this thing's incredible

This Chair Turns My Fire Escape Into a Plein Air Office

Photo: Hilary Reid

About a month into quarantine, my fire escape, which I’d never spent much time on before, started looking more and more appealing. What once appeared to me as a slightly rusty collection of wrought iron slats had begun to resemble … a balcony? A porch? A terrace? In any case, it was suddenly a significantly more inviting place to sit.

The first quarantine night I went out on the fire escape, I crawled through the window with my old yoga mat in hand — then went back for my dinner and laptop. It worked well enough: The mat made a sufficiently cushiony seat, and ensured my plate, computer, and phone didn’t fall through the slats to the street below (it’s only a story down, but still). About half an hour of cross-legged sitting later, though, my legs were falling asleep, my plate, glass, and laptop setup felt chaotic, and I just wanted to sit in a real chair and eat dinner at a table.

So my hunt for fire-escape furniture began: Elegant tatami mats and cozy floor cushions were tempting, but presented the same issues as the yoga mat (safely low to the ground, but without much back support or reprieve for your legs). Bistro chair-table combos in bright colors were cheery, but a little too suburban twee to put on a street-facing fire escape. I needed something lightweight, collapsible, discreet, weather-proof — and, importantly, secure enough that I wouldn’t feel at risk of tipping over or having a chair leg slip through the slats. First, I tried Googling “fire-escape furniture” (nothing promising), “short-height chair and table” (nope), and “small table and chair with opaque solid flat bottoms” (definitely not). But then, finally, I found the words for exactly what I wanted: “small outdoor chair with table attached.” Behold, the Coleman Aluminum Deck Chair With Table, available for a reasonable price of $43 with fast shipping on Amazon. I placed the order, and three days later the chair-table was mine.

Yes, it looks like a cross between a lecture-hall armchair desk and a chair a dad would pack for an outdoor Kenny G concert, i.e., it is truly hideous. But, it’s wonderful. At just eight pounds, it’s lightweight enough to put in and out of the window easily, and it folds flat, so that I can store it in a closet between uses. Crucially, the legs are thick, long iron strips, that are a little wider than the slats of my fire escape, and won’t slip through. It’s a discreet shade of gray that, when seen from across the street, blends right in with the metal and brick of the building. The swivel table is large enough to hold my laptop, and has a cup holder for a coffee cup or glass of wine — meaning it single-handedly makes my fire escape a pretty nice spot for dining “alfresco.” It’s no sidewalk table outside the Odeon on a warm spring night, but for now, it’ll do.

Other fire-escape-worthy items

If you want something truly lightweight to carry in and out of your window (and to channel summer camp circa 2003), a stadium seat will do the trick.

I brought an old rug out on my fire escape to put beneath the chair, so as to decrease the chance of my phone or dinner falling through the slats.

A yoga mat is still likely the easiest solutions for making a fire escape more comfortable. You could also pair this with the chair to add some additional solid-ground space.

If you’re worried about sending a glass or coffee mug tumbling to the street below, it might be worth picking up some “unbreakable” wine glasses.

Or a set of colorful plastic mugs that you’ll be just as happy to use inside your apartment.

And if you’re truly concerned about dropping your phone, it might not be a bad idea to try a phone sling, which Strategist senior editor Anthony Rotunno bought in February to use while cooking. He says he was “totally taken by how, well, handy it was.”

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This Chair Turns My Fire Escape Into a Plein Air Office