I get asked (a lot) why there are so few stick chairs in the furniture record of the United States.
To that question, I reply, “Just you wait.”
Ever since I built my first stick chair in 2003, my aim has not been to reproduce the chairs I adore from Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Sweden. Instead, my goal has been to do what Americans have long done with furniture forms and other cultural movements: Adapt them to this continent and its people.
Black Americans took an African call-and-response form of music and made the blues (then rock ‘n’ roll). Rural Americans – black and white – melded African and Spanish instruments (the banjo and guitar), with spirituals and traditional British songs to make “hillbilly music” and “race music” – what we now call country music and rhythm and blues.
All cultures adopt and adapt elements from “away,” but Americans seem particularly prone to it. We even export our adaptations back across the oceans. In Naples, Italy, anyone can buy pizza topped with hot dog chunks and french fries.
Now before you start calling me “Jingo” Schwarz, know that I don’t think everything Americans do is good. Not even close. We took the éclair and made Twinkies. The baguette became Wonder Bread. It’s a mixed bag of vanilla soft serve and Vanilla Ice.
Wait, Isn’t This a Woodworking Blog?
In the world of furniture, American designers and woodworkers tended to simplify forms brought over from Great Britain, the European continent and elsewhere. To be clear, there were American woodworkers who equaled the ornamentation and excess of their counterparts across the Atlantic. But in general, American interpretations removed ornament, simplified overall forms and relied more heavily on the solid timber that was the greatest resource of this continent.
A long day’s walk down King Street in Charleston, S.C., lays out this story that played out in the 18th and 19th centuries. King Street is awash in antiques stores that specialize in British and European antiques. And there are other stores that specialize in American antiques – plus all the house museums that are stuffed with American and imported furniture.
This long stroll (it will take you all day) also shows what the market has decided, whether you agree with it or not. My father would buy English chests of drawers on King Street in the 1990s for $1,200. The American ones were entirely out of his financial reach.
Finally, to Chair Stuff
British Forest Chairs (aka Windsors) also faced the same story. American forms are – in general – simpler. Simpler turnings. No backsplat. Fewer carved elements. (I must add, however, that my favorite Forest chair of all time is British.)
When it comes to stick chairs, my goal has always been to Americanize them. (I’ve built only a couple close copies of antique Welsh chairs – mostly to prove I could do it.) What does this Americanization entail?
First, I have changed my designs to reflect the wood we have here. Unlike Wales, we have enormous stands of straight timber. The curved stuff – which the Welsh use for arms and combs – exists here, but it’s more difficult to find. During my two visits to Wales, a walk among the hedgerows revealed a dozens of bent armbows. So my arms are different. They’re built differently, and you will see further changes in future designs.
I also tend to favor crisp lines over curved ones. All beautiful and well-worn antiques suffer “erosion,” for lack of a better word. But I try to take that crispness or clarity a little further. I avoid rounded and pillowed profiles for the most part. I like facets. I don’t like turned, round or bulbous components.
I also tend to favor geometry that is more dramatic. Many Welsh chairs had dramatic rake and splay. But a lot of them had little rake or splay. Many had sticks that were dead-vertical. I try to take the dramatic bits and pieces from old chairs and combine them into something else. I won’t say it’s new, as there is no such thing.
I also like color and grain. I am happy to paint my chairs a vibrant color or use an oil and beeswax finish on them. I am dead certain that many old chairs got flashy paint jobs back in the day or a finish that was mostly soot and smoke from the hearth. So my finish choices stand in contrast to what the old chairs look like today.
Why am I telling you this? Well, in some small way, I know that the Welsh get irritated when someone builds one of my chair designs and calls it a “Welsh Stick Chair” on Instagram or Facebook. In truth, they are building an American Stick Chair designed by a guy who dreams of Welsh, Scottish and Irish chairs all the time. So if you want to avoid a Welsh invasion of Kentucky, I recommend you call your stuff what it is: American.
Also, I want to start a conversation about this form and what it could become. I hope that other American makers will look at 11,564 old chairs and see different details that could make up a vocabulary for American stick chairs. Because there isn’t an “American Stick Chair” yet, there is enormous opportunity to explore this idea and contribute to something that just might have some legs.
— Christopher Schwarz
31 thoughts on “American Citizenship for the Stick Chair”
Love this concept of American stick chairs, you’ve made a great start developing the genre. However I’ll leave the discussion to others who have already built chairs as it is still on my bucket list. Wish I could be there in October for the most fascinating chair class but it’s not to be.
This is a captivating idea: a vocabulary for American stick chairs. I’m a wee dense. If at some point you offer a deeper exploration of what that means, I’d appreciate it. Here’s where I’m stuck: re: vocabulary, would a comb not still be a comb, rake, rake, etc? Or would the vocabulary be not necessarily new words, but separate, specific meanings? So, an American rake, a Kentucy short comb, the Schwarz Splay (which sounds like a job for Chair Chat)? If this is a question you’ve already covered extensively, don’t bother answering this. I’ll come across the answers soon enough and pay more attention to variances in vocabulary. I also understand that vocabulary needn’t be limited to words, that curve, rake, widths, etc also create a vocabulary. If that’s what we’re getting at here, then, uh, yeah, cue fart jokes. Anyway, thanks. Another dimension to the stick chair obsession.
I claim turning over a bucket and sitting on it as part of the Yankee vocabulary. it is American because I farted toward Europe while sitting on it. Plus the prevailing winds are out of the West, anyway.
Be careful what you ask for. 🙂 Oh, in case fitz is reading, be careful about what you ask. 😉
I am talking about a design vocabulary – I should have been more specific. One example: First-class Welsh Stick Chairs use a naturally curved branch for the arm. The American Stick Chair does not. I am trying to develop a design language that makes the American chairs distinct from the Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Swedish ones.
Hope this clears things up.
It does, thanks. I kind of got that halfway through my “thinking”-out-loud comment, but very glad you took the time to confirm.
Very interesting. Regarding the pizza, I watched a video of a guy who went to Milan Italy(birthplace of pizza), and tried to order pineapple on his pizza(which is of course unnatural), and angered so many shop owners I wonder if he made it out alive.
Stick chairs and boarded casework, my American infatuations. Keep up the heresy, Chris. I like to think.
One thing we are seeing happen as my generation ages and younger generation’s tastes differ is that antiques (furniture, china, art and some crafts), once were too expensive for anyone without very deep pockets, those items are available for way less money now as those who had them are dying and their families don’t care about them. The young don’t want those things even if they can afford them, and people like me might acquire them except that we don’t have room for them, are looking to downsize anyway, and know that our own children won’t want any of it. Unless tastes and interests change in future years, what will happen to it all?
Agreed, when my wife’s grandfather died my mother in law ended up selling a bunch of silver place settings and tea pots because none of her children wanted them.
Regarding American exceptionalism at hybridization, modernization, and adaptability. President Reagan’s last speech before leaving office – he said you can move to Germany but never become a German, you can move to Japan but never become a Japanese. But everybody can come to America and become an American.
I think that goes for stick chairs and every other form of art and craft.
Reagan may have said it, but it doesn’t make it so. A lot of people who were born here, whose great-grandparents were born here, still aren’t considered American. The melting pot really is a myth. And I wonder if the same applies to furniture as people.
I agree with you John. In fact this country has indeed repeatedly resisted attempts to turn it into a melting pot. The project of homogenization goes on and so does the resistance.
Chris: dunno if you have, but try southeast of Lexington, Ky. I spent about 20 years in that area and everywhere I turned, I found stick chairs crafted from green hickory and oak. Most chairs had a hickory bark woven seat. None of them had a loose joint and I abused them terribly. I think that is the American stick chair vernacular start point. FYI: the farther you trace the region’s history, the closer you come to the scotch-irish influence that has been transcribed to the Kentucky hill country craft.
Hi Skip. You are correct. Those chairs are sometimes called ladderbacks, mule-ear, settin’ chair and stick chair. They feature a woven seat and the good ones use wet-dry construction. Ladderbacks definintely became THE vernacular form in Appalachia. And the tradition still continues (Andy Glenn is writing a book about this).
My interest is in chairs with sticks tenoned into a solid seat. Why did America adopt/adapt and make millions of Windsors and ladderbacks but few or no vernacular stick chairs?
I’m going out on a limb here and I am truly ignorant of the answer, but maybe you answered yourself. Was there a thriving vernacular tradition of Celtic ladderbacks? In the US, we had a thriving tradition of ladderbacks in several variations and had the enormous Windsor industry. Across the pond, the difference between a stick chair and a British Windsor was significant, whereas the difference between a refined stick chair and an American Windsor with double bobbin turnings is not very significant; it’s not a large difference in skill or tools to make a Windsor if you can make a refined stick chair.
Could it be that refined American stick chairs never became a thing because it was a small leap to Windsors, which were the fashionable thing? And because we already had a different thriving vernacular tradition in the form of ladderbacks.
Klaus had a couple of great posts on “Where are all the Norwegian stick chairs?” and then found a bunch that were clearly related. I wonder if you shining all this light on the form will uncover an American tradition.
Thanks for your thoughtful take.
A sincere question: what do you see at stake in defining an american form of stick chair? As you strive toward that vocabulary, what do you see, do, design, or think differently?
I’m not one for grandiose gestures or plans.
Mostly, I want to preserve the titles of “Welsh,” “Irish” and “Scottish” for the chairs that came from those cultures, including their materials, methods and design aesthetic. I don’t want my design explorations to muddy or co-op their traditions.
I need a name for what I do. Visitors, my doctor and neighbors ask the following about my work: What kind of chair is that? And I don’t have a good answer.
This blog entry is a small attempt to create an answer.
I found this entry helpful. I love looking at the chair at the end of your post and I am glad you were able to bring it into the public eye.
I glued up my first staked chair this week from the Anarchist Design Book. With some influence from Brendan Gaffney too. I shared it and I used the Welsh stick chair hashtag at the end. I wish I had not used that because I think you are right to say we should not coopt the Welsh cultural tradition on this side of the Atlantic. When or if I start to sell chairs down the line it will help to have a different terminology in place. I could say Goshen stick chair or Goshen staked chair because it was made in Goshen, Indiana. The Welsh influence is there because the back rest is a curved branch. I gave a nod to the tradition of slojd as well because I made a spoon for the person who let me cut the branch. As you say the Welsh get annoyed by the overuse of Welsh Stick chair, do people from the Scandinavian countries get annoyed by the over use of slojd? (The two dots ahould be there over the o). Maybe that is a question for Klaus. I ask because I see slojd tied up so much into the making of stick chairs. That is as I have listened to Jogge describe the concept. To the Stick chair.
While I would never pretend to speak for the entire nation, my take on it as a bona fide, born and bred, card-carrying Swede, my short answer to your question whether us Scandahoovians get het-up up about others using the word slöjd is “no worries”!
My slightly longer answer is, aboslutely no worries – if anything we’re probably flattered by the interest!
I think that to (most of) us it is just another word, with various meanings. The basic sense is craft, or handicraft or handiworks, and as such can apply to most any type of work or material: textiles, yarn, wood, metal, plastic, whatever …
A second very common meaning would translate more or less as shop class, i.e. general (as in “for all and sundry”) training in schools in the use of tools and materials to make things out of textile, wood or metal. It would not be used about classes in one of the trade school programmes, such as auto mechanics, bricklaying, carpentry, electrics etc. There is a common rhyme, ära vare Gud i höjden, denna har jag gjort i slöjden (“glory to the Lord on high, this I made in shop class”), poking gentle fun at the average wonkiness of what kids tend to produce in such shop classes.
The third sense of the word, these days much less commonly known, would refer to what in America is called the Sloyd System, i.e. the pedagogic system of slöjd-based education as originlly developed in Finland and Sweden in the second half of the 19th century.
Of course I would not even dream of trying to make any claims as to the feelings of people like Jögge, for whom I’m sure the word carries all sorts of deeper connotations and personal meaning, but as for the population in general, I think you’re perfectly safe and, if anything, would encounter sympathetic interest, were you to talk to them about slöjd!
Mattias, thanks for that clarification. That is helpful. The word has come to mean a lot to me especially since the beginning of the pandemic as I had more time to think, walk around, find materials for spoons and make spoons. This bled a lot (sometimes literally) into thinking about chairmaking and design. I see a direct connection between the concept especially how Jogge explains it in Slöjd in Wood and how I hear Welsh people talking about chairmaking including when John Brown or Chris Williams describe going into the woods for materials like a curved arm or looking through The Welsh Stick Chair book.
This all so much fun. It has given me work that I enjoy.
We Americans like to over complicate things or greatly simplify things. I like the latter. I like the term vernacular stick chair or simply stick chair.
excellent point. Why does it need a label, and why does that label need to be meaningful? I make Windsor chairs, and I call them “Windsors”, not because they have anything to do with a small town outside London nor the royal house that hails from it, but because that is the name people know the chair by. Let them be “stick chairs” and let the art historians pick the label later (or the marketing executive whenever IKEA decides we all need stick chairs made out of compressed cardboard).
Honestly, I think we should choose our own labels for our work.
Chris, where is that last chair in the pics located and do you know it’s history? Not sure I’ve seen it before, it’s stunning. Thanks.
It was owned by John Porritt when I took that photo. He has since sold it. I’ll be writing more about that chair soon.
Thanks, still need to get over to see JP.
Count me in for this community adventure. Intriguing and fun. My wife will soon ask, “Why do we have so many chairs?!” but my children will say, “which one can I have?!”
I haven’t seen an updated study, but at least as of 2014, your wife had science on her side. https://www.theonion.com/report-confirms-no-need-to-make-new-chairs-for-the-time-1819576693/amp
Chris, do you have measurements in your file of brain of the “favorite forest chair? Only curious. I am not asking you to disclose them at all.
Bodger chair? Traditional chair made from found materials and “bodged” together?
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