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 chair, especially if you can lean your back toward the wall. So when you’ve made a stool, it might not be worth the effort to put a back onto it. 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 seem to show up everywhere he goes, but no one can specify their origin. Which probably means that they’ve “always been there”. This was of course just a sidetrack from his much broader studies of Sámi culture, but he was so intrigued that he wrote an article about them. He ends his 4-page article 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 get a closer look into highly developed skills within the Sámi people. This set of skills are actually 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.