All the factors should be in place.
More than 2,000 years of well-documented woodworking and other crafting traditions? Check.
A large countryside with huge distances and scattered, isolated villages? Check.
A long and proud history of self-sufficiency and homesteading? Check and check.
So how come I can’t find any vernacular stick chairs in this country?
I have no idea.
Norway can be a harsh place to live. Both the arctic climate and our expressive topography has made it necessary for previous generations to employ both survival skills and creativity. Some would also claim that the urge to live in isolation is embedded in our genes and culture. Many farms and villages are still situated in roadless areas only accessed by boat or mountain trails. The off grid, primitive and quiet life is an integral part of our heritage. It’s so popular that even one of our most popular shows on national TV is a documentary series about Norwegians living off grid. It’s been running in the prime-time slot for 20 years.
The Plausibility of Stick Chairs
You might wonder where I’m going with this. Well, I’m just trying to make the point that I’m surprised we don’t have a stronger tradition of making stick chairs here. People led simple and primitive lives, often poor and in relative isolation. Your nearest neighbor would often be behind the next mountain. Everything would have to be made on the farm using available resources or perhaps made by a traveling craftsman. When it comes to chairs, I would suspect that primitive stick chairs were the norm. Mortising sticks or even branches into a seat is an ancient construction method that’s quick and easy and has been around since they built the pyramids.
I’ve searched through books, libraries, visited farms, antique shops, collections, talked to conservators, collectors, professors and myself. All I’ve ever found are either joined chairs, ladderback chairs or log chairs.
Lost and Found
I was about to give up. Then I talked to Chris Williams, the Welsh chairmaker and Lost Art Press author. I told him about my quest and why it meant so much to me. I’ve always preferred primitive stick chairs over anything else because I feel they’re so bare and honest. I’m a sucker for simplistic beauty and decay aesthetics. Chris told me to keep searching and said he was positive that something would turn up. I’m not sure how he would know, but I took his word for it. So I kept digging and, lo and behold, one day I came across this creature:
This is a staked stool found in a Goahti, the traditional hut or tent that our indigenous Sámi use to live in. It was found and documented by Asbjørn Nesheim (1906-1989), who was a pioneer researcher of Sámi people culture and ways of life. At a first glance it might not look that special, but I knew immediately that I’d never seen anything like it. It’s a primitive, staked construction. Probably made by the same person who needed a place to sit.
The unique thing here though is the use of the natural crook or root used for the seat. Naturally bent wood is often seen in Welsh stick chairs, both old and modern. Though almost always in the arm or the back of the chairs. And I knew right away that I’ve never seen a crook used like this in a stool before. To make a long story short, finding out more about this tradition became a new obsession for me. And I found several more. All over the country, both in Sámi and Norwegian culture. I’ve never seen them before and suddenly they’re popping up everywhere. It’s like when you learn a new word and suddenly you see it everywhere.
Wildly Grown Speculations
Considering that they show up all over Norway over a time span of at least 200 years, my hopeful conclusion is that this particular construction method and style got traction and became somewhat popular. Which is not unlikely, as it’s quick, sturdy and light. Norway is also chock full of crooked mountain birches and other wonky species.
I’m also guessing that stools and benches were more popular than chairs. Hence the abundance of stools and the lack of stick chairs. Chairs were a luxury. You can be really comfortable on a bench or a stool, especially if you can lean your back towards the wall. Therefore, it might not be worth the effort putting a back on them. Stools are also light and versatile. They can easily be carried around, out on the porch, into the barn and around the house.
Uncovering Old Tracks
For a long time I had a bunch of old photos of these “half moon stools”, but no further information. Then one day I finally found a 1943 publication from a museum where the aforementioned researcher Asbjørn Nesheim had published a brief article. Each time he visited the Sámi people, he often stumbled across these stools and became fascinated with them. They seemed to show up everywhere he went, but no one het met could specify their origin. Which probably means that they’ve “always been there”. This was all just a sidetrack from his much broader studies of Sámi culture, but he was so intrigued that he wrote an article about the stools. His 4-page article ends with the following (translated by me):
“This article has looked at a part of Sámi culture that is neither large, nor very significant. However, this is where we get a closer look into highly developed skills within the Sámi people. These skills are essential for their highly evolved wilderness culture: ingenuity and adaptiveness. Studying their vernacular furniture also raises the question whether there has been cultural contact and exchanges between Sámi people and non-Sámi people. Taking this into consideration, I would like to call for further information or knowledge about the origins of the “half moon stool.”
These are all very good points being made. Keep in mind though that the reason he asks whether there could have been a cultural exchange, is that there wasn’t expected to have been one. The indigenous Sámi people suffered well over 100 years of ugly and shameful oppression from Norway, officially until 1959.
From what I can make of it, Asbjørn Nesheim’s quest ended there. And thereby also mine for now. If he ever got his call for help answered and got to know more about the origin and tradition of these unique stools, I haven’t been able to find out about it. However, I’m thrilled to have found a type of stool that seems to be both unique and deeply rooted in tradition. How it ended up all across the country, I don’t know. I’m also curious to why it has disappeared in tradition. No one seems to either remember them, how they learned to make them or why they make them just like that. It’s a mystery to me that we don’t know more about these stools. They’ve been around for centuries, obviously adapted by the nonindigenous and spread throughout the country. Are they perhaps so commonplace that they just disappear from our collective memories?
Finally, I’ll leave you with a little cliffhanger: Asbjørn Nesheim also came across a few very interesting chairs when studying Sámi culture. There were only a few and he didn’t go very much into detail, but they’re interesting. I have never seen anything like them. I’ll come back to them in a later post. If you have anything to add or tell me about Half Moon Stools or similar construction techniques, feel free to contact me directly or share it here in the comments! I’d love to know more.
45 thoughts on “Norwegian Wood”
Great article !!!
Thanks for sharing your research.
I would think that another place to look is where Norwegians emigrated to, Scotland, Iceland, Canada.
Migration of cultures always brought their patterns of the old country with them.
I have always enjoyed your writing, history and humor, Klaus. It has given me a connection to my
Norwegian heritage. Thank you, DonR
I’m very happy to hear that! That means a lot! Thank you! And good idea checking those countries – I will!
Fascinating Klaus, I love those half moon stools.
Thse style of stools were used as milking stools in Finland, but they were likely used already before milking cows became necessary. Inspired by the milking stools Antti Nurmesniemi designed a sauna stool for the Palace Hotel in Helsinki. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/2369
Wow, that’s cool!! Thanks!
Regarding the query as to how these chairs originated (was there a query ?) Like the wheel there is only one design that works and form follows function . They just became and just were .
It’s a tempting thought!
It is interesting that none of these stools indicate any intention of covering the entire seating surface: a half moon opening is there to some degree. The only one that comes close is the charming one with the twisted projection that almost tends toward a bit of back support.
I agree, most of them just leave the hole in the middle. That probably made them lighter though, and you can easily grab them there to carry them around. That said, I have seen some with a “complete covering” of the hole.
That was my thought: leaving the hole in the center helps to balance the stool with a one-handed grab.
Yup, good point.
THIS IS A VERY INTERESTING POST THAT POINTS TO CULTURES AROUND THE WORLD SHOWING GREAT INGENUITY IN (PRIMITIVE)UTILIZING NATURAL RESOURCES
Hey, Robert! Indeed, I agree!
A real chicken and egg dilemma here. Was the half moon the inspiration for the toilet chair or was the toilet chair the inspiration for the half moon?
Great post! Thank you.
[apologies if this comment posts twice if ’twere that my first attempt from a few hours ago was just held up en route; this is in case it actually got lost]
A very interesting blog post in several ways, not least because of (a) the dearth of stick chairs in the vernacular Norwegian tradition, and (b) your research turning up those half moon stools!
As someone hailing from the Eastern Neighbour (i.e. as a Swede), my curiosity was stirred — what might things look like, stick chair-wise, on our side of The Keel?
Clearly, I cannot replicate in five minutes your already very extensive investigations, but I thought that at least a quick peek at the DigitaltMuseum, the Swedish Digital Museum might be worthwhile.
Before I go into what that turned up (or didn’t), I should perhaps add that my uninformed, spontaneous hunch — prejudice, if you will — on the matter was that while stick chairs are indeed ubiquitous in Sweden and have been so beyond living memory, they are still a fairly recent phenomenon that can be traced back to the mid-19th century, and that although the stick chair explosion (now there’s an image!) in Swedish furniture making may have begun as a cottage industry, it was market oriented from the word go (or should that be from the word sit?) and very quickly turned into a factory based industry proper, and that this market oriented stick chair production was pretty much a local take on the British Windsor/Forest chair form.
Anyway, I did a simple search in said digital museum for the word “stol”, i.e. chair, and then looked through the 23,788 results filtered by epoch/century.
Medieval period: just a single chair, but although a very interesting example (and quite anarchist design-worthy, being of a boarded construction), not stick-y in the least.
16th Century: one very fancy sort-of-stick-chair (plus one joined and one log chair, so not a very rich material).
17th Century: not a single stick to shake at all those other chairs!
18th Century: Five! Yes, five stick chairs, out of six hundred-odd joined or ladderback chairs, namely these:
and, not least, this one which looks like a half moon armchair!
Once one hits the 19th Century, though, the picture changes, in that there are more and more staked or stick chairs, in fact too many to link to individually here. Still, though, here are a few of perhaps particular interest, one way or another:
not least this one: https://digitaltmuseum.se/021028409224/stol — talk about clever use of natural growth wood!
The above is of course utterly and completely unscientific, in that it is based not only on museum collections, but on that in those collections for which digital images have been produced. And when you cross those two nice sets of selection bias with what has happened to survive from the past to be selected out of in the first place, I think the result is highly unlikely to be representative.
In fact, I would go so far as to at least begin harbouring (though not yet dry-docking) a suspicion that my initial hunch is likely to have been wrong, and that the dearth of early stick chairs both here and in my mental view of “old Swedish chairs” is more due to bad preservation rates of vernacular forms than an actual non-existence of ’em back in Ye Olden Days(TM).
That 18th century half moon armchair looks terrified! I’ve never seen a more expressive piece of furniture; nor have I ever seen a piece of furniture that so badly needs a hug and a pep talk. You can do it, little guy!
Yes — you can just see, it can’t you: a really heavy sitter coming its way, and the poor, wee chair recoiling in horror …
Mattias! Sorry for the late answer! Thank you for the most comprehensive comment on this blog ever! Love it! Very interesting stuff! I will dig through all your links! By the way, I very much agree about the Swedish chairmaking tradition. It’s the same over here. There’s no real vernacular chairmaking traditions, or at least none that’s been preserved. Oh, and I use the digital museums here too. We have the same thing. I’ve even browsed the .se version, but haven’t seen the stuff you dug out here. So thanks again!
fascinating, thanks very much.
The stool with the label “ST-K 00456” looks like it would fit in perfectly at the Museum of Modern Art. Gorgeous!
Yeah, looks very modernistic! I agree! Sculptural and pretty! Nature at its best.
I am not claiming there is a connection here, but this greatly reminded me of stools for giving birth. These have the half-moon shape, though they do not have that horizontal piece of wood at the front.
Here’s one from google image search:
Even though probably not often used, these are still around in hospitals, at least in Finland.
There’s very much a connection here, I think. Is this really a birthing stool? It looks very much like the one mentioned twice here in the comments by both Leif Backman and Mattias Hallin: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/2369
Is it not the same stool?
Yes, that is a birthing stool. The sauna stool that I linked to has more to sit on than this one.
Fascinating article, Klaus! I love the stools and can’t wait to see the chairs you found. So I am wondering a couple things. Is the seat formed by cutting in half the spot where two branches meet? Also I am curious as to whether danish cord was ever added to these seats? Also did these ever evolve into a backstool form?
Hey, Jeremy! Glad you like it! I’ve been wondering the same thing as you and I think a lot of them use the actual bifurcation (where two branches meet). Otherwise it would be hard to get those tight radius curves that some of them have. That said, after I became aware of these stools, I’ve started to look for natural crooks in the forest. Pine especially seems to have very twisted branches here sometimes. Same with mountain birch. I’ve never seen any of these stools with with Danish cord or similar weaving. I have however seen these stools evolve into backstools and I’ll follow up on that in my next post!
Fascinating article. I never knew about the Sami people – inspiring and tragic. Best of luck on your quest! Looking forward to following along.
Hey, Kyle! Long time, hope you’re good! It is tragic indeed. Things are better today, but they’ve suffered for a long time. Our government once had a program that was was trying to assimilate them into Norwegian culture, by forcing them to learn Norwegian, throw away their pagan beliefs and become Christians. Disgraceful. However, they’re a very fascinating culture and as someone else commented here – like other indigenous people they’re very skilled at utilizing nature and natural resources in clever says.
Vernacular stools with both staked legs and rabbeted joints with nails. The only way these could be more on-brand here is if they were also made of yellow pine!
And they probably are! Well, I don’t know if we’ve got yellow pine here, but I’m guessing most of these were either made of pine or birch, which are both highly abundant throughout Norway.
Looking at pictures of Goahtis, I can’t help but think a chair with a back wouldn’t fit inside those sloped walls very easily. A backless stool is more flexible in such a space, and the walls are there if one wants a back rest.
Exactly! My thought as well! A stool is much more versatile.
Thanks for your interesting article Klaus. There are similar stick chairs made in the Scottish tradition, which have been researched by and documented in Bernard Cotton’s superb book, Scottish Vernacular Furniture (Thames & Hudson, 2008). It might suggest there was trading and/or settlements that shared a common tradition, perhaps going back many centuries.
Now there’s a book I don’t have! Thanks! I’ll check that one out. Sounds right up my alley. As someone mentioned earlier here, these stools have probably travelled across the seas both back and forth. It’s interesting to dig into this tradition, but I guess I won’t ever find the absolute origin. These have probably been around for many centuries and traded/shared, like you say. Thanks for your input! Appreciate it!
what is the Norwegian tv show you spoke of called? couldn’t seem to find that one. thanks!
Hey, buddy! It’s called “Der Ingen Skulle Tru At Nokon Kunne Bu”. That’s “old Norwegian” for “Where No One Could Believe That Anyone Could Live”. It’s been running for 20 years and is still hugely popular. It’s available online through our national TV station, NRK. However due to geolocation, you won’t be able to watch it with a non-Norwegian IP-address. You can bypass that using a simple proxy (if you’re familiar with such). You should be able to find both clips and complete episodes (and parodies of the show) on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=der+ingen+skulle+tru+at+nokon+kunne+bu
There is an Early Medieval 3 legged staked stool excavated at Coppergate, Yoyk, UK. The seat is made from one plank which has a rough square hole chopped in the middle, otherwise it follows the design of several other ‘Viking Age’ 3 legged stools (without the hole) excavated from a variety of sites. It would be published in one of the small finds fasicules available online as a free .pdf from the York Archeological Trust (I have a hard copy but its 0200hrs and I’m not going looking for it now)
Hey, Bruce Lee (10 points for an awesome name). That sounds VERY interesting. I know that my forefathers liked to travel a bit to York back in the day. Would love to see it! if you can find a copy of the pdf and send it to me, that would be awesome. You can contact me on my personal email firstname.lastname@example.org. Meanwhile I’ll try to find it online. Thanks for your comment!
Very interesting article and comments.
The toilet and birthing comments are worth thinking about. My first thought seeing these stools was they are toilets not stools. Why build a stool without a complete seat? Imagine how uncomfortable they are. If indeed they are toilets it could explain why there are so few of them – not many people keep their old toilets thinking one day they will be valuable antiques or family heirlooms (but there must be someone somewhere who does this). If it’s made of wood you throw it in the fire when it’s old. This doesn’t really get to your original question of why you can’t find much stick furniture. Perhaps stick construction was reserved for basic implements, like toilets, and not considered a suitable construction style for furniture. I live in Canada in present day, and I’m quite sure if I lived in Canada 200 years ago I would have eventually become fed up doing my ‘business’ outside in the snow and mocked up something resembling your moon chair. I have no theory to explain the one with the curved back – an old time version of a gold plated toilet?
Hey! Sorry for the late reply. Thank you so much for your comment. I’m pretty sure these are not toilet stools. I’l admit I don’t know much about them, but from what I’ve seen they’re used as milking stools, campfire stools and daily tasks. A stool is much more versatile than a chair and faster to make. Just three legs into a crotch or a crook. A chair is much more. Also, considering these were first found in the traditional huts of the Sami People, there was probably not room for chairs along the sides of the huts and tents.
The original staked chair is a milking stool, a design referred to as a Lund stool based on an archaeological find. I suspect that pneumatic milking devices have obviated the need for milking stools except on the smallest of dairy farms
I would think so too. The Lund stool is indeed an early one.
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