One of the most important parts of learning about chairs is to look at a lot of chairs and listen to people talk about what they like and don’t like. Even if I don’t agree with someone’s assessment of a chair, I am interested in how that person reacts to a design.
For many months, Klaus, Rudy and I have been chatting about different chairs via WhatsApp, an internet messaging program. And I think that you might enjoy a look at some of these lighthearted talks.
Beware: This is like talking about a chair after a couple of beers. These are not formal critiques based on the column orders or Vitruvius’ “De architectura.” They are a look at what chairmakers talk about when they look at old chairs – both beautiful and a little on the funky side. The language is a little salty (though no worse than you’d see on broadcast television). If you are sensitive, please don’t ready any further.
These chats are one of the highlights of my day. I hope you enjoy them and they help you form your own opinions about design.
— Christopher Schwarz
Rudy Everts: Hi Klaus, I found this chair you’d maybe like to see! It has been sold by a south Wales company. It’s quite small, it measures: height 29”, width 24”, depth 19”, seat height 16.5”.
Klaus Skrudland: Whoa. Do you think it’s from Wales? Looks like it’s from Mars.
Rudy: Many chairs being offered for sale claim Welsh heritage to fetch a higher price. This one is actually from South Mars. I know, the chair seems crude, but wait until you see the armbow joint.
Klaus: Quite a rudimentary chair, indeed. I have a weak spot for these simple, raw chairs, though. They give me a kick.
Rudy: By the way, that back leg definitely looks like a turd.
Klaus: Mmmhmm. It’s being pooped out as we speak.
Rudy: Charming… So, should we go over the chair top to bottom or other way around? Your call. Crest or legs, that is the question.
Klaus: I’m a leg lover!
Rudy: Alright. Well, with wonky chairs like this I always wonder if the maker used a whole branch and just stripped off the bark. And did he/she leave the pith in?
Klaus: It sure looks like they just picked branches of a tree and perhaps drawknifed or spokeshaved them to shape. Probably with the pith in. I also wonder if they didn’t bother finding straight branches for legs? Why not?
Rudy: I think this chair says “I don’t give a f**k” all over.
Klaus: He probably was an anarchist that just wanted something quick and dirty to sit on to eat his lamb stew and drink his tea. I bet he didn’t see this conversation coming! However, this must be a classic example of “furniture of necessity.” It’s so rudimentary that the previous evolutionary step is almost just sitting on a log!
Rudy: Yes, I was just coming to that — the seat. This must be one of the crudest examples of seats I have seen. The surface doesn’t look very refined. I wonder how comfortable it is?
Chris: Wide seats are always hard to come by. My guess is this one was split out and the furrows are the result of that process.
Klaus: Probably brutal to the butt. And now it’s even burnished by 200 years of farts. It was probably much worse back then! Still, it’s a charming chair. It’s like a weird, old and demented aunt, that is totally out of whack and sometimes outright foul mouthed and crazy, but lovable nevertheless.
Rudy: Martian farts, you mean. However I agree that the chair has its own charm nevertheless. Going back to the seat, I do like its shape and it looks like the maker added an underside bevel to lighten its appearance.
Klaus: Is there a bevel to it? I can’t see it. Anyway, the seat is not as thick as they often are on these vernacular chairs.
Rudy: You’re right, the seat is just thinner on one side and not all around.
Klaus: I think that’s right, yes. By the way, do you think the chair is made entirely out of green wood?
Rudy: I would be hesitant to say the wood was all green when the chair was made. Though the warping of the seat would indicate this. However the armbow joint is tight enough and the leg tenons protrude just a little above the seat. If those had been green they would have shrunk when they dried and not fit the mortises anymore…
Klaus: You’re right, Sherlock. Good point. That arm joint is cool, too. Some kind of half lap. It demonstrates a certain skill and in a way contradicts the crudeness of the chair.
Rudy: That armbow joint is apparently called an open mortise-and-tenon joint. And check out the stick that runs right through it! Highly unusual!
Klaus: The more I study this chair, the more I like it. As with many of these primitive chairs, they’ve got a strong personality. It’s hard to ignore this chair in a room. Anyway, I wonder why he needed a joint there at all. My guess is that the whole arm was one crooked branch, but it was too long in the middle and the maker had to shorten it. Interesting chair, this one.
Chris: Or the arm was a slightly curved branch that was resawn and then joined in the middle with the open mortise and tenon.
Klaus: Could be. How about the finish? Must be a “Welsh miserable!”
Rudy: Welsh arse finish, if you ask me. What about the sticks? We haven’t gone over them yet.
Klaus: Ah, the sticks! Give me your thoughts!
Rudy: I like the 3-3-3 spacing a lot. With the long sticks together and the short ones spaced out. But the sticks look like they’re on the thick side, don’t they?
Klaus: They’re definitely on the chubby side, somewhere around 3/4″, I would guess. The long sticks are slimmer over the armbow, though. It has probably something to do with the thickness of the crook he used. The maker had to drill smaller mortises in order to not burst the arm. What about the crest, then?
Rudy: It is so small. You barely see it. Like a shrunken head.
Klaus: Yeah, why so short? It only makes the chair look weird. The chairmaker either had an idea that this chair needed a short crest design-wise, or this piece of wood is simply what he had at hand. As far as I know the Welsh tradition, the latter is probably the case.
Chris: There is always the possibility that the crest was taller at first. After a long stick broke, perhaps, the crest could have been lowered. Can’t say without inspecting the real thing.
Rudy: The crest is even so low it almost attaches to the arm, like a doubler! Doesn’t add a lot of comfortable back support…But I like it because it’s funky!
Klaus: Haha. For sure, this crest doesn’t add comfort at all. Instead it’s constantly poking you at a painful spot in your spine just to remind you that there’s no time to rest. Which was probably the case for a hard working farmer in Wales. Or on Mars.
Rudy: Haha, I think you’re right!
Chris: – I won’t say that anything’s uncomfortable until I’ve sat in it. I will say it’s funky in its present form.
Klaus: The chair is very funky, as you say. I totally agree! But not as the sleek and smooth funk of the eighties, like Cameo or Prince. Maybe more as rough and sweaty funk like 70’s Parliament or James Brown coked out of his mind! By the way, should we wrap it up and give the chair a name?
Rudy: Absolutely. The chair needs a name. Just give me a minute.
Rudy: What about naming it after a JB song? Not the Welsh JB, mind you! I mean James Brown. How about “Give It Up Or Turn It Loose?”
Klaus: That’s perfect! It’s a funky tune and it’s exactly what the chairmaker did. He turned the chair loose!