In many urban neighborhoods, it’s not unusual to find the occasional free chair or couch left on sidewalk, up for grabs to the soonest taker. Usually they don’t last long. Other times, like at a bus stop corner hangout in my old neighborhood in San Francisco, an unsecured chair makes the unlikely transition to becoming a permanent fixture.
From Bosnia and Barcelona to Montreal and New Orleans, Street Chairs, a crowdsourced photographic series hosted at MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) Radio site, displays dozens of unique takes on ephemeral street chairs around the world.
Aditi Mehta started the Street Chairs series in January 2011 after she snapped a photo of two whimsical, bright red armchairs that caught her eye in the middle of a chaotic construction site in Jodhpur, India. She started a blog of her own photos at CoLabs, and soon others started emailing their own contributions.
“People started reacting to them as if the chairs were human. And they started seeing them as people and giving them personalities,” says Mehta, who is currently a PhD student in MIT’s Department of Urban Planning. “I found them interesting and mysterious and that they told the stories of the neighborhoods where they were.”
Since she started, she has had submissions representing 30 countries around the world and has also held a unique “pop-up” exhibition. Having a physical exhibition at MIT would mean that many people who had submitted chairs wouldn’t get to enjoy viewing them, so she printed out high-quality images on posters and mailed a random one to everyone who had submitted to the project. On the same day that October, she asked that everyone display their poster in a public place and snap a photo. The result is a second, very meta collection of images of street chair images from all over the world. Of course, it was temporary—just like the street chairs themselves.
“We’ve never gotten a wrong chair,” says Alexa Mills, director of media projects for MIT CoLabs. “Well,” she reconsiders. “One time someone sent us a chair that was inside a museum. That wasn’t really in the spirit of street chairs.”
Street furniture can be viewed as symbols of cities as living organisms that naturally reuse their resources. But, to Mills, the photos are not supposed to be academic. “On some level, maybe there’s no meaning. It’s just a nice thing in your day to look at a chair that looks human.”