The Sentimentality of Things

Recently I lucked upon a 1903 Craftsman library table at a local secondhand store. It was battered and the table top was damaged but a quick once-over revealed that it was otherwise solid quatersawn oak with mortise and tenon joinery instead of nails or screws. I gleefully paid the $60 price tag without haggling and had Jeff help me shove it in the back of the car.

I snapped a photo of it and texted it to my mom, who spent my youth refinishing antique furniture and whom I knew would appreciate my find. She coached me through the handwork necessary to bring back a 120 year old piece of furniture while honoring its integrity. I didn’t want to modernize it, but rather to gently bring back its beauty to what it would have been. (I admit I am someone who usually (not always) cringes in pain at folks painting and flipping vintage wooden furniture.)

In order to protect the wood, I sanded everything by hand. It took days, and my shoulders ached and my hand had numb spots. Each time I imagined I was done, I would find another little spot where just a bit more sanding would remove the decades of grime. I suspected what was under the near-black layers of buildup on the old stain. but I wasn’t quite prepared. Before sanding, and after:

The whole thing went this way. Deep grime gave way to gorgeous quatersawn flake. (This is usually found on old furniture, where the wood is sawn at an angle to bring out the depth of the growth rings.) The table had build-in bookshelves on each end, and was meant to be floating in a room, where it could be a work table and also hold necessary books and supplies close at hand. Hence, “library table.” Anyway I could go on about the beauty of old furniture crafstmanship, but know this piece is remarkable and I appreciate the hell out of it.

Honestly, a couple of times working on it I caught my breath. It’s just beyond beautiful, and perfectly encapsulates the design and mission/craftsman movement of the very early twentieth century. Natural materials and their simple beauty were embraced and showcased. As a point of fact, those small pyramids on the corners? Those are the tops of the solid oak legs, which continue unbroken through the desk top. The same grain is on the bottoms of the feet.

Now I have a predicament. The piece is sanded, moisturized, stained, oiled, and restored. I have temporarily placed it in my living room while I try and figure out how to rearrange the Jenga-tower that is my home. With two adults working from home, and 3 kids still at home full-time, two of whom are also home-schooling (covid is not over for the immunocompromised) we have had to make use of every corner of our not-large (by American standards for a family of six) home. The dining room has been transformed into Jon’s home office, the front room is the kids’ school space, the boys are doubled up in the basement, the girls have their own space, and I took over the smallest bedroom (9′ x 10′) as my law school classroom and office.

Because my room is so small and because I spend so much time in there, I have carefully curated my setup. Its a good room, but because the space constraints are so tight—even with my tetris skills—the options on arrangement are limited. I use an old console table as my desk that was a gift from my brother-in-law. It’s narrower that a typical desk, it wobbled a bit, and the finish is scarred from years of writing and law school. I do not love it…and yet I discovered this week that I am oddly attached to it.

I have a gloriously restored 120 year old desk that takes my breath away. I spent several hours and generated a lot of chaos and mess rearranging my tiny room in an attempt to make the desk work. It’s hard to fit a 4-foot wide floating desk in a 9-foot wide room and still have functional shelves and space around it. It may be impossible. But in the process of trying, I realized that my working desk has actually become quite sentimental to me, despite my general lack of appreciation for its design. It’s quite functional for the space I have, and besides that, we’ve been through a lot together.

I imagine my working desk feeling bad at being replaced after years of service, and I laugh at my own absurdity. And yet, here I sit, my trusty computer perched upon the scarred and slightly uneven familiar surface as its always been. I once again measure out the room and reimagine all the possible configurations, while the restored library table waits downstairs.

I wonder what I will do.