Interesting, Yet Outdated, Furniture

Writing about traveling bookcases and other dead media storage solutions got me thinking about other furniture that always seems pregnant with possibilities, yet just isn’t practical anymore: secretary desks, and travel desks.

I love all the cubby holes in the secretary desks. Holes full of letters, bills, and checks. Drawers containing pens, ink wells, and seals. All of it lockable. Its very structure conveys, “Important stuff happens here.” Need to do serious work on the go? Get a travel desk, the attache case’s awkward cousin.

While tasks like answering correspondence and paying bills have remained, the form they have taken has changed. No longer are we physically shuffling atoms around, but rather simply information. Email, online banking, and all the rest has replaced paper. Similarly, we no longer need travel desks, as our laptop contains everything that the desk, could and much more. Add a network connection, and almost nothing is out of reach. It seems increasing clear that physical media is dying. Newspaper circulation is down. CD sales have fallen. DVD and bluray are now seen as a transition technology as streaming is becoming increasingly widespread. (Thus Netflix’s price hike.) With the advent of eReaders and tablet computers, even the books and magazines seems in danger.

We’re losing the need to deal with physical items, and as a side effect, it seems like we’re losing an ability to signal our tastes; which is ironic, given how personalization and sharing has taken over the web. When visiting someone’s home, we would occupy ourselves by perusing each other’s bookshelves. The books, CDs, and DVDs were essentially the tag clouds of the physical world. They weren’t there just for storage, but also to signal our personality. Our collections not only express how we see ourselves, but also how we want others to see us.

Case in point: My CD collection. For years, I my CD collection was “abnormally” small. I guess I trace it back to when my parents gave me a CD player for Christmas in high school, but no CDs. (My mom rightly said that was because she had no idea what CD I would want.) I eventually went out and bought – for reasons I can not explain other than I was a 14 year old in 1991 that listened to the same Southern Illinois top 40 station he grew up with – Boys-II-Men’s Cooleyhighharmony. (This &endash; along with three other CDs &endash; I would eventually disown by removing them from my collection.) I had no idea about music, and being an adolescent, I aped my friends’ tastes. By the time I went to college, I believe I had twelve CDs, only about nine of them did I take to college. (The afore mentioned Colleyhighharmony was not one of them.) I tended to avoid purchasing CDs because they seemed expensive, and I got burned by a bad purchase or two. As a a result, my collection was heavily weighted towards They Might Be Giants and R.E.M., because that’s what my friends listened to. In one since it was outsider music, since no one at Z-R besides Billy listened to that, yet I was buying it to fit in. I didn’t always care for the music in my collection. I enjoyed it, but I was embarrassed by wanting something harder and louder. None of my friends owned Nevermind.

I always knew my collection was small, but going to college and seeing people bring in box containing a hundred CDs just made it clear just how small my collection was. I felt inadequate. Like I missed out something important.

I decided to correct this. By the end of college, I think I doubled my collection to about 20, and my tastes expanded to include Nine Inch Nails. As my friend John can attest to, this was due to conscious effort to change my musical tastes to fit in. I wanted “CS music,” and Nine Inch Nails and Ministry were it. When I got my first job, I decided to greatly expanded my CD collection. My goal was 100 CDs. I thought only then would I have I a collection that was a socially acceptable size. I went expanding my collection with gusto. Every week I went to the Arlington Height’s Best Buy on Palatine Road and would buy three CDs. (I think there was a deal when you bought at three.) I bought the entire Nirvana catalog. I bought the entire Alice in Chains catalog. I bought and bought. Anything that struck me as interesting at the time I bought. Grunge died sometime just prior to the turn of the 21st century, and so I experimented with the early aughts fad of electronica. Aphex Twin and Massive Attack being two of the better pickups from that era. When I went to grad school, I turned to used CDs to feed my habit. (I can thank P-Mac in Carbondale for my Jesus and Mary Chain collection.) During this time, even as I crossed the 200 mark, I still felt like my collection was small. It wasn’t until someone saw it and said, “You have a lot of CDs,” did I realize that my collection was now kind of large. It is about 240 now. (During the height of my buying spree, I could have told you exactly how large it was.) It’s so large, that when I transferred it from shelves to the media cabinet it nearly filled it to capacity. (Ironically, the whole point to the media cabinet was that I had outgrown the need to display – and thus be validated by – a wall of plastic disks.)

Prior to my move to California, I ripped the entire collection to MP3 and carried it in a 250 GB external hard drive. That’s when the advantages of leaving behind a physical form really came clear to me. I’ve bought some CDs since then. Maybe 10 or 15 (The last CD I bought was the Social Network’s soundtrack.) but mostly I’ve downloaded music. Having rooms devoted to collections no longer interest me. (Thus the desire to having a closable cabinet for the CDs.) Yet, I miss the social signals. Sean Bonner seems to have had a similar experience with books.

But what replaces the bookshelf? The tablet computer on the coffee table? No. Picking up, and using another’s device without permission is too much. The bookshelf was passive. Guests couldn’t help but look at it, as it was part of the environment. We still have the need / desire to send social signals passively. Picking an item out of the displayed media collection allowed one to immediately break the ice with strangers. It solved the chit-chat problem. If our bookshelves are empty, what fills this need? A tag cloud and digital slide show on a framed tablet, ala iPad + Velcro = ♥? A wunderkammer full of physical objects that can’t be digitized? I don’t know, but having a terabyte external drive hooked up to my TV, and Netflix queue just doesn’t cut it.

It seems like there’s a need for furniture to update to our nonphysical needs. Perhaps the furniture needs to integrate with our digital world. Not like those atrocious “computer desks” of yesteryear, but maybe something else.