Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Have a seat.
Aditi Mehta was in India two years ago for a family wedding when she wandered down a street in Jodhpur and came across the kind of totally inexplicable scene you can only find in a chaotic city. Sitting atop a mess of construction rubble on the side of the road were two battered red-velvet armchairs, looking, Mehta thought, just like an inseparable elderly couple.
She pulled out her camera and took a photo, because why wouldn’t you photograph that? The sight was hilarious and mysterious. Who had been lounging on these things in the midst of a construction site? And how did they get here? The chairs were both out of context and unsurprising; abandoned street furniture is part of the scenery of cities everywhere.
But we’re not doing this particular sight justice, so here's the picture Mehta snapped:
Mehta, who was then a master’s student at MIT, photographed similar sights in other cities, just for her own amusement. When she had what looked like a small collection, she posted it on CoLab Radio, a blog of the Community Innovators Lab at MIT.
"Two things started happening," she says. "First, people started commenting and really talking about how the chair was so anthropomorphic, kind of giving it a human identity, which we found really funny."
The other thing that started to happen is that people began to send in their own street-chair finds from all over the world. And these chairs came to take on their own little narratives: here we have "lost beach chair hopes for a BBQ" and "shadow of her former self chair" and "city chair takes a vacation."
It turned out that a woman who had recently relocated from Russia to study at Columbia University had been taking portraits of abandoned Russian chairs for years. And an American working in Myanmar had been collecting his own images there of old chairs with new homes in public spaces. In Myanmar, this furniture is never really abandoned. It’s repurposed:
"One thing I’ve been hearing from the people who started contributing and doing this with me is that at first, they never noticed this, nobody paid attention," Mehta says. "Now they feel like every corner they turn, they see some sort of abandoned chair."
When Mehta had amassed a couple dozen contributions last fall, the Community Innovators Lab put on an international pop-up show of abandoned street chairs, mailing poster-sized photos of all the findings to contributors all over the world. The posters were simultaneously hung in public spaces, and – much like the original chairs they documented – many of them quickly disappeared.
Now Mehta, who is returning to MIT to pursue a Ph.D. in urban studies and planning, is working on collecting the images, about 75 and counting, into a book that the lab will self-publish later this year. And so, if you happen to pass by a sad sofa or street chair on your own block, Mehta would love to see it (“We are missing the Midwest,” she says, “we want to get more chairs from the Midwest!”). She has about a month left to get more images into the book (send them here: colabradio@MIT.edu).
Each image in the expanding collection suggests a slightly different story, about a street corner where neighbors casually congregate, or a homeowner who has upgraded to some sofa replacement, or a family that may have shed its furniture in foreclosure.
"There’s this quality of destruction to them, and sometimes the titles are sad," Mehta says. "A lot of them can look lonely sometimes because they’re by themselves, and they’re sort of misfits in the urban environment. But I think ultimately what happens is that it’s funny that a chair can represent that."
Loneliness, that is. Or any of the other human emotions that have been ascribed to these inanimate objects (longing for BBQ!). There’s also something sort of endearing about the universality of discarded furniture. This stuff sits on street corners all over the world.
"When I started, I was thinking more of the sociology perspective," she says. "I was just so fascinated that wherever I went, I would see them. The places could be radically different, and I’d still see them. So it was sort of like this idea that even though we’re all different, we’re still the same."
You can view the whole collection here, but we've reproduced some of our favorites below:
Retired Gangsta Chairs
Suburban Street Couch
Snob Chair Snubs the Dump
Chairs at War
All images courtesy of CoLab Radio. The top image, taken on Philip Street in New Orleans, was contributed by Jackie Dadakis.