What is a work of art? Is it something physical that you can hold on to? Is it a story? Is it a piece of fine craftsmanship? Is it an idea?
Many people have written about this, and I guess the answer is that it’s a combination of the above things. Honestly, though, I can’t help but think that a piece of furniture I bought when I was twenty-two is the essence of art. I say this with no sense of wit or irony. It was not a fine eighteenth-century settee, like the below English settee from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was just an ordinary sofa.
English settee, c. 1740 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
I recently found a file of blurry photos of my first apartment in Queens, taken on my now-husband’s (Kevin’s) weird, early-digital-era camera. Because of this, the quality of the photos is quite bad. The images are hazy, as though steeped in the thick fog of my memories of that time. When I was looking at these photos, I noticed a photo of my sofa, and felt a sharp sting of nostalgia. My sage green velvet slipcovered sofa.
My beloved sofa, c. 2002
Right after college, I worked in publishing and lived in a small, rather awful apartment in Long Island City. Around this same time, I came into a smallish/largish amount of money. Not enough to change your life, but more money than you’d blow on a shopping spree at H&M. So, I decided that I’d spring for a nice sofa. Something nicer than the typical twenty-two-year-old first apartment IKEA sofa. So I ordered my slipcovered, sage green velvet couch from Pottery Barn. The delivery guys almost couldn’t fit it through the narrow door into my apartment. But they did and I had the thing for thirteen years.
Without our even realizing it, the sofa became the centerpiece of our (Kevin’s and my) physical lives. It was soft and comforting when we were sick, or at the end of a long workweek; it was big enough to accommodate lots of our friends when we hosted parties; it nursed us through many hangovers; it was the perfect couch to curl up on and watch movies that we actually rented from the at-the-time still extant Blockbuster on Steinway Street. It was both witness and host to our private lives.
It saw meaningful things right from the start. Shortly after I got it, Kevin had a college friend and his new girlfriend come stay with us. It didn’t take long for Kevin to realize that—out of the context of college antics—there was not much of a friendship there. He walked in on the “friend” and his girlfriend having sex on that couch. It was the first of many things the poor sofa would witness. Defilement. The unraveling of a friendship. We got our first cat that same year. Biko. He would sleep on that couch all day and chase nightmarish cockroaches beneath it at night.
The sofa moved with us to a nicer, hipper apartment in Brooklyn. We had a beagle that loved to nestle into the far corner of the sofa. We had a big party during which red wine was spilled on the sofa (which came out) and a splatter of wax dripped onto the left arm (which did not, but thankfully remained mostly hidden under the part where the back cushion met the arm). The sofa was the central feature of our lives in Brooklyn, where I began graduate school, studied for exams, fought with Kevin, and watched Band of Brothers marathons over and over. Then, one July, we carried the sofa through a thunderstorm into a moving truck, and drove it for two days to Minneapolis.
In Minneapolis, Kevin and I huddled under blankets and watched Planet Earth, keeping warm in our under-heated apartment building when the thermometer didn’t go above zero for days at a time. It comforted us through a bad year when my grandfather died, both of our mothers became ill, Biko died, and Kevin’s childhood dog died. But it also was the scene of our engagement and served as a playground for our two new kittens. We moved again, to a bigger, nicer apartment. And again, when it had to stay in storage for a year, while our lives remained complicated.
When I saw our sofa again, as we moved it into a modest Philadelphia row-house, it finally looked tired and old and a bit sad to me. It occurred to me that we should consider getting a new sofa. But it was so comfortable. The arms were just the right size to rest a drink on without fear of it falling off. The cushions were soft and comfortable. It was commodious. I loved it and we had been through so much together. Plus, sofas are expensive, and we couldn’t justify the expense.
So we kept our sofa. We kept it through my pregnancy and the birth of my son. The back cushions began to sag more. It got gross stains from spit up and breast milk. I hated how shabby it was looking, but I also loved it for the scars it bore. For the story of our life that it told.
Finally, we decided to move to the West Coast. Fresh start. Time to get a new sofa. Something stylish. Maybe with a tufted back. And definitely no skirt. Something modern and stylish! So, when we packed up the second of our Philadelphia row-homes, I called a local charity that sells used furniture so I could donate it. I was too busy to think much about this. I just did it. But when the two men showed up to take it away that day in late July last year, I felt an unexpected ache as I saw the worn velvet piping around the seat cushions and the spot of wax on the arm. And to be honest, I can hardly think about that sofa without tearing up.
We do have a stylish new sofa now. It looks great, but is uncomfortable and bears none of the scars I loved so much about that worn, green sofa. Our new place is starting to feel familiar. But without the green sofa that defined every home I’ve had since 2002, it has taken some time to feel like home.
This is the first time I’ve really analyzed that sofa. Which is a silly exercise, I suppose. But I can unequivocally say that our old sofa was a work of art. It wasn’t a work of art when I bought it in 2002, but by 2015 it was. If art is supposed to stir emotions, tell stories, and have a mark on its environment, there is absolutely zero doubt that our sofa was a work of art. I think I’ll miss it forever.