Nearly everyone who has visited the workshop has commented on how I should change these Gibson chairs to make them more contemporary – or to alter them using my own design language.
Chamfer the underside of the seat. Add bevels and hardlines. Reduce the visual weight of the crest. Saddle the seat. Make one with three legs. And on and on.
I haven’t taken their advice. Here’s why.
When I seek to understand a form, I first want to get as close to building an original as possible. I attempt to replicate the surface finishes, the shapes and the joinery. And I try (as much as possible) to use tools and processes that were appropriate to the time the original was made.
I do this not to make a slavish reproduction. Slavish reproductions actually don’t interest me much. Instead, I want to learn what’s important about how the piece goes together. Making an original teaches me far more than just studying some photos and riffing all modern on them.
With the Gibson chair, there are some curious parts that aren’t obvious from photos. The two back sticks that aren’t angled are a different shape than their neighbors. They are deliberately oval and inserted into a deliberately ovaled and tapered mortise through the arm. Why? The taper is obvious. It locks the arm in place from below. The angled stick next to it locks the arm from above.
But why oval? After making three of these chairs, I think I’m closer to the answer, like something on the tip of your tongue. I suspect (but could be wrong as this is a blog entry and not a researched book after all) that a tapered oval is:
- Easy to make with a round rasp. Tip the rasp forward and take a few strokes. Tip it back and make a few strokes. That gives you an oval mortise. Then you adjust the rasp’s angle and take out the high spot inside the mortise.
- Making a round and tapered mortise instead would take a little more work and might weaken the arm because you have to remove more material from below the arm.
But I am going to make some more Gibsons and think some more with my hands (feel free to build one yourself and chat me up).
This chair is about 90 percent of where I want to be. I have the geometry of all the sticks working like the originals. To get to this point, I used lumber I had on hand – mostly scraps from other chairs. Now I am going to use riven material for the legs and sticks so I can get closer to the appearance of the legs and back sticks (and if I wanted to go full reproduction I might use a broom or tool handle as one of the legs – a somewhat common repair on originals).
This chair is going to Narayan Nayar to thank him for photographing the construction process. He picked out the nice color (it’s General Finishes’ “Basil” Milk Paint).
The next chair might get a more Irish green. Or it might end up natural, like some of the museum versions I’ve seen.
— Christopher Schwarz