This last summer, I built some shelves.  Actually, I built a lot of shelves.  Several distinct sets of shelves. If you were to survey the entirety of how I spent my time over the summer, by activity, sorted by “hours committed”, somehow, building shelves would definitely crack the top 5.   

But there was this one particular set of shelves that got under my skin. There’s a room in the basement that has traditionally been my office.  It’s out of the way, and it’s quiet, and it’s got a closet in it.  

Because this is not actually a bedroom, and it’s a bit out of the way, and there’s no other use for it, this closet evolved to be the place where we store extra food – the types of food items that land in the intersection  of voluminous and not commonly needed.  Because of the evolutionary nature of the storage system here, it was a mess.  We had some temporary wire shelves that sort of fit.  There was a lonely built in shelf from the previous owners of the house – which was unstable, sagging, and mostly secured to drywall.  And then there was just a jenga-esque pile of things that managed to basically sort itself based on how often we needed any one item.  Those which never got pulled out inevitably wound up on the bottom – while those commonly needed found themselves in coveted positions on the top.

I’m off track.  The basement flooded this summer, and quite a bit of stuff had to be thrown out – but more importantly, the closet had to be emptied.  Once the flooding was resolved, and the flooring was sorted, the time had come to re-commission the closet, to bring it back to it’s former glory.

This closet had always driven me crazy, because of its complete lack of purpose and direction.  I resolved to build shelves for it, to force some order on an unorderly situation.  Which brings me to the real point of this post, several hundred words later:  shelf building, much like Outback Steakhouse, has no rules.  And at first, this probably seems either patently absurd, or completely obvious.  It was neither to me.

The shelves could be built however I’d like for them to be – limited, I suppose, by the space, my tools and materials, and my imagination.  Oh, and the actual functional needs for the shelves.

Because of the timeline on this shelf public works project – the flooding, the intervening weeks of basement cleanup/flooring work, and the slow process of beginning to put things back into the room/closet, I had known for weeks that I intended to build shelves, before I actually committed to buying materials and starting to build.  Had the scenario been different – had we been moving into this house, and decided we needed built-in shelving in that closet right away, and we really couldn’t finish putting stuff away until it was done, the question would have been different.  I’d have just bought some plywood, a box of screws, and bolted things into the walls at reasonable heights.  This represented, to me, the most reasonable, practical approach.  Minimally expensive in both time and money, and maximally functional.

But I had time.  And I had the space just rolling around in the back of my head for weeks, while I did other things.  And every time I went to get it over with, to go buy some plywood and some screws to just bolt things into the walls at reasonable heights, and I found an excuse, and I avoided it.  I didn’t really know why at the time, and I still don’t really know why now, I just couldn’t do it.

Eventually, the shelves could wait no longer – they had to be built.   So I got to work.  I still couldn’t bring myself to slap together some plywood and screws.  Instead, I came up with a “plan” involving a lot of dimensional wood, and a lot of joints.  And most notably, no screws.  No fasteners of any kind.  This got stuck in my head, like a commercial jingle that you can’t quite shake free:  The shelves couldn’t have any fasteners.  Screws took on meaning in my mind: at best representing an uninteresting shortcut, a victory of technology – but more honestly as a blight.  A blight representing a lack of interesting thought, even, somehow, a blight representing our eternal willingness to sacrifice beauty for convenience.  A lot of weight to put on an assuming little piece of metal that probably costs $.01 individually.

So I built the shelves without screws.  I spent hours fighting with cuts and joints and thinking through how the various puzzle pieces I was cutting would all fit together.

And they look relatively nice, which is largely meaningless because no one (not even me) ever goes in that room.

I’m not down on screws.  They’re useful.  I’ve probably gone through 2 boxes of screws since those shelves in various other projects, and that’s fine – but somehow it felt good to acknowledge that the the only path, the only purpose, does not have to be maximum utility at minimum cost.  It felt good to build something in which there was a purpose – even if I couldn’t, and still can’t identify it clearly –  beyond functionality. 

I needed those shelves needed to be something greater than their function.  I’m still not sure what it was I needed them to be, but it’s nice to admit that such a decision is possible.

2 thoughts on “Functional”

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