Furniture Design: A beautiful buffet and my sanity

A few weeks ago I realized something. I’m passionate about living spaces. This isn’t really a revelation. What it is is a succinct way to describe how I’m wired. I’ve been interested in residential architecture since I was twelve years old. This new phrase, however, causes me to think differently about choices I’ve made in the past and will make in the future.

I had coffee with Joel Armstrong this morning. Afterwards we put my bike in his van and drove to his house to pick through the treasures in his garage. From there we drove back towards my place. This is where the story gets interesting — and where it relates to my passion for home interiors.

If I were driving we would have turned down Jefferson to get home. Joel stuck to Main Street, which is not really much slower. Main goes through downtown. It goes right by the Siloam Springs building I spoke of a few weeks ago.

When I looked at the building with a realtor two years ago I saw a piece of furniture, an antique buffet. The buffet stood out in the dusty unfinished second floor space. I almost called the owners and asked if I could have it. I regret not doing that. I told my friend who has a contract on the building I wanted it and he said sure, although neither of us knew if it would still be there when he signed the papers.

So Joel and I drove by said building on Saturday. A sign on the window said “free stuff.” We like free stuff (and I knew the buffet might be in there) so we stopped. We wandered into the building and another “customer” pointed out who was in charge. Just as I was about to get the opportunity to talk to the owners, the ones giving the stuff away, the lady right in front of me found one of the doors from the buffet in a pile of stuff. She asked the owner what the door went with and when the owner pointed to the glorious buffet the lady was almost giddy. And claimed it immediately.

The buffet was in better shape than I remembered (other than one of the four curved doors being off of it). It’s about 40 inches tall. I failed to note the flavor of the exterior veneers, but the inside of the doors were birds-eye maple. It boasted clean shelving and built-in drawers for, I assume, silver. Some of the inlay on the outside of the doors needed attention, but I happen to know that the claimer’s husband is a cabinet maker with an enviable wood shop. This same claimer also goes to my church and lives immediately next door to good friends of mine.

Even after she claimed the majestic piece I asked the building owners where it came from. They said it was left by a tenant who couldn’t pay rent. That tenant was apparently a nephew of the late Wal-Mart heiress Helen Walton. History like this adds incredible value to such an antique, although had I been able to take the thing home I would have kept it. I gave this piece of information to the claimer on our way out of the building, infusing her with another round of giddiness. She hurried back into the building to ask more about the history after calling her husband and telling him to “Come now! Bring truck!”.

If I would have stepped into the building 60 seconds earlier the buffet would have been mine. The claimer said she was willing to wrestle for it. I should have taken her up on this offer.

Of course, it seemed we were a couple minutes too late for any of the good stuff. There were two other interesting pieces of furniture — one a disassembled wardrobe as beautiful as the buffet — that the other couple milling around in the junk already claimed. As it was the building owners (reputed in town for their apparent unwillingness to keep up or sell at reasonable prices the many downtown buildings they own) hadn’t even decided amongst themselves what they were giving away or keeping. The one other thing I really wanted, a little balance scale, they decided they were keeping. I would have used the scale for weighing out materials in glaze-making. I went home with a couple antique-y things for my dad, hardly qualifying as any kind of consolation prize.

Is it insane to obsess so much over a dusty old piece of furniture? I spent the next few hours thinking about this whole scenario. First of all I wondered why God, in whom I believe strongly and trust to take care of me (even if this is in ways I don’t understand), would allow me to even see the “free stuff” sign. Why did He pick this Saturday for Joel to insist I go back to his house? Why didn’t I suggest Joel take Jefferson instead of letting him keep driving down Main Street? If we wouldn’t have seen the sign I would never have known what I missed out on, that I was less than a minute from getting this wonderful piece of furniture for free, a piece of furniture I had longed for for two years or more. I would have assumed, after my friend signs the contract on the building in September, that the owners took it with them. It was never guaranteed that I would get it.

And it would have been less torment if we arrived at the building later, after the claimer drove off with the buffet. The claimer who I will now see every week at church, reminding me of my loss. It says in the Bible, in the book of James, that we are to rejoice in tribulation. For me this is tribulation.

I hope I came across as civilized to the claimer. I didn’t take her up on her wrestling challenge. I tried to say encouraging things, although I can’t remember exactly how any of them came out. I remember saying something like, “Well, I’m glad there are other people in Siloam with such good taste.” I’m not sure if this came out in a positive or negative way to the hearers. I did call my friend, the claimer’s neighbor, and suggest he go next door and lust after the beautiful object (said mostly in jest, of course). My friend didn’t do this, which I suppose I should be thankful for.

Part of my interest probably stems from being a dumpster-diver, from my keen interest in salvage and restoration. This was a find, an incredible find. And the claimer knew it. And I’m sincerely happy for her. I’m just quite sad for myself. And my wife, who was with me when we saw the buffet two years ago, is almost as sad.

What will I learn from this experience? Am I supposed to learn something, or am I just supposed to give grace which in turn will make God look good — which I’m perfectly OK with and which God deserves from us. Or maybe I was supposed to wrestle this woman, probably only five years older than me (roughly). Maybe my wrestling her for this beautiful piece of furniture would be kind of like Jesus’ anger at the vendors in the Temple. After all, I do believe that my passionate interest in beautiful, tactile things is a gift from God.

I know, I know, that last one is more than a little bit of a stretch. Truth is I have know idea why God allowed this to happen in my life. I may never know.

Part of the humor in the whole adventure was that Joel didn’t come away with much free stuff either, and he’s as much of a salvage monkey as I am. He kept asking for the junkiest and most obscure little items — an old sign, spools of wire — which the owners of the building decided on the spot they were keeping. Old, half-used spools of steel wire they keep, and significant, wondermous antique furniture formerly owned by the Walton family they give away! How incredibly strange this seems to me!

I know that I will look back on the morning and laugh.

Once I get over my insane sadness. Once I stop kicking myself for not being more aggressive, for not walking into the building and yelling “Where’s the buffet that used to be upstairs? I want it!” which, my wife will tell you, isn’t all that much out of character for me.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

3 Responses to Furniture Design: A beautiful buffet and my sanity

  1. Marylyn says:

    I sympathize, but may I suggest that your feelings about the beautiful object might actually be feelings about many other things in your life, and could be “cathecting,” I think is the Freudian term, around that object. I have been through this about a run-down house with possibilities that was the equivalent of free (it was being offered to us at a very low price because the woman took a shine to us and wanted to get rid of the property to spite a nephew). We were new to real estate and the way people respond about it, and made a wrong request, and lost the opportunity. I felt for weeks afterward as if I’d lost a treasured dream. We eventually did buy a house, but it was not the same. My capacity to feel that way about a house seemed to have been exhausted by that incident, and I think I’m the better for it. More considered and even indifferent in my “lust” for material things. I still have pangs about a guitar I lost and books I’ve given away, though.

  2. TAE says:

    That’s a new idea to me; of course, I’m not a psychologist by any stretch of the imagination, and am not sure I have much respect for Freud. From what I remember of him (which, being not intersted in psychology in this way, isn’t much), he tended to sexualize everything — and apparently this is what cathexis is as well, a part of life from a sexual point of view.

    Sex is a wonderful and incredible part of humanity, but humanity does not revolve around sex in the way that Hollywood, and perhaps Freud, so often suggest.

    And for what it’s worth, I’m basically over the loss of the buffet. It took about 48 hours, and I was truly sad, but I’m not fighting off any melancholy related to the furniture any longer.

  3. Pingback: Currently on view at MOBIA « The Aesthetic Elevator

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