Archive for April, 2008


A year ago I bought a small stool from East Africa. It’s old, though no one knows how old. It’s very heavy. It is less than two feet tall. It has no joints, being hewn from one piece of wood. The seat is round and deeply concave, like a bowl for kneading bread. The surface is dark and burnished from use. It has three thick legs that curve out horizontally just before they touch the floor. 


The longer this stool sits in my house, the more it intrigues me. I find it surprisingly comfortable. Its round, solid form beckons me whenever I walk by. It’s just the right size for an adult, yet oddly, just the right size for a child as well. My eight-year old likes to sit in it cross-legged. When she is not using it, her (stuffed) iguana can often be found napping there. My six-year old delights in rolling marbles into the warm, worn bowl shape of the seat. My husband carries the stool upstairs to use when he gives the kids baths and downstairs again to keep them company at their drawing table. 


I bought the stool primarily because I loved it, and only secondarily because I needed a chair. But, it gets more use than many other chairs in our house. It grows out of the floor like a tree, and despite being surrounded by the straight lines of a modern American dwelling, it seems connected to the earth. It makes our other furniture look soulless – just sitting there, not alive, not growing, and not talking to us. Our other furniture doesn’t get along as well with my children either. This stool, in contrast, doesn’t break when it gets tipped over, its joints don’t loosen, spilled foods are easily wiped off, and crayon “accidents” don’t show.


This stool has got me thinking about good design. It has been around for decades, and the longer it is used the more valuable it becomes. Its luster deepens; it becomes a part of new lives and new stories. It speaks to young and old alike. When it finally cracks apart (though it seems designed to withstand being stepped on by an elephant) it can be thrown safely into the woods to feed the soil. The person who made it certainly had great skills, and probably enjoyed making it. How fundamentally different it is from virtually everything we surround ourselves with. 


Yet people who design with the health of the environment in mind, think about just these issues. We should make things that last a long time, so that we use our resources efficiently. When possible, things should be versatile enough to be used in different ways — not just have one purpose and be discarded. We should avoid making things that add toxins to our air or water. The process of producing the things we use should call upon a variety of skills and creativity, so that people’s jobs are fulfilling rather than drudgery.


I’ve done some research about my stool, but have mostly come up empty-handed. No one is even sure exactly where it comes from, or which people made it. But, somehow, with its longevity, its weight, its artistry, its versatility, and its mysteries, this stool has been talking to me about a different way of living.

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