The Bishop’s Desk

When I was younger, I entertained the notion of being a writer.

I had some poetry and some morbid little short stories (which have fortunately “gone missing”) published in a local magazine before I went off to college. While I was there, futurist Noel Perrin took an interest in me and encouraged me to write; he even told me that he was certain that “one day your science fiction writing will make you a great deal of money.” I always thought that prediction was a bit odd, since as a naive student I was at the time more concerned with the quality of my work (or what I imagined was the quality) than renumeration, and no doubt my failure to become a great writer probably disappointed Perrin, assuming he remembered me at all following my time at Dartmouth.

Still, the impulse to write fiction occasionally arises in me. For years, for instance, I have toyed with the idea of retelling the unfortunate story of Balin le Savage from Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, formatted as an illustrated “children’s book.” And recently, I discovered that John Bellairs, the author of some of my favorite novels, began a sequel to The Face in the Frost entitled The Dolphin Cross. The latter was unfortunately left unfinished at the author’s premature death in 1991, at 73 pages, with no hint of the eventual fate of the main character Prospero – left lone and powerless on an unknown northern shore, unsure of fate of his country, his friends, and even his marvelous house at the hands of a mysterious tyrannical usurper. For my own satisfaction, I’d love to provide Prospero’s tale with some closure, even if my attempt to complete the story would forever remain a private one.

Of course, if one’s going to write, one needs a desk at which to do it.

(This is a falsehood, for me at least: I of course never write on paper, if I can help it. I write – or rather, type – on a keyboard, on the same computers with which I draw and draft. I don’t need a desk for writing per se…but if I had another desk for paperwork and what not I might have a less-cluttered workstation in my office, and I might be less inclined to distraction when I did undertake some writing.)

Coincidentally, a few weeks past I pulled what seemed to be a small wooden writing table out of a snowbank where it had been discarded. I discovered, after I had dragged the filthy wet thing inside, that it was damaged beyond usability. Only the turned legs, the sides, the four-space drawer, and the base of tobacco-colored wood (probably a stained poplar) were actually intact; the writing surface, obviously as the result of earlier repairs, was a botched mess. Judging by the slotted screws and square nuts that secure these near-worthless scraps together, I would imagine that this piece probably predates the more sophisticated fasteners that appeared shortly before the second World War, but I am no expert on such things. Let us make the assumption that it was ever and only an unexceptional, inexpensive twentieth-century reproduction of some unexceptional, inexpensive nineteenth-century original.

Yet, if it was functional – if the writing surface was replaced – this foundling would fit nicely in the space in front of my library where I have envisioned placing a small desk.

Of course, the compulsion to design will creep into even the smallest undertaking: as opposed to simply slapping a piece of ply down across the base and pronouncing desk-as-done, I find myself toying with elaborations, some more practical than others. Wouldn’t it be nice if the lamp would built-in? Wouldn’t it be interesting if the cups for holding pencils and so forth were part of the desk as well? What would happen if the replacement wrtiting surface curved up on one corner…?

A hundred or so model iterations later: the corner does curl up, after a fashion, in slats. It’s a complicated assembly of deliberately basic bits of carpentry. There are pencil cups in the crevices between the slats, and an iron arm pokes up behind the curl to hold a single shaded bulb. There’s a switch, in a rusty handibox, equipped with a superfluous-but-working ruby-neon pilot light, attached to the arm….

Or rather, there will be once I build this thing. Once again, I propose to take advantage of the near-infinite amount of salvaged construction material stored in the basement below my office in order to realize this unlikely repair, or perhaps rehabilitation, or maybe – we should use an architectural term, I suppose – intervention. Even the angle-iron is discarded-pulled-from-dumpster. I must have a couple dozen feet of it, in various odd lengths, laying in the coal cellar and gradually rusting away. But I may be running short of excess “Million-Dollar Red” latex paint. (Let’s pretend the red-drippy-patterned finish on the new writing surface is a reference-obscure to a disturbing character, “The Bishop,” in Bellair’s unfinished manuscript. But really that’s also a falsehood: I simply like the particular tint.)

I always consider a full-out rendering a necessity for a project, even where I am my own client, in order to test the design one last time before committing resources and effort. To my great surprise (it’s as if someone else creates these things, not-quite-me), this composite view satisfied my requirement. The background is not a fabrication: the library is a stylized photograph of the one in my office, which I designed in 1996. And the chair, which I actually intend to use in this location, is a real thing, a bit of Hollywood-ish gothica I found in a sidewalk sale years ago.

It seems like I have committed myself to something like “Parc-de-le-Villette-folly meets Victoriana.”

Is Steampunk Deconstruction a literary genre yet? That’s not quite what I intended to write, assuming I get around to writing.

Before anyone asks for a retail location where they could get their very own Bishop’s Desk – or for that matter – the Plesiosaur Light Fixture, or This-Is-Not-A Bookshelf (because I occassionally receive such flattering requests): my furnishing designs are essentially one-off pieces, works of sculpture that happen to be a pieces of furniture as well. Each of their components – ruined furniture or something thrown out from a construction site – is an unique objet trouvé , and given that circumstance it is unlikely that I could (assuming I assemble this desk as illustrated) reproduce such an assembly exactly. I’m perfectly willing and happy to undertake a commission for a piece of similar furniture, assuming I can located the requisite ingredients, but it won’t be exactly like the original. That’s simply the consequence of working with found materials, I’m afraid.

March 3rd, 2011
Categories: Design, Featured, Other Creative Work, Works-In-Progress
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