A Flatworker’s ‘Chire’

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Few can claim that they’ve made a novel or uncompromising break from the design of their time. Whether we are interpreting, imitating, recasting or reacting to the designs of others (consciously or unconsciously), few designers add truly original elements to their forms.

For many, a search for novel design eventually leads them to “outsider” or “folk” art. While the definition of outsider art is problematic to nail down, it often revolves around a character whose drive to express themselves in a given medium isn’t influenced by or born of trend, opinion or feedback – and some of the best examples come from those who were compelled in an extreme manner by some compulsion, often psychological. This compulsion not only serves to improve the technical abilities of the artist, but accelerate and iterate their creative designs, letting them sprint rather than walk off the beaten path.

Mixing compulsion and a lack of technical ability is not necessarily a non-starter in the visual arts – when building furniture, however, there are certain baselines of ability that must be met for a piece to function as a usable object. Thus, the “outsider” furniture maker must have three things: a certain level of technical skill, the compulsion to make and a mind capable of design leaps and novelty.

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Chester at his shop in Dwarf, Ky., with a few banjos and the bookcase rocker.

Chester Cornett, the “Craftsman of the Cumberlands,” had all three, in spades. Having learned traditional Appalachian chairmaking from his grandfather and uncle growing up, his technical skill with the simple hand tools he used was not simply adequate, but expert, even masterful at times. He was extremely compulsive, driven to constantly work at making chairs, making not only countless traditional forms but exploring a wide array of non-traditional forms as well, like rocking chairs with three or four feet, all manner of carving styles and motifs, even various materials like willow, upholstery, hickory bark and an array of different woods. He even made and modified banjos and guitars in his spare time.

This technical practice made him a great chairmaker and earned him a reputation among his fellow chairmakers in southeastern Kentucky. What made him exceptional, novel and unique among them (and what has drawn Chris and I to venture around Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky to see his work) is the coupling of this technical ability and practice with a positively different kind of creative brain. Cornett had a a rough life, to say the least, suffering extreme post-traumatic stress from his time in World War II and discord at home, with chronic illness in his children and marital issues. While this strife certainly caused Cornett significant emotional and psychological hardship, it seems that part and parcel along with it came a mind that was able to make creative leaps in design. Whether it was crossed wires or new connections, there is no denying his ability to come up with novel furniture forms. Add his feverish desire to iterate and his technical skill to his novel designs, and you’ve got a furniture maker worthy of investigation.

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Of all the chairs Cornett made, one of the most extreme examples of “out” thinking applied with real technical prowess is what he called his “Two-in-One Bookcase Rocker, Masterpiece of Furniture,” one of a series of two-in-one rockers (each had eight legs and four rockers, or two chairs worth). At the time in 1965, he called it his masterpiece, saying “I never made nothin’ like it in my life. There ain’t nothing in the world like hit. That’s why I call it my masterpiece.”

Cornett made the chair for Michael Owen Jones (a folklorist who studied and wrote a book about Cornett) in place of the traditional seven-slat rocker the author had ordered. Cornett clearly was making a chair he thought befitting the author by including the appropriate book storage – but this chair is not simply a visual portmanteau of bookshelf and chair. While the added storage indicates a certain practicality of design, very little of the rest of the piece’s creative decisions are so straightforward. The maker chose to enclose the entirety of the chair with pinned panels (a total of 17 panels filled the spaces between the 12 posts and six shelves). Perhaps most notably, the top of each of the seven panels that make up the sides and back of the chair is adorned with a spoked half-circle, upon which Cornett carved the inscription “Old, Kentucky Made Buy Chester Cornett’s Hands Engle Mill.” (Cornett was, as Wendell Berry once noted, an “undaunted speller,” and his phonetic spelling of words like “buy” (by) “hit” (it) and “chire” (chair) not only appear in his writings and letters, but are often carved right into his work.)

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As if the bigger picture of this chair wasn’t enough, it is absolutely full of details and curiosities far beyond the meaning of such half-circle motifs. The pins used to attach the shelves and affix the tenons in their mortises feature two distinct carving patterns, one faceted and the other fluted. Each octagonal post ends in a beautiful drawknife-carved finial. Each leg is tenoned to the rocker below, but instead of whittling down the leg to a round tenon, Cornett carved the tenon in a rectangular fashion, providing further glue surface and strength.

There are two things I like most about this chair. For one, it’s a chair after my own heart. I’m a “flat worker” (as Tim Manney once chidingly called me, in place of cabinetmaker) and if there’s a chair that aspires to be casework, or the other way around, it’s this one. I’m already dreaming of how floating panels and bent-lam rockers could make their way into the same piece.

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The other thing I adore in this piece of furniture is the credibility that is somehow pervasive in what should be a ridiculous piece of work. Cornett was indeed an expert in dealing with wood – having rocked and moved the piece around while examining it, it feels solid and well joined at every point of possible weakness. The pins are carefully carved, the finials are a perfect example of refined handwork, the tenons are carefully staggered to allow for proper joint strength. The form may be humorous but it was made in earnest by skilled hands, and the end result is a chair with significant presence. I’ve taken the measurements, and I’ve got the reference photos – without a doubt, this chair, maybe more aptly called a “chire,” is now on my short list of builds.

Thanks to Ellen Sieber and her staff at the Mathers Museum in Bloomington, Ind., for their time and patience in helping us through the museum’s incredible archives. The museum’s collection of Cornett’s work is astounding and well kept – I look forward already to visiting them again.

— Brendan Gaffney

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14 Responses to A Flatworker’s ‘Chire’

  1. Doug Brumm says:

    “has drawn Chris andI”?

    Please do a bit of grammar checking before posting. The quality of work coming out of Lost Art activities deserves better documentation than this common, though major, boo-boo.

    Best regards, Doug Brumm

    • jayedcoins says:

      Doug, that odd sound you just heard from out in the distance was every reader of your comment rolling their eyes.

      Call me a troll for this reply if you like, but Brendan spent time with one of the weirdest and most unique pieces of furniture in the world, took photographs and measurements, and then sat down and wrote up a lengthy — and free! — blog post about it, out of the goodness of his own heart and the passion he has for the work.

      I’m not one to say critiques shouldn’t be welcome, but come on man, is this really a substantive critique of the *free blog post* that you’ve been able to enjoy?

  2. Richard Mahler says:

    The bookcase rocker has a decided backward tilt but I assume a professional chairmaker would not put such time and thought into anything that was not stable in use. I also wonder at what this creation must weigh! It occurs to me to also wonder if keeping books on the shelves was a problem when the chair was in use and actively rocked. Fascinating to say the least!

    • brendangaffney says:

      It rocks very well, having moved it around, and I suspect it was pretty comfortable, too (Chester bragged about his “settin’ chires” and how comfortable they were). The chair is actually not all that heavy, for two reasons. For one, it’s smaller than it looks (if you look at the photo of Chester next to the chair, you can see it’s relatively small, and Chester himself was no large man). Also, the space beneath the seat and both armrests is hollow. Myself and a staff member at the museum easily lifted and moved it around. As for whether the books moved while rocking, I suspect they would – I’d love to ask Chester what he imagined.

  3. The “Winchester Mystery House” of Chair works

  4. jayedcoins says:

    Brendan, thanks for the post, it is very interesting, to say the least! I have to admit, I’d never even half-think about putting something like this in my living room. :p But seeing some of these close photos and hearing about the construction is pretty remarkable.

    Most importantly, I like the fact that Chester made what he wanted to make — sure as hell the guy wouldn’t have cared whether or not I wanted one in my living room or not, and good on him for that. One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn in my relatively young weekend warrior “career” of hand tool woodworking is how important it is to find the specialties you like and focus on those. I think there’s a tendency of many makers to feel like, “Why shouldn’t I make that piece I need, even if it isn’t my favorite type of work?” Or, “Why shouldn’t I dress all this stock by hand?” It took me a couple years of trying different types of work to find what I really, really liked. And it seems to me that in looking at the things you have repeatedly posted (not just this blog, but also on your Insta feed) from Chester, he was a guy that knew the importance of loving what you do.

    • brendangaffney says:

      In addition to the “loving what you do” aspect, for some people, it really does come down to compulsion. I’ve talked about this with a few people (Raney Nelson in particular) and some people are compelled to do what they’re going to do, not from pride or joy but simply because there’s something about that particular craft or production that scratches an itch of theirs. I would guess that Chester was in that category – he certainly never made any money doing it, and while he saw some recognition in his time, i would guess it wasn’t what drove him to work.

      That said, for anyone not driven by psychosis, I think you’re right. Ejler Hjorth-Westh always reminded students at CR that some cultures believe you do in the afterlife what you do most in your daily life. I’m not sure I subscribe to that belief, but it does point out an important point – do what you love, as often as you can.

  5. Many books and articles about furniture design praise the hoity-toity and dismiss the truly unique. We are told that bulk is bad, that every line should be graceful and every feature should be understated. Chairs must be strong, while appearing as if they might collapse under a large cat. Then a master says “screw that!” and makes one with antlers on the back and shelves as thick as steaks. I swear I heard audible gasps across the Windsor chair-making community.

  6. afoundsheep says:

    Brendan, I’d be mighty curious what your thoughts are after you build it, and if there are any changes you’d make (if any!). This is definitely one wild chair, and I find conflicting thoughts between “good for Chester” and “why did he make it like this?”
    And most importantly, after you build it, is there any chance of a future PWW article showing the construction techniques?

    • brendangaffney says:

      There will certainly be changes, though I hope none that compromise the overall effect of the chair. I’d like to find answers to questions like “why did he make it like this,” and I’ll be sure to write about it as I go through the process.

  7. Drew says:

    “Undaunted speller” is probably the greatest title/description ever

  8. Great post about an incredibly unique individual. I very much look forward to learning more Chester Cornett and the work he has done!

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