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MIT crafters want the Red Line’s ‘ugly’ — but oddly beloved — fabric seats to live forever

A group from the school’s Hobby Shop salvaged materials from old MBTA trains, and is giving them new life as “Choo-Choo Chairs.”

Coby Unger and a team of students working at MIT's Hobby Shop saved Red Line seats from the scrap heap and gave them a new life as "Choo-Choo Chairs."Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The psychedelic patterns on the seats of the Red Line’s aging subway cars have never exactly appealed to Coby Unger.

“I would say it’s objectively ugly,” he said of the fabric’s design, which is well-known to commuters not just for its splatter of squiggly, multicolored shapes, but also its worn, mashed, stained, and sometimes sticky appearance.

But as he hopped on one of the new Red Line trains in February, during a ride from Davis Square to Central Square, a thought crossed his mind: As the T systematically replaces its old stock of trains with newer ones featuring red plastic seats, what if the iconic — if somewhat unpleasant — cloth material riders are accustomed to is simply lost forever?

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He decided to take a stand.

“There’s so much nostalgia for that pattern,” said Unger, an associate instructor at MIT’s Hobby Shop, a space on campus where students can tinker on wood and metal projects. “And the stainless steel construction is really beautiful.”

So he sent emails to several transit officials with an offer: Instead of junking the seats when the older-model trains are sent to the scrap yard, why not donate them to him, instead?

Hoping to get in their good graces, and show how committed he was to this rescue mission, he even found an MBTA seat-inspired fabric online and sewed a hand-made shirt out of it, before sending the T a photo of himself with it on.

It worked. And in no time, he had a truck full of decommissioned seats salvaged from the T’s maintenance yard, with a firm plan to help them live on in mind.

This summer and fall, Unger and a group of crafters at the Hobby Shop spiffed up seven of the old seats, mounting them onto wooden legs made out of reclaimed church pews. They call the concept “Choo-Choo Chairs,” and believe it’s the perfect way to preserve an offbeat slice of Boston’s transit history.

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A handful of seats from a decommissioned MBTA Red Line train, saved from the scrap heap, have been turned into chairs by a group of students at the MIT Hobby Shop.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The fabric that makes up the seat cushioning has been controversial since the day it was first installed in 2006 — and not just for its multicolored design, which former MBTA General Manager Daniel Grabauskas said represented the Red, Green, Blue, and Orange lines.

According to Globe archives, shortly after it first appeared, a commuter filed a complaint with the T, pleading with officials to scrap the material. The person said it had “no place on public transportation” because it “absorbs body odor, sweat, lice and any liquids spilled.” (Another rider, meanwhile, approved of the seats, saying they made for “a more comfy/homey type environment” on the train cars.)

Unger said the seat covers he received from the T were mostly in decent shape, and the transit agency actually gave him a few sheets of brand new fabric for the project, which he chronicled at length on the website Instructables.

For the chairs that had seen some mileage over the years, Unger said the cleaning process wasn’t that complex: “We just hosed them down.”

Even if you can’t see past the swirly pattern of the fabric, Unger said the stainless steel components of the seats are strong, smartly designed, and top-notch.

“From a manufacturing point of view,” he said, “it’s super robust and elegant.”

Still, the response to his chair project has been mixed, with some people wondering why anyone would want to keep them around.

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“It’s been fun to see the difference in reaction,” he said. “Some people are like, whatever. And other folks are like, ‘Where can I get one? Take my money!’”

Based on all of the attention he’s received this week, after the project was featured Universal Hub, he’s considering bigger things for the “Choo-Choo Chairs.”

If he and the others who worked on the chairs can get their hands on additional MBTA seating from the old trains, he hopes to make lots more of them, and then potentially auction them off for charity.

Until then, Unger said he’s proud to have his own Red Line fabric chair on display at home, where he can look at it — and of course, sit in it — every day.

“It’s not a fabric I would choose,” he said. “But I have it in my house, and I think it’s oddly beautiful.”

Associate Instructor Coby Unger is flanked by Madavin Vong, left, and Bobby Johnston, right, at the MIT Hobby Shop. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him @SpencerBuell.