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.
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.
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.)
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.
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