Henry David Thoreau, looking back on his time at Walden Pond, once wrote, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” This line is often quoted by people who aren’t talking about chairs, but about bringing a greater sense of simplicity to their lives. When my wife quotes it to me, she is talking about chairs. A few months ago I heard it while sitting in the backseat of our Volkswagen Jetta with the dog on one side of my daughter’s car seat and my wife behind the wheel. In the passenger seat was a vintage George Nelson Coconut Chair in near-perfect condition purchased for a few dollars at a flea market across the state of Michigan from our home in Detroit. “Another chair,” she said, shaking her head. We’d repeat that arrangement with Eames armchair shells and broken Bertoia wire chairs and once a set of seven Steelcase side chairs I bought for a dollar at a community college liquidation auction. “How many chairs do you guys have now?” My in-laws will ask when they visit us. We don’t know for sure. I just know we now have more chairs than we have friends.
It all started when I was at the National Academy of Sciences’ “yard sale” in Golden Gate Park several years ago. The old natural history museum was cleaning out its buildings before renovations, and selling all the stuff from the basement. I was trying to figure out how I was going to get a 6-foot tall stuffed Emu back to my house when I spotted three vintage Wassily chairs over in a corner buried under a pile old geological maps. Unfortunately, two extremely gay men spotted them at about the same time I did, and we were each able to grab only one. Lucky for them, they were a couple, so they got a matching pair. But me, I was left with one $12 Marcel Breuer classic to drag the mile and a half home. My wife was five months pregnant and had no interest in helping me carry it (luckily, bent tubular steel and leather straps are light). As time went on, I just kept accumulating chairs. I simply can’t pass up an Eames shell for less than $10, and here in Herman Miller country, they are everywhere.
It recently got to the point where I had to stop buying chairs. There just wasn’t enough room. So I just started buying smaller chairs. With a 2-year-old and another one on the way, I felt completely justified in giving them comfortable and stylish places to sit around the house. Of course, I refuse to pay more than a few dollars for any chair, especially kids ones. It is nearly criminal to make your kids sit on IKEA when there are so many great kids chairs out there that are so affordable. The best thing about kid’s chairs is that they are only useful to anyone for a few years, so there’s a lot of turnover and that keeps the prices down. Plus, they’re cheaper than adult furniture to ship. When Gabrielle asked if I’d be a “guest dad” on her site, my mind went immediately to writing about how many cool kids chairs are available on eBay for pretty cheap. The following are some of my favorites: Alexander Begge designed several versions of these plastic “Panton-esque” chairs for the Italian company Casalino (Casala in Germany), starting in 1970:
They sell for outrageous prices at high-end vintage design stores (up to more than $200 each) but I have seen them at flea markets and thrift stores for as little as $5 and on eBay for as cheap as $9.99. I have four orange ones, but I’ve also seen them in black white, red, and yellow. Search on eBay for keyword “Casalino” (that word is embedded in the plastic, and even the most unsophisticated eBay seller will use that word to describe the chair). Oftentimes you can buy a set of three or four. Another favorite of mine is the Rene Bertoia child-sized wire side chair:
When Isamu Noguchi first designed his small cyclone side table, Knoll decided to manufacture a limited number of its classic Bertoia wire side chairs scaled down to kid size. The chair and the table made great companions, and you can still find them all the time on eBay. Search eBay for keywords “bertoia child.” There’s usually some competitive bidding for these, but you can find a good deal if the seller doesn’t know what they are, so also try “wire child chair” or “wire kid’s chair.” If identified as Bertoia or Knoll, they sell for anywhere from $80 to $350 depending on condition. I’ve seen them go to savvy bidders for as low as $14.99. Another popular and widely available modern kid’s chair is Cosco’s spaceage 1970s child seat seen here:
Ever since this chair made an appearance on Bravo’s “Top Design” (with Jonathan Adler telling the contestant who put it in his room on a pedestal, “that chair is hot!”) the price of these things on eBay has skyrocketed, usually anywhere between $25 and $70, depending on the color and the condition. This light green seems to be the most common. I have seen this chair at antique stores for as little as $10. They are fairly common, and interestingly they were originally intended for use as car booster seats. There’s a brand new deadstock version of it on eBay right now for $9.99 (1 bid) with the box and literature that show its original use as a car seat. So if you were born in the 1970s, this may be how your parents protected you in the back seat. Search keywords “Cosco vintage” or “Cosco seat.” One of my favorite mid-century designers was Paul McCobb; his stuff is less easily-identified and therefore usually easier to find as a deal. He made a great woven child’s chair back in the fifties that I’ve seen in antique stores and on eBay, though the seller who keeps posting it on eBay wants $125. Still, it’s a beautiful chair. I love the legs:
Now, I’ll admit none of these chairs are really that spectacular. The real pleasure is regularly searching eBay for the keywords “eames child.” Eames has long been a buzzword on eBay for pretty much everything created between 1945 and 1985 that’
s even remotely modern-looking. The results usually range from chairs like the classic real Eames design pictures below to this adorable (and much more affordable) woven rocker.
Finally, my absolute favorite way to find cool kids chairs on eBay is to search for variations of the keywords “school chair” or “vintage school chair.” There have been so many cool chairs used in schools over the last fifty years, and they are almost always dirt-cheap on eBay. Modern school chairs come in all kinds of molded plywood, fiberglass, and steel and plastic varieties. Sometimes you can even find Heywood Wakefield school chairs for a few dollars. I love these chairs ($9.99 for both right now):
We have a half dozen kind of like those. I used to tend to do local eBay searches for chairs like this in order to avoid shipping, though I always found a few here and there at junk shops, too. Just yesterday afternoon, the kid (who started preschool a couple weeks ago) dragged out all her chairs and set them up in her bedroom like a classroom, with a stuffed animal on each one. I knew right then I was in trouble, because she had more chairs than stuffed animals. I figured it was about time to give away all my secrets.