No book exists without a writer, and no writer exists without a desk and chair. Organized desks, messy desks, empty desks. Antique desks, donated desks, glass art piece desks. I have had them all. And I am mad for chairs. I collect chairs. Over the years, massage therapists have told me it’s time to change my writing desk, and osteopaths have made me change my chair. House and country moves have necessitated giving a favourite desk away. Apartments have needed tiny ones; my house in California had a whole room just for my desk. As a literary critic, I have started to wonder if some of the best and worst lines in literature might be traced back to a perfectly beautiful desk or a deeply uncomfortable chair cushion. And I notice the pilgrimages to the homes of long-dead writers, just so we can view the desk and chair from which the work was made. Writers love desks. I love desks. All homes should have one.
I have always been fussy about style. I can’t sit in a cheap padded chair, however comfortable. I don’t want a corporate office desk in my own home. I want beautiful furniture, but I have learned it has to function. The writing life is full of wires, post-its, printed pages and coffee cups.
When you’re a writer, you work all day in a 2D space, the third dimension of your mind all the while feeding you images, ideas and corrections. You spend hours every day in the same position, looking at a screen of black type on white-lit background. You imagine your work in print, and know that all your vision and hope for communication have to come from nothing more than the two-dimensional page in the reader’s hands. In some sense your inner mind learns to work within the parameters of two dimensions, and they are all your craft will ever give you. It matters that writers recognize the importance of their 3D space to being efficient in their 2D space. I wasn’t acutely aware of this until I met Ian and realized I walk a two hours a day to let my back move. I get up to make tea because my chair isn’t right. With the right desk chair, I might actually stay sitting and get a chapter finished!
I have met Ian twice to talk about this desk. I love it because his mind is so different from mine, and comes from such a different background of training. He is instantly in three dimensions when you talk to him, structuring, imagining and problem-solving with the extra dimension of physical depth. For that alone–just being around someone who can create so well in such a different way from me–this project is already very fulfilling and its potential is exhilarating to us both. Because he thinks naturally in 3D, Ian troubleshoots out loud as I am thinking out loud. He thinks about hidden wire outlets and storing manuscripts in a horizontal plane. He thinks about chair ergonomics, and things that can move up, down, left, right. Even flip. Talking to him, I want to shut my eyes, imagine myself in an empty office, and see what he describes appear around me. Everything he says when we meet is about creating a perfect tangible reality around the author, in which I might be able to write more efficiently, more creatively, more thoughtfully. Mostly because there won’t be post-its and open books and coffee rings everywhere, and my chair won’t have me on the chiropractors table every month. Is this a dream project? Yes! Ian met me after I had sent him a list of about twenty things that I wanted to avoid in the design of this desk and chair. I know them from years of every type of desk there is. Currently I have a painted old wooden desk with deep drawers on either side of me, all too deep and too messy. It’s less cold to lean my forearms than the modern glass one I had, but it’s perhaps not as stylish. I paint it every few months to cover the new tea mug stains. I sat at my desk and noticed all the things I would change that might make my working day better. I hadn’t really thought about it before. My chair doesn’t fit well with the desk. I have a laptop and a Mac on it, and an iPhone, and cords. They are all over. I have physical pieces of paper everywhere. A few reference books. Typically a vase of flowers and a candle. Bright colored post-it notes with odd sentences I like on are strewn everywhere, and will likely never be found again. One drawer is so full of notebooks, I can’t open it. There could be a new book in there. We can do better here! Ian told me the only material I can’t have is plastic, which was never something we’d fall out about. Other than that, most things are fair game. I even asked him about quartz or tourmaline dust inlays. I mean, I did live in California! We want to make a desk and chair that all writers will want to try. Ian wants to bring a solution to a problem. I want to make something irresistible. Watch for updates.
Stefan has worked internationally in furniture production for a lot of years. He’s a dream to work with because he’s both laid back and very positive. He also seems to knows what he is doing! You give him an idea and his answer is always the same easy smiling response, which is that if he can make it happen, it’ll happen. You want a desk to light up when the sun goes down? You want it to come in two sizes by next September? You want it to have deluxe nails to hold it together? He looks thoughtful for less than a second and smiles. He’ll figure it out. He is the third wheel to our exciting project and the grounding force.
Stefan was in the UK this week and we sat to talk about my list of yeses and nos and Ian’s first design. The nos were not all that long. I got a manufacturing budget (which will instantly go to Ian, who knows what he is doing), and it seemed generous to me. I heard about possible curved woods, or bended materials, or inlays, or plain fancy woods, or shaped glass, or golden hardware. So many options to choose from for the ultimate writing desk. Leather for a chair? Wood? Steel? Everything so far seems on the table so long as I sign off on a design by July so it can be prototyped, and can appear at the Design Fair in London next September. Stefan’s job, he said of himself, is simply to deliver what Ian and I come up with. You can tell he enjoys his work, and he likes keeping fairly quiet around creatives unless they bring him a challenge that is just too much to be feasible. His comment reminded me of my days at Penguin when an editor would ask a production assistant if we could print and deliver a hot new book in about two months. They’d almost faint. Stefan warned me some people don’t think very well about the translation from technical design to the physical manifestation. Ian isn’t one of them, he assured me. They have worked together before. But he looked at me gently so I could reassure him that I am not going to be one of those people either. (I gave him an improvised nod: I mean, I have never envisaged a working piece of furniture before, never mind the ultimate writer’s desk and chair.) Chairs, he said are tough. There are one hundred things that can go wrong with a chair. He explained using the simple wooden dining chair he was sitting on as an example. I haven’t told him yet that I asked Ian for a chair that could turn into a reading chair, and could move, and be comfortable, and yet still not look like a padded black fake leather chair of the type that break me into hives on first sight. I’m leaving that memo to Ian.
Stefan just took in my questions, and smiled a relaxed European smile. You talk it, Ian makes it, I’ll deliver it, he said. I just can’t have marble slabs, he said. They are cold to write on. Other than that, go enjoy! You could make a romance hero out of him.
Ian and I sat in the sun overlooking a huge field, which overlooked another huge field, and another. Eventually, in the distance, we could just see the sea. The fields were empty but for a few cows with new calves, and the sun was up but mellow, as it tends to be in England. I wanted to put a desk in the middle of that first field, breathe some fresh country air, and start writing. What could we do with a desk design, I thought, to bring someone that sort of experience every day, even if they sat in a busy central London office or in an apartment on 5th Avenue, New York City? Fresh, light, uplifting, non-intrusive and enabling. They were the words coming to me. Behind us, Ian’s new house was coming slowly into form. Once a tear-down 1950s bungalow, now the perfect vision of him. Straight lines, sleek, airy, flat roof, open spaces, big vistas of windows, light woods. A house to work around an artist, an an art form in itself.
Here’s how Ian works. He gave me a tea. “Sit down,” he said. The table we sat at was round and the chair was wooden. Temporary, while the builders were in. He was watching me casually, head gently titled. At home with his skill. “How would you write something?” he said.
I was in my mind immediately, inventing a story set on this beautiful land, leaning back in my chair, eyes up. “No!” he laughed. “Actually physically how would you write something? Use this table. Imagine a keyboard or a pen.”
“I am writing!” I said. “In my head! Writers walk, pace, lean back, put their head on their desks, fiddle with the mouse, scratch their heads, drink a lot of tea, and so on!”
“So do designers,” he said, thinking about it.
“So does everyone with a desk then.”
It was fun, watching each other in process. He started making notes, sketching, smiling.
“Would it help if your chair had a lever to pull? You could lie right back like that to think without having to slump down in it to the hard edge?” He is an inward laugher and his eyes were telling me his innards were laughing.
“Yes! But not some awful lever chair like from an office supply store!” Perhaps I faked vomit sounds.
“I’ll pretend not to be insulted by that comment,” he said.
“Sorry.” I looked again at the house behind me, half built, as sleek, beautiful and functional as could possibly be. “I am sorry.”
I did the acting of writing, and he drew and asked questions. I showed him physically how frustrating it is when drawers are stuck, or my forearms are uncomfortable on a desk’s surface, or when there are piles of stuff all over but nowhere to put anything but the bin. I performed an Oscar-worthy meltdown scene, in which my editor was asking for 5000 new words by tomorrow because production wanted a book on different stock and I just could not get into a comfortable physical, emotional or mental space. This had happened to me. It was cathartic to relive it.
“I see. The perfect desk,” he mused. “The perfect desk. How do we make a perfect desk?”
We looked at the words I’d said again. Fresh, light, uplifting, non-intrusive and enabling. We talked materials, comfort, bringing what was in the mind into physical manifestation in the most efficient way. We talked straight lines around the body versus a soft curve. Which is nicer to sit at? We let ourselves want this to be a nice experience, sitting at this desk, even though my English teacher once said no writer should ever use the boring word “nice”. We talked hidden but accessible storage. We talked tea stains (or coffee stains if I’m in the US, or you are in the US). His style was there in all the sketches. Trademark Ian. This isn’t going to be maximalist. It isn’t going to be plastic. It isn’t going to be a bling statement you’ll never use. It’s going to look like it could live just fine in a Yorkshire field.
“Now how do we keep to a budget Stefan won’t faint at, and make it wow?” I said. Production people like the word budget as much as artists hate it. I use it in such meetings to sound like I know at all what I am talking about when in three dimensions.
“What do you want?” he said.
“I want a swing out piece that I can use if someone is in my home or office. I want to face them at my desk without moving my computer, and I want us both to be able to talk and work. Not head on talking, and no cables all over. Effective communication space for creative types at home or work.”
“I can work with that,” he said.
“Can I also have build in dimmable strip lights?” I said.
“I don’t know. Ask Stefan. You can have the lights from your computer and if we can budget it, lights. I’d love it but I want this to be an accessible enough budget. Maybe a little bit spendy but in reach.”
“Can I have a personal butler to bring me tea because I’m so happy at my desk I just don’t want to get up and make it myself?”
And they say Yorkshire men are stingy.