John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Using a plasma cutter, Colin Selig makes couches that would make Hank Hill jump with joy.
I think I've found the one sofa that could possibly replace the cat urine-stained couch that Hank Hill and the guys use to drink beer on in the alley: Colin Selig's curvaceous steel-plate bench, made from slices of propane tank:
This is only one item in an expansive line of upcycled petro-furniture made by Selig, a San Francisco Bay Area native who in a past life studied philosophy at Tufts University. The idea for this artistic pursuit came to him, as it sometimes does to husbands, with a gentle suggestion from the wife that he do some cleaning up around the house. He strolled out onto their property and found himself looking at a large liquified-gas caisson that'd been sitting there for decades.
The craftsman describes what happened next:
A lot of energy had been used to form the thick steel into this shape and it seemed a shame to let it go to waste.
The curved forms stimulated my imagination and I considered possible ways to carefully dissect the tank and reassemble the pieces into a seat.
I was intrigued by the design challenge and ecological statement involved in taking this ubiquitous, utilitarian container out of the waste stream and transforming it into an object more sensual in form and sophisticated in function.
Selig checked the tank for leftover fuel and then whipped out his torch. He removed the convex ends to make arms and a slab of the cylindrical body for a seat and fixed it all together for a hulking yet sleek home accessory. Then, because there was so much tank left, he made a couple of love seats and a chair that incorporated the canister's fiery-red warning label. Here's a video of the process that a friend made:
The furniture may look like nuclear-submarine wreckage that would crush your foot if you dropped it from a moving truck. But Selig claims it's friendly to the buttocks because of the propane tank's factory curves. "After ergonomic research with hundreds of people ranging in size from 4’11” (150 mm) to 6’5” (196 mm) an ideal relative position of seat to backrest has been determined," he writes, "one which provides good lumbar support for a wide range of body sizes. Nearly everyone who sits in these seats is surprised by their comfort."
I asked Selig to give a little detail about his Interior Design-worthy sittables, which in no way will explode in a ball of flame if you light a cigarette. Here are his replies:
Where are you getting the tanks from? How on earth do you transport them?
I buy tanks locally in the SF Bay Area. I transport them on a flatbed truck and use a forklift to unload.
How much effort does it take to cut apart a propane tank?
I cut each piece with a plasma cutter, a process that doesn't take a lot of effort but does take a lot of forethought.
How many propane benches have you made?
I've made about 30 since I made the first one in 2010.
If I wanted to own one, what kind of price tag are we talking about?
To give you an idea of retail prices, chairs are $4-7K, love seats $8,500 and benches $9-11K.
The sustainable furniture has earned Selig some acclaim. He recently took part in a Smithsonian craft show and has had pieces exhibited at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, New York's International Contemporary Furniture Fair and in Neiman Marcus stores throughout the country. Here are examples of his fabrications, beginning with the tank that's no longer cluttering up his yard:
And this piece is a riff on Salvador Dali's 1936 "Mae West" lips sofa:
Photos courtesy of Colin Selig