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How My Genius Roommate Changed My Perspective

Farhad Ghayour
November 9th, 2021 · 4 min read

In October 2012, I found myself in China, a country that had fascinated me since my childhood in Iran. I was living in a modest apartment in Wudaokou, Beijing, sharing the space with four roommates from various corners of the globe, each with a story uniquely their own.

Among us, one stood out for his remarkable creativity and imagination: a young 20-something Indonesian-Chinese student from Peking University, with dreams of becoming a renowned pianist and composer. He lived by a principle famously articulated by Theodore Roosevelt:

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

This philosophy perfectly captured his outlook and soon began to influence my outlook.

Our living conditions were modest, in a building still under construction. Despite the frequent absence of hot water and the unreliable electricity amidst the freezing Beijing winters, in hindsight, it’s amusing to think we were inadvertently practicing the Wim Hof method.

My preference for simplicity and minimalism defined my living space. To me, “essentials” meant just that—nothing more, nothing less. I sat on the floor, regardless of whether I was working, studying, or relaxin’ with friends. My roommate’s suggestion to enhance my living space came unexpectedly:

“Improve it? It’s the floor, and I’m sitting on it. What do you have in mind?” I questioned, intrigued.

He wondered if I’d like my bed extended, explaining how the ledges from an extended bed frame could double as a workbench. The idea was intriguing; it promised to improve my posture and living space. Curious about the logistics, I asked how we might achieve this. He responded that we could save our money and use what we have.

“Use what we have?” I pondered aloud. The notion of enlarging the bed with limited materials seemed far-fetched, yet I remained open. His response, charged with enthusiasm and a quick-paced Indonesian accent, was:

“Ready? Just help me!”

And with that, we began tearing my bed apart…

Without precise measurements or additional materials, we deconstructed and repurposed parts of its wooden foundation to create an innovative, multifunctional piece. The result was a bed with a retractable bench, seamlessly integrating work and relaxation.

Here are two pictures of my bed, now with a retractable bench. This clever modification allowed me to work, dine, or simply place my water jugs on it.

Adjustable bed frame
Adjustable bed frame

Incredible! You had to see it to truly appreciate its brilliance.

This undertaking was a revelation, prompting a shift in my perspective: Identify my goal, take into account what I have, and creatively repurpose towards my goal.

Yet, as I surveyed my room for other potential projects, I found everything already served its intended purpose. Our place was bare without any superfluous items. Most of the rooms comprised a simple computer desk, wardrobe, and bed. After looking around for several minutes, I didn’t come up with anything else. It was a stark reminder of how our experiences, expectations, and mindsets can limit our creativity, echoing the sentiment of Albert Einstein:

“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

The true testament to his creativity came weeks later. Coming home to find our apartment in disarray, I knocked on his door to ask what he was doing. Before I could ask, I discovered he was dismantling his wardrobe for a new project. He envisioned a sliding table over his bed, a multifunctional space for dining, working, and entertainment.

I didn’t know what he was imagining, but that didn’t stop me from believing every bit of what he was intending to build.

He explained that one of the wardrobe’s doors appeared to be the length needed to cover the width of his bed. That, he thought, would make for a perfect tabletop. With that in mind, he was off to build the ultimate table.

Wardrobe doors

He explained that since the table will be long, it will need to slide back and forth to be ergonomic. So, he added wheels and put the entire table on tracks mounted to the side of the bed. The entire tabletop slid with ease.

Table sitting on tracks
Table sitting on tracks

With a mix of ingenuity and resourcefulness, he repurposed materials from around our apartment, adding functionality with under-glow lighting, built-in speakers, and even a custom lamp made from washing machine hoses. In the pictures below, you can see how he used these flexible tubes to hold an LED and tuck away the wires. He also built a docking station under the table to put away the lamp when not in use.

Hose lamps
Hose lamps

Now that the table was stable, he started to run wires underneath the table to power under-glow lights, speakers, and outlets for easy charging. This could’ve aired as an episode on “Pimp My Ride” where Xzibit would show the creation of an outlandish table.

It was time to finish up the top with organizers to help hold plates, books, and other random stuff. He used some thick rubber mat to hold the tableware in place. After about an hour of precision cutting, the tabletop was complete.

Tableware mat

At that point, we were joking that this table was on its way to becoming conscious.

After a couple of days, the table:

  • Covered the entire width of the bed
  • Slid back and forth with ease
  • Served as a working bench
  • Provided under-glow lighting
  • Lit up the room
  • Powered his electrical devices
  • Entertained with built-in speakers
  • Organized his tableware
  • … and who knows what else

Watching a movie

If I were to pay someone a respectable amount of money to build me a custom table, it wouldn’t be as functional or unique. Besides, the most impressive aspect was that he built it all himself. He leveraged our limited tools, space, and materials to achieve his goal.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I later came to understand this process as bricolage, the French term for tinkering and repurposing. This endeavor was not just about creating a unique piece of furniture, it demonstrated this interesting philosophy that transcends disciplines, encouraging creativity and resourcefulness.

Bricolage in art

In the end, what started as a simple living arrangement in Beijing became a journey of discovery, innovation, and friendship. It’s a reminder of the boundless potential that lies in reimagining the use of ordinary objects and spaces.

Through this story, I hope to inspire you to embrace bricolage in your creative endeavors. Who knows what you might create with the resources at your disposal?

When you ask:

  • Who looks at a bed and sees a working bench?
  • Who looks at washing machine hoses and sees lamps?
  • And who looks at a wardrobe and sees a multi-functional working table?

My roommate, Zhang, does.

Zhang's ultimate table

I extend my gratitude to Hacker News (Y Combinator) for their support and stimulating discussions. While opinions on the term “genius” may vary, geocrasher’s suggestion to describe these creative exploits as “ingenious” seems most fitting, capturing the essence of resourcefulness, originality, and clever execution that defined our experiences.

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© 2021 Farhad Ghayour
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