Remaking the Past: Simon Watts

Originally published in 

In June 2003, Simon Watts, a San Francisco furniture maker and author of the book Building a Houseful of Furniture, returned from vacation and was stunned to find his apartment of 15 years completely empty.

Simon Watts stands next to a mahogany-and-walnut chest—just one of many pieces he has rebuilt to replace all of the furniture that was mysteriously taken from his home last year.
Simon Watts stands next to a mahogany-and-walnut chest—just one of many pieces he has rebuilt to replace all of the furniture that was mysteriously taken from his home last year.

Someone had broken into his third-floor walk-up and taken everything—the furniture, family photos, frozen peas, even the trash. After months of doggedly trying to catch the culprits, Watts has turned to a much more productive pursuit: rebuilding all of his furniture, which he had custom designed specifically for the flat.

“After I learned of the theft, my son-in-law immediately bought me a ticket home but it was very hard coming back. It wasn’t so much the physical things missing, but the things of sentimental value—the photographs, my father’s original drawings, signed copies of my mother’s books. I think I’m focusing on the furniture because that is something I can do, and I like to do, and it’s useful. The furniture I can remake.

“There is a great deal of difference between going out and getting something with your credit card and messing around in a workshop for a week, two weeks, maybe three. You become engaged in something the way you can’t when you just buy it.

“So far I’ve made the kitchen table again and I’ve rebuilt the desk. I’ve also finished a hinged chest with mahogany and walnut frames. It just so happens that the movers—I don’t call them thieves, I call them movers—didn’t take this piece of mahogany because I’d used it
as staging so it was covered in paint. I don’t think anyone realized that it was a very valuable piece of wood. It was 13 inches wide so it is just right for the panels.

“The furniture is helping me reestablish myself. But the best thing that has happened is I’ve discovered how many friends I have—old and new. Friends painted my apartment for me; loaned me furniture, computers, and dishes; and a very good friend is letting me use his shop to work on the new pieces. And I’ve really gotten back into woodworking, which I’d forgotten how much I like.

“To an extent, you can bring furniture back to life and in that sense it has served as a beacon of light. It’s a way for me to get a bit of my past back, and in that way, I’m very fortunate.”

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