There is a chair in my life that’s, quite literally, always been there – and don’t so many of us have such pieces of furniture and other accumulated objects that are ‘just there’ because they are? This one – an original paper-and-wire woven Lloyd Loom from the 1930s that, I imagine, my grandma picked out when my father moved in to what eventually became my childhood home – started out in the corner of my parents’ (always yellow-painted) bedroom, adjacent to the window where I used to love climbing onto the sill and wedging myself lengthwise along its narrow stretch, behind the curtain, as the afternoon sun came pouring in. It sat there, in that position, for the first decade or so of my life.
As a somewhat minxy child of, I don’t know, maybe 7 or 8, its what I climbed up on to try and get a peek at my Christmas presents in their top wardrobe in the weeks running up to the big day. I remember it was a somewhat bland pinkish-brown colour with a shiny floral fabric on the seat; I didn’t particularly like it, but it was always there…part of the familiar furniture of childhood.
Then, at about 14 going on 15, seeking to transform my bedroom into something more like a teenage bedsit, I claimed this chair and gave it a facelift. Under my own steam and spending my own pocket money, I redecorated and transformed my room that summer, making curtains, cushions and pictures, buying rugs and affordable accessories, touching things up with tiny pots of paint. The chair was taken out onto the back lawn, one summer’s day, and painted white and then re-upholstered with an off-cut of blue floral fabric purchased on a market stall that I was so pleased with, a ‘seconds’ run of one of Habitat’s latest designs (and the same one I used to make my own duvet cover), giving it a whole new lease of life. I mostly remember sitting in it to watch the 1984 winter olympics on the Christmas present ‘portable’ of the year before (it was Torville and Dean year!) and loving that it seemed to make my room look so much more like a student room to have this chair with a cushion thrown on it, a tall vase of dried flowers to the side and a small blue side-table for my cup of coffee. It became part of the landscape of the exam years, those three remaining years of endless study in that room before I left for university.
The next encounter with this chair was under the sad circumstance that my mother had died. Orphaned at just 28 (my father died when I was 20), I suddenly found myself inheriting several pieces of furniture that I really didn’t feel logistically or even emotionally equipped to give a home to but which I felt morally bound to take in. This was appropriately symbolic of my overall reaction to the circumstances that gave rise to me inheriting all this old stuff that came tumbling into my house…I wasn’t feeling equipped to handle the death of another parent or the cue card to ‘grow up’ that it seemed to be presenting me with!
Being rather serious and grown-up pieces of furniture to take back to my very first house of just two years’ standing (especially the three-generation hand-me-down, dark-wood sideboard that was suddenly mine), I felt that these heirlooms simply had to be made to fit into my own, rather more modern and quirky, interior. They seemed far too precious, far too representational of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives, and all they had worked for and stood for, to leave behind for the house-clearers, so I squeezed and reorganised and compromised to accommodate them…every bit as much as I contorted myself to become the adult I wasn’t yet ready to be, squeezing ideas into myself that weren’t mine at the same time as putting an outer limit all around the playful edges of the expressive child I used to be.
Being amongst them, this old bedroom chair of mine was given yet another facelift: and as the only place I had space for it was in my sunny yellow dining room, I painted it yellow with gilt highlights and ‘dressed it up’ in a rather serious damask of muted orange and gold, trying to pretend it was the kind of formal chair it was never meant to be. I never really liked it in those colours, it looked a complete misfit in that room and I seldom (if ever) sat in it but there it was for the next few years – a chair for perching on when the phone rang.
When I became a parent myself and moved house, in my thirties, the chair inevitably found its way to the spare room where it sat in a corner, typically buried beneath un-ironed laundry or piles of paperwork; somewhat like me during that era, it could hardly be seen beneath all of life’s every-growing accumulation of meaningless clutter. Though it occasionally surfaced (at those times when the ironing or filing were, miraculously, ‘caught-up’ with or thrown into a cupboard)…sometimes triggering new intentions to find it a better space and make far better use of it…it never resurfaced for long. With sentimentality about old possessions on the wane, there were even times when I considered giving it away to a junk shop.
Fast forward to very recent times…and a new project – the complete reinvention of a space in my home to create what we laughingly yet appropriately call the ‘zen zone’. Forged from a room that has always tended to be a feng shui ‘no man’s land’, this new and tranquil space designed for meditation and yoga has utterly transformed the way that I feel about the upstairs of my house, its warm yellow walls seeming to glow with their own light through the doorway at the end of the corridor, even on the dullest of days. Uncluttered, uncomplicated, timeless…this (as I sit in here writing these words from the informal pile of jewel-coloured floor cushions) is a space that quickly and effortlessly draws you into a state of ‘being’ and so I find that I want to be in here more and more.
Yet, for all that this room has been left almost entirely devoid of furniture, something deep inside of me (and still resilient after all these years) told me that it needed just one chair, positioned in striking relief against the yellow-painted walls, adjacent to the large window where the afternoon sun comes pouring in…
As I peeled back the many layers of old upholstery, ready for another transformation to take place, it felt so profoundly like a trip back through time…first back to my twenty-eighth year and all that was going on for me around then; all those hefty ideas about myself, and what I thought I should be feeling and doing, that I so valiantly attempted to take on (a most satisfying layer to peel away and discard). Then a small nostalgic pause as I found myself gazing back at the fresh blue fabric that was the very essence of my teenage room; as familiar as if I had popped back in there just a short moment ago, to sit in that chair, listening to my music and reading books in the carefree afternoon of youth. Finally, back to the pinky-brown floral of my earliest childhood; again, surprisingly familiar but, after a quick stroke of its silkiness, no particular poignancy that made me want to stay there. Like the whiff of a one-time familiar meal caught as you walk past someone else’s kitchen, without any desire to join their table, I was able to recognise, acknowledge and let the essence of times gone by fleet past me with a surprising yet deeply gratifying amount of detachment. A strong sense of completion came in on the tail of it, as though my own life had just been peeled back with all those old layers of fabric.
This chair suddenly felt like the very metaphor of all that I have managed to do with so many aspects of life over the last year or so – the way I spend Christmas included (dispensing with all the traditions, questioning why I do any of it, taking it all right back to the roots, from where I have reconstructed it the way I like it and now celebrate it unapologetically my way). This thorough peeling back of the fixtures of your life, to base level, allows you to feel into what (if anything) is still resonant, what (if anything) you still enjoy and choose to have as part of your experience. It means no babies are thrown out with the bath water of clearing ‘old’ things out but brings such a degree of consciousness into the way you live your life; not everything is discarded (by a long stretch) but there is no room for anything that is there just because it is inherited but, rather, everything is re-evaluated for what it offers to you in the now.
Yes, reappraised, this still is a lovely chair, one which has a useful and beautiful place as part of my furniture – and never looking lovelier, relieved as it is of all its buried layers and freshly dressed to match where I am in this moment.
Original Lloyd Loom chair painted in Earthborn claypaint ‘Anthracite’ and upholstered with William Morris design ‘Scroll’ (1871) embellished with rambling leaves and yellow marigold flowers. For more on William Morris…Of Peacocks and Dragons
Really interesting post Helen – it resonated with me from when I cleared my mother’s house when she died 4 years ago. I kept lots of ‘stuff’ that I didn’t want to get rid of at the time, most of which is in the loft, other than an old china cabinet which started off in my grandmother’s house. I’ve got to the point now where I know that if I go through the stuff I’ll be able to let go of it – it’s a process. Love your miniatures by the way, particularly 6 and 8!
The sideboard I refer to was from my grandmother’s house too – and was the only furniture transported to Nottingham, from South Shields (your turf) when the family moved there in the 1930s…so I could never part with it. But it can be therapeutic to question your attachment to each piece and re-establish the relationship you still have with any ‘keepers’ whilst letting the rest go to a new home – good luck with your clearing and Happy New Year to you too (and so glad you like the miniatures 🙂 )