Naked Necessity

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Earlier this week, contributing editor Suzanne Ellison suggested a short Q&A on early seating furniture, which she has been helping me research for “The Furniture of Necessity.” I consented, as long as the interview was conducted nude. This is my new condition for all interviews, except when it comes to Rosie O’Donnell. The following is the transcript of the chat.

Suzanne: The only condition you have for this email chat was it be done in the nude. Due to the low thermostat setting in my place I asked for a slight change of terms. I will be unclothed but draped (artistically) with a fleece blanket. You agreed this change was fair as you are already covered in fur.

You have written often of your admiration for John Brown and through him you discovered, and became enamored of, Welsh stick chairs. When did you build your first stick chair and how did it turn out? Was this the first chair you made? What did you learn from that first stick chair build?

Chris: I first learned of John Brown in the late 1990s when he was writing columns for Good Woodworking magazine in England. I was completely smitten by his chairs – unlike Windsor chairs, these looked like an animal that would pounce on you.

At the time I’d built quite a number of chairs, but they were all “frame” chairs – built using rectangular mortise-and-tenon joinery. Lots of Morris chairs (too many, really) and other Arts & Crafts arm chairs, settles and cube chairs.

I wanted to go to England to take a class with Brown, but I couldn’t afford the trip, so John Hoffman and I found a chairmaker in rural Cobden, Ontario, who taught Welsh chairs. We went up there for a week, and Dave Fleming introduced us to many of the skills that would change my thinking – turning on a pole lathe, working green stock with a hatchet and froe, all the wacky geometry and (most important) the wedged, conical mortise-and-tenon joint that is the foundation of Windsor chairs and staked furniture.

Suzanne: What, if any, modifications have you made to your stick chairs through the years? Do you have any photos of some of your early stick chairs?

I’ve tried lots of variations – different kinds of arm bows, different spindle shapes, different crest rails. I even tried a couple that had a solid backsplat (those were a design failure and so we sit on those at our house). Mostly, I’ve just been trying to expand the range of chairs that I can build. This book is getting me into three-legged variations and the backstools.

Suzanne: When it comes to necessary furniture it made sense to first have some sort of box or chest to store valuables. Eventually, something to sit on and get off the dirt floor was needed. Can you compare the Countrey Stoole and the staked stool? What are some of the earliest examples of these you have found? (In the van Ostade painting from 1661 the little girl to the left is at a countrey stool, to the left of her is a staked stool or small bench.)

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Chris: These forms of furniture are hard to date because they remained unchanged for so long. So the furniture record is murky – stools made in the 1500s look identical to those in the 1800s, so we look to painings and drawings for clues. The Countrey Stool shows up in Randle Holme’s “Academy of Armory,” which I believe is the first written reference to the form. Holme shows it with a thick top and three legs that pierce the top – just like the photo you have.

The van Ostade paintings implies this stool – which could also be a table or work surface – was made from a section of a log that has been crosscut. The end grain is the top. It’s an easy way to make a work surface that can take abuse – the earliest butcher block. Holme’s drawing does not give me the impression that his stool was made from a stump, however.

In contrast, the staked stool or sawbench or whatever, is clearly made from a flat board and the face grain of the board is the working or sitting surface. In the painting, you can also see how some material has been added below the top to create more joinery surface and stiffen the top. This is also pretty typical and is still used today in what we call Moravian stools or chairs – the high form of staked furniture.

Suzanne: You’re not kidding about how long these forms have been around. D-shaped three-legged and rectangular four-legged stools dating to the 10th and 11th century have been found in Britain and Ireland. Since the Vikings left their DNA in large parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, who knows where else this form was used. We don’t know if it was their invention or if it was found on one of their expeditions and adapted for their use.

John Gloag wrote that the two furniture forms are a box and a platform. Despite the 17th-19th century “cheery peasant” paintings complete with dramatic lighting and smiling faces, life and living conditions were pretty grim. How did the stool, a form of platform, improve the life of the peasant?

Chris: Social hierarchy at the time had a lot to do with where you were sitting – hence the word “chairman.” The lowest class sat on the floor. Then you get stools, backstools and forms for the working people – these got you off the floor and in a position to do some work by the fire. The highest class of people got chairs. There’s little doubt that the progression – from floor to armchair – was all about comfort for the human body and was something you earned (or perhaps inherited).

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Suzanne: Where actual peasant homes have been preserved, and in paintings, we often see a variety of stools (creepies, D-shaped, square), low benches, backstools and chairs. What does that tell you?

I see a family hierarchy. The stools and benches were multi-purpose – so-called “pig benches” could be used for slaughter and sitting. The chairs were for the heads of the family.

In looking at all these forms in one household you also get the impression that they were user-made. They look like they were made using found materials – sometimes roots, sticks and stumps. And the joinery is basic. You can make a stool with just an auger or brace (which has been around since the 1400s) and a hatchet.

Suzanne: I think it also shows a progression of furniture through the generations of a family. As a new piece was made, or possibly obtained through a dowry, the older stools or benches became available for younger members of a family to use. Subsequent generations had more seating and work surfaces and life was a bit more comfortable. It also speaks to how sturdy these pieces were. They stood up to a lot of use.

You have written about at least three different sawbenches; the most recent is the staked sawbench. What variations have you used in building this sawbench and have you determined your “best build?”

Chris: I’ve been messing around with staked sawbenches to explore the form a bit, inside and out. I’ve been changing the legs, the materials, the way the joint is made and then cutting them apart to see how things work inside the joint. In all likelihood, the original builders didn’t over-think it as much. But I can’t help myself.

The sawbench is the first project in “The Furniture of Necessity,” and it introduces people to the joint and the geometry. Once you build the sawbench, all the other staked forms are a cinch to construct. So I’m trying to start readers off on the right foot – hence the building of the same piece over and over. I don’t know if there is a “best” way to do, but I do have some clues about what makes a good staked joint.

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Suzanne: In the last week you have been working on your trademarked Staked Chair, really a backstool. Can you explain the significance of the backstool in the family tree of seating? With the back added how does that change leg angles (rake and splay), if any?

Chris: The geometry of chairs is different than stools. You don’t have to use much rake and splay on a stool because all of the force applied to a stool comes from above – the buttocks. You need just enough of an angle to keep the stool from tipping over, but not so much angle that you trip over the thing constantly.

Adding a back to a stool – a backstool – changes the forces. Suddenly you have lateral forces (your back pressing on the crest and spindles) plus downward pressure.

The historical solution is to keep the front legs minimally raked and splayed like a stool. But you rake the rear feet (or foot) more dramatically backward. Ideally, I like to put the foot of the rear leg under the head of the sitter.

So this form adds comfort and complexity to the construction.

Incidentally, I’m building this three-legged version to test the assertion of furniture historians who say it takes “skill” to sit in a three-legged chair without toppling. That smells of crap.

Suzanne: You also have a three-legged stick chair (from one of the Temple Newson Stable Court exhibitions) planned as a future build. This looks to be a transition piece from backstool to chair. You got pretty excited about this little piece when you saw it. What are you looking forward to with this project?

I love Welsh chairs. I don’t think I have a drop of Welsh blood in me, but something about their shape speaks to me. The Cwm Tudu chair (what does that rhyme with?) is particularly enchanting because of its arm bow. It might be made from a found piece of wood with a natural crook. I’m trying to work up the guts to make the chair with a branch for an armbow, but I don’t want it to look like a driftwood sculpture you’d find for sale at Panama City, Fla.

The biggest joy for me is finishing a chair that looks sculptural, sits well and is built using dirt-simple geometry. It’s almost like knowing a secret that has been obscured for many years. And every chair form is a slightly different riddle to solve.

Suzanne: I like the idea of a favored chair as sculpture rather than just a holder of bodies. Experimentation is necessary for the maker to find the balance of design, materials and construction. Mies van der Rohe said, “The chair is a very difficult object. Everyone who has ever tried to make one knows that. There are endless possibilities – the chair has to be light, it has to be strong, it has to be comfortable….”

On the other hand we need to find out how to pronounce “Cwm Tudu.” I can’t use it in a limerick until then.

Last year I sent you an image of a child’s four-legged Welsh stick chair and quickly got a reply from you that the chair had five legs. You were correct, it had five legs. Without being able to examine the chair in person, what do you think was going on with that chair? Three legs too tippy, four still not enough, let’s go with five? Have you come across any other five-legged chairs?

Chris: I can only guess as to why you would make a chair with more than five legs. It uses more material and complicates construction. Here are some guesses, which are probably wrong: Perhaps it started life as a four-legged chair and one leg became loose or weak, so a fifth leg was added as an easier solution to replacing the bum leg. Second theory: It was built for a corpulent person. When dealing with furniture that was made by self-trained woodworkers, non-standard construction methods are the standard.

I have seen folk chairs (and rockers) with many more legs. Chester Cornett was famous for this.

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Suzanne: OK, let’s look at the wacky “Sculpstoel” or “Men Shoveling Chairs,” Flemish, by the Circle of Rogier van der Weyden from 1444-50 in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is earlier than Randle Holme’s history of 17th century seating which you recently posted. What do you see and please give your interpretation of why they are shoveling chairs.

Chris: Once again, I see social hierarchy. This was a drawing for a sculpture for the Brussels town hall. One of the best explanations of its meaning (by Erwin Panofsky) is that the men with shovels are the city fathers creating social order amongst all the classes of people in the city, which are represented by the different kinds of chairs. There are curules and a fancy frame chair that represent the upper classes and staked stools and the like for the lower classes.

As a chairmaker, I see all the forms that were extant at the time. And different construction techniques, from the rectangular mortise-and-tenon on down to the staked stool. What is most important – in terms of the “Furniture of Necessity” – is that these 15th-century forms are indistinguishable from Holme’s 17th-century forms or the extant 19th-century forms in Wales.

— Christopher Schwarz & Suzanne Ellison

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26 Responses to Naked Necessity

  1. djdesros says:

    If you really wanted the pronunciation… the c is hard, the w is an “oo” sound and the u’s are an “ee” sound… koom tidi

  2. Richard O. Byrne says:

    Chris – Your Comment thing would not work for me, but my comment on chairs is below:

    A most interesting dialog on early chairs…but I think you miss the sitting “tool” one needs to do many jobs using ones hands…and those “chairs” designed to give “control” to the tools and processes various tasks require.; we can’t just comment on what went on in living spaces Also, we cannot ignore the seating traditions of Egypt, Rome, Pompeii and many other historical records…all with examples that have come down to today an were part of a long “handing down”. The “Dark Ages may have been dark but one needn’t be too bright to find a chunk of wood to sit on. I discount comments of people sitting on the dank earthen floors of some banquet hall with the chairman sitting and the rest hunkered down on their heels. The many seating forms of tribal Africa must also be accounted for even if a Western written text did not follow man’s early innate need to sit! Keep at the task of understanding the history of chairs and the history they express. Thanks, Richard O. Byrne

    • Daniel Roy says:

      Interesting. The form of a chair or stool being influenced by work being performed while sitting on it. This doesn’t seem to be where Chris is coming from though. Looks like he’s focusing on furniture for the home. And, he can ignore other cultures because he’s the one writing the book (Furniture of Necessity) and has his own agenda, not to say that that would not be interesting as well.

  3. John Vernier says:

    Recent research about the iconography of the van der Weyden drawing is summarized in this abstract:
    http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=17085293
    (The original article is in a Belgian art history journal).

    The design is a visual pun which commemorates a prominent house named “De Scupstoel” (The ducking stool), which was torn down to build a new wing of the Brussels city hall in 1444. The drawing is the plan for a carved column capital which decorated the new building.

    I don’t think this explanation is at odds with Panofsky’s interpretation, but it does enhance it (Netherlandish artists loved their puzzles and their layers of symbolism), and explains the reason behind the creation of this rather baffling drawing.

    I’m quite looking forward to your new book!

  4. Daniel Roy says:

    What the hell Chris! The most important stool in history is not even mentioned! The bar stool better be in the book!

    • saucyindexer says:

      Ah, my nemesis, the bar stool. Approach with caution when wearing a silk skirt. The run and jump is also not advised.

  5. momist says:

    I went back to look at the Welsh chair illustration at the top, and saw a three legged chair. Wouldn’t the five legged chair have started out that way, and the only sensible way to add more stability was to make it five rather than four?

  6. Pronunciation aside, apparently KWM TUDU means something like “King of the Valley” wherein KWM means valley, and TUDU means king. A good seat for a person of authority.

  7. alanjbishop says:

    Three legged stools and chairs have the advantage that they are always stable on rough ground – three legged stools don’t rock. By contrast, current OHS regulations require modern office stairs to have 5 feet (casters) because they are more stable

  8. alanjbishop says:

    That’s chairs – not stairs – and it applies to those office chairs that revolve and have casters….

  9. carpenterman says:

    The comment about the ‘hierarchy’ of chairs and who gets to sit where, according to status and seniority is highly interesting, and I believe correct. Also things are more refined and subtle today this behavior can still be observed, at least in formal gatherings and boardrooms. Ever noticed how someone sitting in the ‘wrong’ chair, even when it is offered, is feeling really uncomfortable. If you follow the hierarchy of chairs all the way to the top, I guess you would find the ‘Throne’ a piece of necessity to rule an empire.

    I am with Roy, favoring the bar-stool, that most sociable of them all. Many of the best ideas where hatched sitting on them and most of the world problem solved; if only we could remember them. Now I am interested in IT’S history, and why it is so high, that is somewhat counter intuitive.

    • tsstahl says:

      I have no idea if this is fanciful crap, or history. It was explained to me (by a bartender) that the bar height is for the convenience of the barkeeper, not the customer. The customer was originally meant to stand, and thus encourage turnover at the bar. The stool was added later when folks figured out that longer bar stay means more money spent.

      Sounds like it could be true, but heck there could be some long lost edict from some inbred Royal decreeing what a bar is and isn’t. 🙂

  10. blefty says:

    Chris,
    I remember going to a southern furniture show in Knoxville, Tn., a couple of years ago and it seems like Don Weber from Paint Lick, Kentucky was there. I am probably wrong on either his name or town or both…I believe he is both a blacksmith and furniture maker. His furniture resembles the above. I am sure you are familiar with him. He was a very interesting person.

  11. mctoons555 says:

    The only three legged chair I’ve seen in person was similar to the one on the middle right in the first picture but it had a trapezoidal rear leg instead of a round stick. The wide end of the trapezoid was on the floor and the narrow end was mortised into an extension of the seat behind the vertical arm rail supports. The chair was in an antique store and was purported to be very old. At the time I assumed the trapezoidal shape was meant to provide more stability. The chair appeared to be very well made and the seat looked like it was one single piece but they didn’t allow anyone to sit in it. I think it was oak but the wood was very dark. It was very cool looking but way more expensive than I was willing to pay at the time.

    I have been looking forward to this book ever since you first mentioned it.

  12. Chris, enjoyed the conversation and the reference to purchasing driftwood as art from Panama City put a smile on my face as I grew up an hour north of there and know exactly what you are talking about.

  13. On your chair, why did you choose that grain orientation for the seat? Aren’t you worried that the forces on the back spindles and the back leg might spit the seat? My instinct would tell me to run the grain the other way, but maybe I’m missing something…

    • In some old chairs the grain runs that direction. And they survived just fine.

      I copied that detail to make the seat easier to saddle, a topic I’ll be covering in depth. My guess is that once the seat is about 2-1/2″ thick, the grain orientation is not as critical as it is on a seat that is thinner.

  14. I beg of you sir, please, please, please do not show us a rendering of the Schwarz Stool.

  15. mcdara says:

    Suzanne, you used the term “Creepie” I have heard that used before, regarding small 3 legged stools. Do you know where that term comes from? It didn’t appear in Peter Follansbee’s list and he said he has never heard the term.

    • saucyindexer says:

      I found creepies mentioned in Ireland and Scotland. Here’s a link to the Irish National Museum:http://www.museum.ie/en/exhibition/faq/faqs-irishcountryfurniture.aspx
      The book, ‘Irish Rural Interiors in Art’ by Kinmonth also mentions the creepie. There are few examples to be found given the extreme poverty and loses after the Great Famine. As for Scotland there are two forms referred to as a creepie. One is a small bench (to me) rather than a stool from the Orkney Islands; it is still made today. These are easily found on the internet. The more famous Scottish creepie is from the 17th century and was flung at a minister by a certain Jennie Geddes. She started a three-day riot. That creepie was a low folding stool. Somewhere I read the term creepie possibly arose because the stool was very low to the ground and when sitting on one children would scoot, or creep along. I hope that helps.

  16. saucyindexer says:

    Manorher = another.

    • rjvyoung says:

      The book Irish Country Furniture 1700 – 1950 by Kinmouth says ” The term ‘creepie’ or occasionally ‘creepy’ was until recently often applied to a three- or four-legged stool, especially in the most northerly counties of Ireland”
      The book is well worth a read, with loads of details about the construction of Irish furniture.
      Looking forward to the new book.

  17. Ron Dyck says:

    My wife is Welsh, Cwm is pronounced koom or coomb and is a glacial valley.
    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cwm

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