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Marcel Breuer Chairs

I impulse buy furniture.

I don’t know where Dad got those chairs from. The first dining table they came with collapsed one night. Let me backtrack.

So, we moved in some time around my birthday in 1993 or 1994. Parsippany in my mind was a single, long pearl necklace of Chinese and Indian strip malls bisected by an arterial road running north-south.

We were in the “top left” quadrant of that map. In a bland, mid-century rash of red brick apartments. Later, I’d learn a few hold-out old-school descendants of colonists lived in the hills. Lone, almost-shacks of disenfranchised elderly white people without pearls to clutch, but still lost and wounded at the site of a town that had since gone gloriously brown.

Four units to a building. Each unit had a dedicated parking spot. There was a playground with a broad and flat plastic turtle. Inside the turtle was sand and cat pee. I rarely heard English, unless it was in our house. Mostly, it was Russian, Cantonese, Ukrainian, Urdu, Hindi, and Viet.

Our home was one living room, a kitchen, a dining room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom.

The living room is full of VHS tapes, my dad’s polycarbonate steel tube desk with formica top, a sofa and love seat: both in vertical stripes of dove grey and off-white.

The dining room has a slightly worn, birch veneer set: steel tube oval dining table. And re-creation Marcell Breuer chairs. I remember rocking on them, back and forth. My mother often told me not to play with the chairs. “They’re not toys.”

The first dining table was wide, oval, and filled up most of the room. At some point, it gave way and collapsed. We replaced it with a slightly smaller, circular one in the same birch finish.

In immigrants’ houses, you rarely find furniture that’s a deliberate, aesthetic choice. It’s usually something from Foreman Mills or some other discount emporium. Furniture from a place that advertises on local news channels. It’s not the furniture from magazine ads. Your ya-ya likely wouldn’t be de-husking corn in a chair featured in an Architectural Digest profile of Axel Vervoordt.

These chairs weren’t like the chairs in my friends’ houses. They were cantilever, un-chicly midcentury in their blocky S-profile, and with imitation birch wood and caned backs harkening to some nondescript tropical fantasy island. In the early to mid 90’s, I saw a lot of middle class people’s homes gravitating towards a bland, uncontroversial approach to Memphis Milano or Colonial Composite Board.


Bottom > front > seat > back rest. That’s the path the steel tube goes on to form a shape that’s almost like an S. They’re actually called “Cesca” chairs. The original ones were designed by Marcel Breuer in 1928 or 1927.

Not for one second did I think they were covetable. I don’t even think it was humbleness. They were common. Knoll’s had them in continuous production since 1968. They were ubitquotous in J.C. Penney catalogues since then, up until the mid to late 90’s when they were considerably dated compared to the more Memphis-derivative plastic furniture they sold at Bradlee’s or Caldor.

Platonic Ideals of tables and chairs

The chairs, and the large circle table, moved with us to Mt. Olive, where they stayed in the kitchen until they were replaced by a more conventional-looking IKEA set. At the time, it seemed like progress.

The new set had a much smaller footprint, with four diminutive seats. Four legs apiece grounded to the floor. The table and chairs both looked like the platonic ideals of what they were supposed to be. Unadorned composite board in a middling brown finish. They were the chairs and tables illustrated in foreign language textbooks. Looking back on it, I realize we got that new set around the same time we became American citizens.

I should have tracked the shift in dynamic. I’m sure it was noticeable at the time, but I forget how.

Impulse Buying Chairs

The Cesca chairs left with my brother when he went to college. From there, I don’t think I cared much what happened to them. They were thrown out when he moved away from that house he shared with his friends. I didn’t really think about them again for years, until I started seeing one or two pop up in pictures. Instagram, Apartment Therapy posts, an editorial or ad for purses probably.

The caned back was returning, too. I remember rattan was something…old. It was usually painted something pastel, and in a sunroom or a house on the Delaware shore. I think this is what I was remembering when I saw the re-recreation Cesca chair at Retrospect. The caned back was golden tan and painted to match the molded wood. Tubed steel curving, and supporting a four button-tufted brown seat. I tested it out. It felt secure. And I didn’t have a kitchen table, let alone space for one so it’d be more of an accent chair.

At this point I'd impulse-bought more than a few chairs. I'd be content with an adult life that was little more than Animal Crossing. You know, dragging chairs home from the dump, bartering with a raccoon for them. That kind of thing.

I think my impulse is iterative, or modular. Like I'm collecting furniture for rooms I'll likely inhabit at some point. The Cesca chair is for a kitchen table that I haven't met yet.

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