This is an excerpt from “Campaign Furniture” by Christopher Schwarz.
As the British military was forced to become more responsive and quick at the end of the Victorian era, traditional and bulky items were traded for furniture that was lightweight and compact.
Someone in the late 19th century invented the Roorkee chair, a Spartan design that was destined to influence generations of modern furniture designers in the 20th century.
The Roorkee, named after an area in India, has no fixed joinery. The legs and stretchers are joined without glue; when the chair is assembled, the seat and strapping hold everything together. Likewise, the back of the chair is but two sticks that are covered in cloth and held to the chair’s frame with bolts.
As a result of this shockingly spare design, the chair weighs little – 8 to 10 lbs. is typical. It folds into a small package. And despite all these details, it is remarkably comfortable.
The Roorkee is designed for lounging, not for dining or work at a tall desk. As a result, it is low to the floor, like a Morris chair or any other camp chair. Most Roorkee chairs were covered in rot-proof canvas. Today, reproductions are made in both leather and canvas.
The leather adds weight and stiffness. The weight is undesirable if you are portaging the chair through the mountains. But the stiffness of the back and seat is a good thing for your comfort.
Roorkees with canvas backs can feel like sitting in a flour sack (I’ve made several using military-spec canvas). So while leather might not be 100-percent authentic, I do think it is the superior material for this chair. After experimenting with hides of several thicknesses, my favorite is an 8 oz. hide, which is a full 1/8″ thick.
If you research this form yourself, you’ll find several versions of “improved” Roorkee chairs. These might have an adjustable headrest or sticks that you are supposed to drape your legs over, like a planter’s chair. I have yet to build an improved Roorkee.
Roorkee chairs show up in a variety of species, from ash to mahogany to teak. The way the stretchers are inserted into the legs can vary. One common method is a tapered mortise-and-tenon joint. This Windsor-chair joint offers a lot of surface area for the joint without weakening the leg in the way a cylindrical mortise would. Plus, the more weight that is placed on the chair, the tighter the joint becomes.
Some Roorkees are joined with a simple cylindrical mortise-and-tenon joint. Still others have some sort of hybrid joinery – the tenon might be a cylinder but it will have a square shoulder that fits into a shallow square mortise at the top of the cylindrical mortise.
As you study the Roorkee chair, you’ll also find a variety of turnings used for the legs, everything from a simple taper to strong (but busy) coves and beads.
The classic Roorkee has a turned cylinder near the top of each leg that acts as a convenient handle for lifting an assembled chair. The foot of a Roorkee is typically a straight taper that ends in some sort of shaped foot. Some Roorkees don’t have a shaped foot and end in a thin taper.
The Influence of the Design
The Roorkee chair was designed for the military, but its utilitarian core appealed to modern designers. Kaare Klint, one of the founders of the Danish modern style, directly aped the Roorkee chair for his famous “Safari Chair,” which was popular through the 1970s.
The influence of the Roorkee was more far spread than Denmark. Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” chair (1925), Le Corbusier’s “Basculant” chair (1928), Wilhelm Bofinger’s “Farmer Chair” (1966), Arne Norell’s “Sirocco” chair and Vico Magistretti’s “Armchair 905” (1964) all owe a tremendous debt to the Roorkee chair.
The influence of the Roorkee for decades after its introduction has always been an important indicator that campaign furniture as a whole might be an underappreciated style. Like the Roorkee, campaign furniture was designed to impress you more with its utility than its fashionableness. Its only real ornament consisted of things that made it stronger. It used woods that resisted the tropics, joinery that didn’t rely on glue and brass that held everything together.
In many ways, campaign pieces have more in common with workbenches and tool chests than with delicate dining tables, carved sideboards and veneered highboys. And that is why I think the campaign style is worth reviving among woodworkers.