Last November, armed only with a copy of Teen Spaces by Kimberly Bolan and a budget of $1,000, I set out to create a teen space in my library. The budget actually seemed huge to me at first, but after looking up the price lists for a number of nice contract furniture companies, I realized it was almost enough to buy a chair. Woo. Hoo.

Undaunted, I expanded my search to include residential and school furniture, until I found something with an acceptable balance of quality, versatility, and price. During the process, I learned a number of things I wanted to pass on to anyone else in the position of choosing furniture for a teen space without the benefit of a consultant or even the advice of a furniture company.

  1. If you don't have access to floor plans for your building, you can make ones using free online tools. I started out with a tape measure and graph paper, but I ended up using floorplanner.com. The best part was that after I created an outline and entered the dimensions of the shelves I was working with, I could drag and drop them anywhere and get a 3-D simulation. I think my coworkers were more impressed with the 3-D simulation than anything else I've done this year.
  2. Tables and chairs (and coffee tables and stools and ottomans) need to be complementary in height. Unless you're buying chairs that go up and down (and I'm always afraid they'll lose their oomph), you need to make sure the measurements line up. Lots of websites have guidelines. As a general rule, for adults, chair seats should be 18 inches off the ground, and table tops should be 8 inches above the chair seats. Of course, not all teens are adult sized, so you might consider slightly lower chairs, like 16 inches. Or you might consider lounge furniture, where the seats are usually lower.
  3. The space between furniture is as important as the size of the furniture. Fire code for my library requires 3 feet of walkway space between pieces of furniture. However, you should consider what really has to get through that walkway: book carts? strollers? three teens with arms linked a la the Wizard of Oz? My big mistake was putting my desk three feet from the wall, so when I pushed my chair back to stand up, the 3 feet shrank to 1 and everyone was uncomfortable walking behind me to get to the Spanish books.
  4. If you can't afford contract furniture, you can still choose furniture based on classic commercial designs. One of the most helpful research methods I applied to this project was reading design blogs like Desire to Inspire, Design Sponge, and Apartment Therapy. I was attracted to them because they had pretty pictures, but they also taught me some design terms. In fact, by comparing library furniture catalogs with what I saw on the blogs, I learned that a lot of the furniture billed as "teen" are based on designs by Eames, Saarinen, Mies, and Breuer. Although I can't afford originals of these mid-century modern designs, I can find knock-offs with some of the same qualities: stackability, tough materials, smooth edges, and a striking aesthetic.
  5. Shipping prices make a big difference. Early in my furniture selection process, I found some small sites with funky furniture at reasonable prices. But I didn't factor in freight shipping costs. Some sites offer free shipping while others don't calculate it until you put items into a basket. It's worth visiting local stores to see if you can avoid shipping completely--or looking for the same item on multiple sites to see who's offering the best shipping rates.

In case you're curious, I ended up buying Fatboy Avenue cubes to furnish my teen area. Check with me in a year to see how they're holding up! But they met my criteria of being versatile (there's no wrong way to sit on them, and they can connect to each other to form benches), easy to clean, and fun to look at. And if you want to follow my whole magical journey of selecting furniture, it's documented on my blog.

Does anyone else know good places for librarians on a budget to find teen furniture?

About Emily Brown

Emily is a Children's and YA librarian at Providence Community Library in Rhode Island. She currently serves on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens selection committee.

2 Thoughts on “Teen Space on a Dime

  1. IKEA remains my favorite store for great looking budget friendly furniture!

  2. Connie Bottini on April 28, 2011 at 1:08 am said:

    Hi Emily,

    It has been a year how did the Fatboy Avenue Cubes hold up? I am in the process of revamp my YA space and we have no money so I am about to hit my community.

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