cashier I needed to buy a wine bar.
Minutes later, I was the proud and lucky owner.
“Do you want us to hold it until you can arrange for it to be moved?” the cashier asked.
I didn’t know anyone at that time to help me with it, and didn’t want to risk leaving it for a second.
“No…” I said. “I think it will fit in my car.”
“Are you sure?”
Providence was on my side on this one. “Yes,” I said with certainty.
He wandered off to get a dolly and someone to help move it while I walked out to my car, a 1992 Subaru Loyale hatchback, and open the hatch, pulled down the back seats, and pushed the front seats up as far as they would go. This would work. It was fated to.
I rushed back to make sure they were careful with the piece and watched as the gently tipped it up onto the dolly.
A small piece of it creaked, cracked, and fell off entirely.
“Huh,” said the cashier.
I picked it up and followed them out to the car. The wine bar was solid wood, not to mention the inlay of marble, and seemed to be brutally heavy as they lifted it slowly and tipped it into the car. It fit. Barely. It took us a quarter of an hour to shift and shove it into the car enough to close the hatchback, and while we were doing that, we realized there were wheels install on the bottom. We knew this because two of them fell off.
All of us fall to pieces at some time or another. If anything, it only increased my love for the wine bar. I drove it home, and it was there in the driveway I realized that while I had had help getting it into the car, I had no one to help me get it out of the car.
At least I had won half the battle.
I drove my wine bar around for another three weeks until my brother came to town for a visit. He and I shimmied it out of the car, struggled it up the four stairs onto the deck, and pushed and shoved it into the kitchen. During this process, four more pieces fell off. We reattached everything, setting it perpendicular to the angled counter containing the sink, and stood back to look at it.
People have told me countless times they thought it was an installed island piece in the house – it seems to belong there so well.
My second magnificent find was a piano.
Every home needs a piano, even if you don’t play. It all-but shouts sophistication, love of art and beauty, and good cheer. It transforms any room into a wonderland, much like a shelf of books. It is also one of the most impractical pieces of furniture you can buy, and therefore one of the most important. If you have a piano, you may not have a place to eat, or a place to sit, or a place to hang coats or put shoes. You can’t cut onions on it, and you can’t set microwaves on it (at least I certainly wouldn’t recommend it), and you can’t sleep on it (not safely, that is). The only thing you can do with it is enrich your life and your cat’s life and your roommates’ lives and your friends’ and family’s lives. You can wile away the dull winter hours, encounter the Greats of music in a personal way, and make a world of beauty with only a few notes.
In short, it’s absolutely essential, if you haven’t done so already, to go buy a piano at once.
I found my piano on Craigslist. It was a rather special find, because it was an antique piano made by a small German company in 1901. The owner told me her parents had brought it over to America by boat fifty years ago, which means that this piano had survived 115 years of owners and two world wars. What sort of things had this piano seen? It was owned by good people; I could tell just by looking at it. Had it played away the horror during bombing raids? Had it brought a small ray of light to the darkness? How many people had it saved from hopelessness?
It was lacquered in black, with pale, thin carvings lacing over it in a floral pattern. Brass candlestick holders were posted like sentinels at either side of the music stand, and the ivories were time-worn in a way that suggested it had not been under-used.
Pianos are impractical in one other way, and that is they are very heavy. It took six of us to move it: me, J and Brian, my dad, and two conscripted friends with a trailer. At this point, I became even more sure of the importance of pianos. If they weren’t important, they wouldn’t be so heavy, would they?
It was snowing, an odd early-fall snow, where the flakes are almost a half an inch in diameter and instantly turn to slush as they hit the ground. We slipped and skidded the piano off the trailer and up the stairs into the house. When it was in, it looked like it had been there all along.
My heavy-furniture days were over. I had used up all the goodwill of friends and family, so I turned my attention to smaller items.
I found a strangely large end table to use as a TV stand, and a buffet cabinet to store pots and pans in and set the microwave on top of. The living room still felt a little cold, however, so after a few months of looking, I finally found the right rug to soften the wood floor. If I could afford it, I would have a Turkish carpet without question. A hand-knotted Turkish carpet will not only last forever, but will hold its beauty and charm forever, too. But being short on budget, I settled for the cheaper option. Still, it was a lovely blue carpet accented with sunshine yellow designs that matched the couch, and it warmed the cold wood floor perfectly. Now, I do prefer wood floors. There something about them that is unquestionably elegant. Not only that, but you can break up the texture with carpets, which you can’t do on carpeted floor without being tacky. And the more carpets the better, in my humble opinion.
It was at the time that I also eliminated a rather unnecessary piece of furniture. My bed.
In small spaces, it all comes down to budgeting for the important things. My room was so small that the bed (which was only a twin size) took up half the room. It was inconvenient and cramped, and I’d had enough, so I took it down, packed it into the shed, and haven’t regretted it once. I instead bought a Japanese futon, which is a 4” thick cotton mattress pad. Laid out on the floor, it still takes up as much room as a twin bed, but because it’s so low to the ground, it makes the room feel much less cluttered. And the best part about them? You can fold them up and toss them into the closet during the day. The room is wide open now! If you need to re-alphabetize your bookshelves, you have plenty of floor to do so. If you need to outline a rather complicated plot for a new book, you won’t run out of room. On those few days a month you decide to exercise, you haven’t the excuse of not-having-enough-room to prevent this healthy endeavor.
The only issue with sleeping on a futon is that 4” of padding… is really not that much. It’s only a half a level above sleeping on the floor. The first five weeks of sleeping on it, I had so many aches and pains I felt like I’d aged sixty years. Some days it felt like even my toes were sore after a hard night’s sleep.
But eventually you get used to it, and voila! you are no longer dependent on mattresses. You can now sleep anywhere. Mattresses are a luxury after all, and it’s best not to become over-dependent on them.