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Nomad Furniture: design, case studies, and philosophy

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Step 8: Appendix: a brief, selective history of nomad furniture

Stone-Age

Hunter-Gatherers (or Gatherer-Hunters) were the original nomads, but not of the animal-herding variety (with almost no exceptions). They owned only what they could carry on their backs for 10 miles or so. Ethnographic analogy: Multipurpose leather hunting bags could be used to sit on and stand on: Eskimo (Inuit) hunters would stand for hours in -30F weather by a seal hole waiting for a feather ice-glued to the breathing hole to tremble with the seal’s breath, then harpoon the seal. They would stand on one of their rawhide equipment pouches to slow heat transfer to the ice; when hunting done, get off the pouch, put hunting things back in it, and walk away. (We could use very durably built dry-bags).

And consider the complex social use of sitting furs: Eskimo (perhaps the Nunamiut?) would put down a sitting-fur, usually around the camp fire when hunting beyond the community, and sat there communing. But when privacy was desired (traditional communities offer almost no privacy, yet they too want some) the Eskimo would MOVE his fur to the side of the tent, and everybody would know to behave as if he were not there. (This could not go on too, too long, of course, because humans living pre-industrial lives tend to be well socialized rather than psychopathically allied to individualism as we are, and loners would eventually be defined as anti-social and treated as such; exceptions exist, I’m sure).

For other H-G cultures, consider in general the use of animal hide as the ultimate in nomad furniture, but don’t forget hammock nets! (Trees required, but once found, a net-chair/bed keeps you away from a lot of bugs and moisture, and keeps you ventilated; see Tim Anderson’s Instructable about hammocks). We carry the modern equivalent when we camp: closed cell foam sleeping bag pad of course. I carry also a 6x12 inch scrap of closed cell pad for sitting on around camp to keep butt warm and dry and less prone to incursion of disease-carrying insects (the deer tick particularly).

Neolithic/Bronze Age/Iron Age Agriculturalists

You don’t move away from the place where you plant crops (some exceptions: hunters might plant something, wander off on seasonal cycle hunting, come back and see what grew -- a transitional state). Now you can build heavier furniture, but many societies didn’t really do that. Look at “tribal” furniture and you’ll see a lot of mats and stools (the Japanese tatami must be the ultimate evolution, though the Japanese have not been “tribal” for a very long time nor were they ever nomadic-- they have embodied nomad furniture into their lifestyle). I use stools to double as easily moveable coffee (or beer, or wine) tables as wells as to sit on and stand on. A dwelling without at least one accessible stool is really under-designed. Consider also woven baskets and mats and wooden chests.

Woven grasses and leaves are undervalued -- people make amazing things from grass, from rain-cloaks to bags to sails to chairs -- look at a rural Irish chair woven out of hay ropes. So if you want to make ancient nomad furniture, look to your lawns for raw materials.

In this period also, animal-herding nomads developed, and they could get animal hairs for weaving, and here we see the invention of the woven rug, perhaps, original to those $5,000 beauties some people can buy, and these are primary nomad furniture as you can see from many Eastern cultures (see the book _Nomad_ for a real-life detailing of such matters in a modern Iranian nomad group).

Recently (in relative terms)

Scandinavian-design (the pure form) furniture, of course; no need to say more.

Wooden chests, of course; I will say more even though I need not: blanket chests, sea chests, tool chests. I use three chests in my house: one to store blankets and sheets (was originally made to hold my children’s toys), a second (photo below) in place of a bureau for clothes that can be wrinkled without putting you at risk of social penalty (I keep as well a defensive one-way boomerang as a kind of weird joke about pistol ownership in America), and the third an antique tool chest to store antique tools awaiting their rotation into public display.

I love these chests, especially the one in my bedroom -- open it up, throw things into the right slots after the laundry is done, and then sit on top to pull on my socks. They are all very nomadic -- they have moved to three dwellings in the last 7 years, and the beauty of a chest is that usually its volume and light contents mean you can move a chest (noamdically) without unpacking it, as you would have to do for most bureaus (I usually put my very items such as gold bars inside a gutted TV for safety-in-disguise).

The great fact about chests, great enough to be emphasized, is that you can sit on them as well as put things in them, so if your aesthetic is sufficiently flexible, you can put chests in your living area, and everybody will admire them, rest on them, and need not know that inside they store your spare pots or comic book collection. If you use a side-opening door (see my toolbox/bench Instructable, which inspired this Instructable) you can both sit and open at once. You can see an antique tool chest in my living room in the background of my "Office Rectangles/satchel" photo (inside the tool chest has wonderful slide-aside ditty-trays on two levels; they slide aside so you can get at the large long objects under them).

Chests as a whole are alive and well but I think are undervalued....or insulted in the form of big plastic storage chests which encourage you to get them out of sight, though they are useful. Chests can have a third function besides storing and sitting: art objects. I carved a design on the top of my bedroom chest (see photo below).... but nobody ever sees it because I usually have clean clothes awaiting filing on top). Today I reveal this carving only to my girlfriend and you, my very dear Instructables Reader. Build a chest TODAY.

But the bench! -- While you are designing your chest, do not forget a bench! Who could record in full the many uses for a 3 or 4 foot long low bench? A bench of approximate height 12-15 inches (similar approximate width), 3-4 feet long, and perhaps built like a storage box may well have the dimensions much sought after by Unified Field Theorists and Occultists alike. Something lies in these dimensions that puts the human in a trance-like state, just as the eternally dimensioned Monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A bench of these dimensions is perfect "informal sitting" height (also "lace up my sneakers" height), is narrow enough to be scooted aside against a wall hardly noticed, and is long enough to be straddled at one end with the other end used as a work surface for your Instructable projects: that would be in the tradition of "heirloom technology": for example, refer to an antique draw-knife bench. And if the bench were made box like, it would hold many useful things inside while permitting nomad lifestyle with its convenient size and well placed handles. Add handle at one end and wheels at the other, as I did to my toolbox/work-bench (see other Instructable) to enhance your nomadism. Be sure to mount wheels so that they only contact the ground when you grag the other end of the box-bench and tilt upward for rolling transport.

Besides the example of my toolbox/work-bench, I made a three-foot long, well-braced wooden bench for weight-lifting with free-weights but to also double as a bench to sit on in the family room of my former house (second photo below). It tripled as a small but welcome coffee table in an apartment later. Now I use it for all of these functions as well as a low table for my sewing machine used for large pieces such as sails (though rather tippy for that: not recommended without more lateral bracing (feet), easily done with wood cross-pieces temporarily c-clamped to the legs, or you can inset some t-nuts for more elegant temp-screwing on of the lateral support feet).

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MT-LB4 years ago
I like the idea
Loved the essay. I spent three or four years living a semi-nomadic life. I sometimes wish I were single again (even though I love my husband to death) so I could be free to travel again.
sundet7 years ago
Those are some pretty good ideas. I made a coffee table out of some plywood and some collapsable legs that I bought at the home improvement store. To make it extra nice, I tiled it.