Level Shelves

LUKE STUDEBAKER (M.Arch ’19)

If you’re going to hang plywood shelves on the walls of your apartment, take the time to do it right. First, you want to figure out what the walls are made of, likely either plaster or drywall. Next, it’s wise to survey your chosen wall to see if it is flat or bowed or wavy in any way. This affects what type of mounting system you will use. Then, choose mounts and anchors together to ensure their compatibility. If your wall sways out of plane much, you should probably consider a track and bracket system with greater tolerance. After that, cut down your shelf boards and use them to double check whether you have the correct number and size of mounting hardware. Once you’ve gathered all your material, begin the installation by marking a level line on your wall. This is key.

I would gladly keep going on and in finer detail about my fool-proof steps to perfectly level budget apartment shelves. You, dear reader, probably don’t care. The point is that there was a time in my life when I was obsessed with the nuances of mounting cheap urethaned plywood boards onto warped walls with lousy sheet-metal brackets. It was the winter of 2015 and I had just moved to a new apartment in Brooklyn, a rent-stabilized two bedroom in a once-grand building now hidden beneath layers of paint and Spackle. It was this lumpy buildup that I was going up against with my carefully curated shelf brackets—the best of the bottom bin at the Home Depot.

I got the shelves up. Beautifully, I will add. Plumb, level, sturdy. And at some point in the course of my very banal DIY home improvement project, I realized that I wanted to go to architecture school. I am hesitant, even a bit embarrassed, to share this fact. Sure, this was an encounter with a building, and I concede that the tactile hand-making must have been a catalyst for me, psychologically. (I might even be pushed far enough to admit that the simple task engrossed me totally to the point of a deep understanding of my living room wall.) But I’m no Shop Class as Soulcraft type. I don’t believe you go to architecture school because you like doing finish work.

Since graduating from college in 2011, I had been working at the New York architecture journal Log, which meant roughly that I got paid to read about architecture five days a week. It was a dream job. I was helping to shape the conversation, planning events as well as issues of the magazine and wielding editorial authority over writers much smarter, better educated, and more accomplished than me. It wasn’t all that different from a college seminar, either. In fact, one of my greatest motivations in getting the job in the first place had been the chance to keep up my education beyond college in this comparatively academic context. I figured I would work there until I had read and seen enough to know what I thought about Architecture so that I could go to graduate school with purpose.

This was an illusory threshold. In four years of work, the urge to go to school still had not clicked for me as it did while drilling into the wall above my couch. The confidence I grew into through practice as an editor turned out to be more narrowly tailored to becoming a better editor. I am a decent editor by now. I’m familiar with the world of architectural discourse, too. Yet both of these are pursuits of infinite refinement, not projects to be completed in preparation for architecture school.

It was, rather, the frustrating process of trying to get my shitty shelves to at least look level that struck me with the wide-open messiness and discomfort of learning. My confidence as a professional was less effective in stirring my ambitions than the jogged memory of being a student low on the learning curve, especially when addressing the complexities of the built world—from precedents to publics to puckered walls. They say practice makes perfect, but at a point, the pursuit of perfection starts to be boring. In this sense, I came to school to practice, habitually.

The reasons I chose to study architecture at Yale fill a column of a pro-con list that I made this spring. Confidence in my skills and knowledge wasn’t one of them. Level shelves wasn’t either. But if you’re looking for a cheap and easy way to hold your books off the floor, I would love to help. To tell the truth, I still need some practice.