A couple of years ago, I was surfing the web, searching for a new sofa. Instead of finding a furniture shop, I ended up at couchweb, the site created by Los Angeles designer and photographer, James Dean and dedicated to his gallery of Abandoned Sofas. More remarkable than any furniture store I know...
First of all, Eating
It took me two years to catch up with Dean. We met as he was loading up his iPod (Jimmy Cliff, Elvis Costello, James Carr, Specials, Kinks, Bonzo Dog Band... for a trip to the Sundance Film Festival. He had designed much of the collateral materials for the short film (highly anticipated festival entry) 'Eating'. Written and directed by Rebecca Cutter. "When I met Rebecca, 'Eating' had just been accepted by the festival, and we had precious little time to get everything else ready," he says. "We worked intensely; Rebecca and the movie's publicist came up with ideas for the sorts of things we could use. t-shirts were out, it's too cold in Park City and no one would see them, Chap Stick and beanies were in." Each of these items key off Jim's poster for the film, one of the more arresting examples of film poster art we'll see this year. The imagery absolutely demands that you give Eating your attention. It's that good.
As the sun rose on one of the dog days of summer, August 2000, Dean found himself meandering north along Normandie Avenue, past Melrose. "I'd gone a long way before it dawned on me," he takes up the story, "there were couches... There were couches, everywhere! Every half-block there'd be another couch."
At first the sofas had appeared incongruous."Well, when you see them, it seems so wasteful, these huge things, all lined up. I started seeing so many of them. It's like when you lose your car, every car you look at suddenly seems to be the same make and model as the car you'd lost." Dean shot 25 couches that first day. "So many of them were so mashed up, so shredded and broken. They'd be in weird configurations with other items that had been thrown out with them, like an old TV or an end table or something." Like an urbanized version of the cover of Richard Brautigan's 'So The Wind Won't Blow It All Away.' "I can't imagine some of these couches were in somebody's place, in that condition," he says.
Jim's images of abandoned sofas eventually spawned three websites and are the subject of a forthcoming book, privisionally titled 'Some Los Angeles Sofas'. A DV D.A. Pennebaker is waiting in the wings.
Is there a genesis to this, or is it a happy accident? Has Jim ever put a sofa out on a sidewalk himself? "I recall being a young kid, back in Elk Grove, Chicago, we put a couch out. The trashmen came by put it into the back of the garbage truck and it was just eaten up, crushed. This big old ugly tweedy thing. A Big Pig. Just ate it, it was amazing. That kinda stuck with me. Maybe that's got something to do it with it."
Key Times for Finding Couches
"The key times for find sofas is at the end of the month - as people leave their apartments and move, they leave stuff behind. Big stuff like a couch. Another key time is pre or post holidays. People have family coming over and so they get a new couch.Or like after the Superbowl, you've destroyed the couch and you throw it away.
"Naugahyde seems to have been very popular. Near-leather, especially when the backing peels off and the buttons pop. A wide variety of fabric, a mix. Anything synthetic seems to have been favored. I was in Hancock Park-Adjacent one day, and the sun was coming up, that golden light and I saw this beautiful, slightly distressed red couch that someone had put out. The better the neighborhood, the better the materials. Lots of that sort of heavy, woven fabric, ugly stripes. Lots of hideous stuff."
Revisiting Old Friends
"Sometimes, I'd swear, I see the same couches more than once. Maybe a couple of months apart, in different locations." Rescued, and condemned again.
I wonder whether, when he's driving past the designer showrooms on 3rd Street, he's traumatized by the site of so many brand new couches waiting for their eventual place in a home and later, in the street?
"Twenty years from now... He smiles, knowingly. Twenty years of service from a contemporary sofa? Jim Dean's an optimist.
See the Abandoned Sofas at couchweb.