Cornett’s Woven Masterpiece

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The “Mayor’s Chair” in the archives of the University of Kentucky’s Museum of Art.

I’ve just finished my article for Mortise & Tenon Magazine about Chester Cornett’s “Masterpiece Bookcase Rocker.” I believe Cornett called his bookcase rocker a masterpiece for its expert joinery, its level of adornment and care of construction – but over his eccentric career there were more than a few momentous chairs, each of which distilled or showcased a particular set of skills. In the bookcase rocker, it was his use of traditional joinery and form to accomplish an outlandish and beautiful chair (and you can read more about it in the upcoming Issue 5 of Mortise & Tenon). But for one of his other momentous pieces, the “Mayor’s Chair” (actually made to be presented to President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated before that could be effected), Cornett showed his incredible talent with an entirely different discipline – hickory bark weaving.

The Mayor’s Chair is a feat of handcraft, with walnut posts and rockers, and hickory rungs. But beyond its base construction, every flat surface, from the lids of the baskets used as armrests to the panels below the seat and the seat itself, is woven in narrow hickory bark Cornett harvested himself from the hills of Perry County, Ky. And, where most weavers have the luxury of hiding splices and material defects on the bottom of the panel, most of these panels are visible from both sides, and thus have nowhere to hide imperfections. With a technical skill I hadn’t known Cornett to have (or hadn’t looked for), he wove each panel without defect, with all surfaces that are visible showing minimal splices and few (if any) defects or errors.

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Beyond the beautiful execution of the standard herringbone pattern, Cornett displays a few other astonishing skills on the chair. For one, the octagonal seat is woven with the same pattern – a pattern not particularly suited to anything but four-sided panels. He solved this issue with a complex method of weaving over the proud corners of the bark, leaving a uniform, pointed edge that allowed him to adhere to the rectilinear pattern.

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A near invisible splice, one of only a few visible on the chair.

It is also worth noting his ability as a technician. After looking at the chair for a few minutes, I realized I hadn’t noticed a single splice (typically on a hickory bark seat, splices are a noticeable but inoffensive reality). Instead, the splices are near invisible, so expertly are they done, and even then, few and far between. For one, this is impressive from a raw material standpoint – the strips Cornett harvested must have been first-rate, long and free of defects that didn’t necessitate the use of a large number of splices of shorter lengths. Second, the straightforward talent that it took to simply execute these fine splices, using only a buck knife (as he was known to do) is impressive.

Were the chair just an expert exercise of weaving, it would impress me. Maybe even more exciting than this display of technical skill, however, is its unforced incorporation into the form of the piece. The bark’s coloration and patterning beautifully complement the simple walnut posts. The usual outrageous adornment often found in Cornett’s large rockers, such as 6″ gothic finials and oversize carved pegs, are understated in this chair. This shows an understanding of understated design in a chairmaker to whom most assign the dismissive term of “folk artist.” In using simple pegs and a squatter, simpler finial, Cornett does nothing to overpower the design, showing his self-awareness and ability not only as a technician but as a designer and craftsperson intimate with his medium and its presentation.

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In this chair, Cornett once again defied my expectations and preconceived ideas about what he was capable of. I expected to see a beautiful chair, yes, but like so many others, I had imagined the woven panels would be an over-the-top adornment by a chairmaker obsessed with pushing outrageous designs. What I found was an expertly executed chair, in both joinery, shaping and weaving, that is charming and inviting, not outrageous or overzealous. The more I spend time with Cornett’s chairs (there are two more on my shortlist to visit soon), the more I realize just how sincere his forms and abilities were. He was an eccentric character, for sure – but his chairs are nothing if not sound designs and solid constructions that grow from his eccentricity while solidly reflecting his immersion in a traditional craft handed down by skilled hands.

— Brendan Gaffney

P.S. Thank you to Janie Welker at the University of Kentucky Art Museum for her time and patience in letting me come to view, photograph and drool over (not on!) the chair. I have found the custodians of Cornett’s work around Kentucky and the Midwest to be terrifically welcoming to this shaggy young furniture maker, and the UK Art Museum is no exception. Thanks Janie!

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16 Responses to Cornett’s Woven Masterpiece

  1. Kyle Barton says:

    First of all great post on this rocker! What was the purpose of the “shelf” in front of the seat? To place something or rock a child? The “shelf” also appears to retract into the seat if desired.

  2. Blue Wren says:

    I can appreciate the exceptional skill that went into making this chair, but is there no one else out there who thinks this is close to the ugliest chair ever made?

    • Markyourwaste says:

      Right there with you Blue Wren. I think it’s proof that technical craft expertise doesn’t necessarily equal design brilliance. But then, beauty IS in the eye of the beholder and perhaps Brendan feels otherwise!

      • tsstahl says:

        There have been posts on this blog before about the maker (e.g. https://blog.lostartpress.com/2018/04/08/a-flatworkers-chire/). I’m only familiar with his work through these posts. The book case rocker is obviously a joke, yet executed with extreme care and craftsmanship. Think about it–shelves of books being rocked to and fro until they are eventually rocketed across the room. And yet, I’m not sure if the joke is more meta than physical.

        This guy’s rockers always (that I’ve seen on the blog) appear in numbers greater than 2. My expectations and stylistic sense do call them ‘ugly’, but my fat arse would love to sit in one on the porch.

        In short, I’m pretty sure Chester Cornett knew exactly how his work would appear to most people (the establishment) and wiped his eyebrow with the longest finger in their direction.

        • brendangaffney says:

          “And yet, I’m not sure if the joke is more meta than physical.”
          Cornett was much more self-aware than I think he was given credit for, especially when given the treatment of “folk artist” rather than craftsman or designer. He was shooting, I think, to push the envelope and make things no one else had made before. And here we are forty years later keeping them in climate controlled storage and writing about them on the internet.

          For what it’s worth – they’re also damn comfortable. I did not sit in this one, but we have visited some chairs in private hands, and they don’t disappoint.

      • Barry MacDonald says:

        I like it because it demonstrtes how Chester is a true original. Have you ever seen an octagon shaped chair? or a rocking chair with four rockers? or a chair with bookcases? Here is all three features in one chair… and it looks great! Another thought to ponder… the chair was made by entirely by hand with a drawknife and no power tools. Remember, Mr Cornet did not have Pinterest and Google images to find the pretiest example of chairs to copy, instead he used his own imagination to conjure up this chair. This was to be a gift to President Kennedy. I think Chester did a good job incorporating aspects of JFK’s personality into the chair. You can almost see President Kennedy sitting in this chair wileon the white house porch, and choosing a history book from the under the arms.

        • brendangaffney says:

          Cornett’s aesthetic was certainly original, and there are a significant number of quotes that he went out of his way to come up with novel designs.

          Your point about Pinterest and Google is particularly relevant – not only did he not have those things, he was essentially working completely alone and in the isolation of Eastern Kentucky. He saw very little furniture that he himself didn’t make, and what he did see was either cheap manufactured furniture or furniture made by other Appalchian makers. So, coming up with these designs and elaborations on the form is quite a departure. I won’t say that every new design Cornett came up with is one I love, but I’m smitten by many of them.

    • brendangaffney says:

      Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder. I will say that this chair is not perfectly summed up in photos and is sweeter in person. But – it’s certainly not for everyone. I think an understanding of the technical skill and life of the maker does a great deal for winning me over, but I also genuinely like the form. To each their own!

      • Markyourwaste says:

        Very true. I think holding strongly to this aphorism – to each his own – is a very important part of being a craftsperson. Do I like Cornett’s forms? No, not really, but I have to admit that having been shown them by you has definitely expanded my “chair paradigm” and who knows how that’s benefitted me? Thanks for the mind expansion!

  3. BJohnstone says:

    Thank you Blue Wren

  4. Gustave says:

    Sometimes form follows funk!

  5. mike says:

    Add me to the list of people who don’t see the beauty, or even novelty, in this piece. I understand that the weaving is difficult. But lots of things in woodworking are difficult. If I were to consider factors for evaluating a piece of furniture (aesthetics, construction, function, etc) I am not sure “difficulty of execution” would even crack the top 10.

  6. David says:

    That chair is almost as ugly as the one Christopher made out of a tree stump. Almost, but not quite.

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