rethinking a dresser: metro shelving in the bedroom

metro shelving dresser

Don't you love it when you realize that doing something "the way it's always been done" can be reconsidered? That was the gift that traveling and living abroad gave me in my young adulthood: the realization that human cultures have separately evolved many different ways of living and that the American or Western ways aren't the only ways or necessarily the best ways. For example, most world cultures don't eat sweet foods for breakfast but dishes like leftover stews or fish and rice with pickled vegetables. And even between the U.S. and Europe there are smaller differences like built-in closets versus freestanding armoires or 110/120-volt electrical current versus 220/240-volt. I'm not reinventing the wheel here, only asking whether everyone needs a traditional dresser. Can there be more flexible ways to store clothes than the standard lowboy or highboy? The answer is, of course, yes.

Years ago when I lived in California, I bought a well-made Mission-style cherry dresser built by Bentwood (now Roguewood), a southern-Oregon company located not far from where I grew up. The dresser was tall and its many drawers dovetailed from solid cedar—a practical moth protection. It served me well for 14 years. But being all solid wood, it was heavy to move—and I moved a lot. And since it had no legs to raise it up off the floor, it was also visually bulky, while I was living in small spaces. So as I prepared to move downtown two years ago, I sold the Mission dresser on Craigslist.

Because my style preferences had also changed, instead I longed for a vintage mid-century lowboy dresser, first trying out a small Lane highboy on loan from my reseller friend Jeff and then buying a large lowboy from him at cost last winter (see below). The lowboy wasn't top quality and was made of American walnut veneer rather than the more desirable teak, but it had the right lines. We oiled the piece until its finish smoothed out and little nicks and scrapes, earned over time, became less noticeable. I used it for months until one day last week when I had an epiphany: What if I sold the dresser?

before: vintage mid-century walnut 9-drawer lowboy dresser

In a tiny house, I will have no room for a traditional dresser. So what if I just used my second metro shelving unit instead, at least for now? Chromed steel metro shelving units are fairly inexpensive—around $100 new at Costco—while offering the benefits of flexible customization, durability, and mobility. They clean up quickly with only a rag and squirt bottle, no refinishing required. Being commercial grade metal, they also hold a ton—up to 800 pounds per shelf. Since the units are on casters, they're also easily moved—if not heavily loaded. (I bent a caster that way once moving a loaded unit over carpet and had to replace it; never move a loaded unit over carpet!) And the shelves are fully adjustable and can be broken down into manageable pieces for compact transport, a feature especially appealing to a petite person like myself who moves households a lot. Honestly, I can't extol the benefits of these metal units enough—they're so versatile that I'll probably try to use at least one in my future tiny house.

metro shelving unit #1: the extended closet (in afternoon light)

metro shelving unit #1: the nightstand (in morning light)

I've been using a wire metro shelving unit since 2009 when it became a kitchen and then in 2013 an entertainment center and then in 2014 my nightstand and extended closet (see photos above). Then this spring I bought a second unit from Costco ($90, cheaper than the used ones I saw on Craigslist at the time) to better organize the remaining small items waiting to sell on CL, as well as function as a linen closet of sorts in our long hallway. And then I realized I could sell my vintage MCM dresser and use that second metro shelving unit as my dresser.

Minimalists might want simply to fold and stack their clothes and such on the open shelves and be done with it, everything clearly visible. But the key for me to making the unit work as a dresser was the use of baskets for drawers.

Baskets and hooks are a closet's best friends. I've long loved a good basket. Woven grasses, vines, or bark add homey texture to a room and aren't just for country decor (e.g., think of the modernist Franco Albini ottoman). There's good reason art museums display tribal basket collections; humans have been making baskets for storage presumably longer than they've been making clay pots. Baskets are functional art, easily picked up secondhand for much less than retail. (Do search for clean baskets, unbroken and unstained.) Even though my baskets don't match, their natural shades of tan and brown still complement each other in a casual way. And the baskets also help soften up the unit's cold metal.

metro shelving unit #2: top shelves

Rounded baskets make a nice contrast sitting among all the right angles. Those on the topmost shelf hold knitting supplies (not that I'm knitting much anymore). The white globe on the top shelf will eventually be hung as a pendant in the dining room, but it needed a temporary safe spot. And the black shoeboxes on an upper shelf I've had seemingly forever, found at a discount store many years back; they neatly hold random household items most people stash in the drawers I lack, things like spare lightbulbs, shoe polish, old photos, and extra hooks and picture hangers. I've even got my bathroom towels stacked on this shelving within easy reach from the doorway.

metro shelving unit #2: middle shelves

secondhand goods: woven baskets, petrified wood, vintage Swedish teak tray, and ceramic egg carton jewelry dish

myrtlewood bird on thrifted marble slab

metro shelving unit #2: bottom shelves

Though rounded baskets are pretty, rectangular baskets do hold more stuff and fit better on rectilinear shelves. However, large baskets in good condition are harder to find secondhand. I already had several thrift-store baskets available for reuse as drawers for this shelving unit but needed a few more to hold the rest of my clothes, things better folded than hung, like socks, sweaters, t-shirts, and underwear. I found a couple more medium-sized baskets last week. And my housemate kindly loaned me two big ones he doesn't need until I can thrift a couple more. (Keep in mind that I'm the one who turned him onto baskets in the first place.)

after: metro shelving unit #2

After I filled the baskets with categorized clothes, it was time for some styling—the addition of pretty but functional decorative pieces. The throw pillows from the bed I never get around to properly making now have a place on the bottom shelf off the floor. There's a stack of reference books for inspiration, topped by a thunder egg. My perfume and jewelry lie on a narrow vintage Swedish teak tray perfectly sized for the shelving, and I placed candles and my carved myrtlewood bird on a recently thrifted marble slab that also exactly fits the shelf. (Sometimes you just luck out when thrifting.) As always, the styling will evolve as I move things around and switch things out. For instance, even since I took these photos, I've already draped a cream woven-wool vintage table runner with macrame-style fringe over the lowest basket to help protect my sweaters.

As an added bonus, both the file-cabinet "table" and my bedroom closet have more space now—not only because of hanging my shoes on the wall but also by shifting out some closet items (like the big basket on the bottom shelf) and moving my knitting baskets to the top of this shelving. I like my room even more now than with the big walnut dresser; the space is more functional. So while this set-up might not be for everyone, it works for me—even if it's a little overkill to have two of these units in a small bedroom. A metro shelving unit is the ultimate piece of furniture, suitable for far more than the garage or kitchen.

Would you ever consider getting rid of your dresser?

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