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.
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.
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.
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.
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!