Like most people, I've got a bunch of favorite things, and they move up and down my ladder of affection depending on my mood. (This week's winner: the Italian leather sofa that stands up to a toilet-training toddler.) But if I had to pick one all-time fave, I'd elect a honey-colored Heywood-Wakefield cocktail table, circa 1954-55. Its design is unassailable, its utility unparalleled, and its sentimental value rooted in my idiotic passions.
I fixated on the table in the mid-1990s, as the perfect centerpiece for a 450-square-foot apartment I shared with my girlfriend in New York's West Village. I was going through a Streamline Moderne period at the time: It's the "streamline" part that hooked me. Mid-century Heywood-Wakefield furniture was made of sturdy, kiln-dried birch that was steam-bent into space-age arcs, then extensively finished by hand. The results were seductively soft contours and an organic sheen I just didn't see at my local Ikea, the hallmark of something the old folks call "elbow grease."
At the time, I was a poor, ink-stained wretch, so I was looking not just for a bargain, but for a steal. Since Ebay didn't exist yet, my best bet was to haunt the (now-extinct) Chelsea Flea Market and its grizzled furniture-pickers, who consolidated their estate-sale finds at the corner of 25th Street and 6th Avenue every weekend.
For nine long months, my exquisitely patient girlfriend referred to the blank rectangular area on our parquet floor as our "future coffee table," in the way expectant parents refer to their unborn child (but with a sardonic edge). The blank space was there because I feared that any half-measure would dull my verve to get up early on freezing mornings, steaming cup of joe in hand, to scoop the bargain-hunters and fellow fetishists at the flea market. Many takeout meals were eaten on plates hovering above where the table's surface would be, in a pantomime as ridiculous as it sounds.
And then, one muggy late-summer morning, it was there. The exact table I wanted, in lovely condition. I named my price, the seller countered, and we settled for twenty bucks above the bargain-basement figure I had hoped to pay. As I lugged it down Jane Street, I marveled at the table's solid construction and weight; and when I got it home, I was amazed at its strength. Three grown men could stand atop the thing, and its creamy caramel surface wouldn't sag an inch.
Apartments and coasts have since come and gone, and yet I still have the little table (and, surprisingly, the girlfriend). Now, though, it does yeoman duty as a staging area for unread periodicals and books, while a younger MDF-and-steel number from DWR shoulders the daily clatter of sippy cups and MacBooks. But it still stands as a reminder that it's always better to hold out for quality -- and sometimes, for the sake of domestic tranquility, it's best to pay retail.
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