One of the frustrating aspects of editing a woodworking magazine was how little unplowed ground was left to explore. Well, let me put it another way: there was little ground that we were permitted to explore.
Most woodworking magazines stick to a steady diet of the following furniture styles: Vaguely Shaker, Somewhat Arts & Crafts, Kinda Colonial, Maybe Modern and If It’s Got Nails it Must be Country. Why do magazines stick to those styles? Because every survey of magazine readers indicates those are the styles that readers love. Put another way: Why do readers love these styles? Because they are the ones shown in the woodworking press.
Several of us beat our heads against the wall every month at editorial meetings to get people to try something different. From day one I advocated for campaign furniture. David Thiel pushed for Mid-Century Modern, and John the Intern was always on about “Some Kind of Chair.”
Sometimes the overlords threw us a bone, but mostly it was: “Come up with some kind of Shaker case piece for the next issue. And not too intimidating.”
The problem was, of course, that the Shaker style has been explored by every woodworking magazine, book publisher and online personality. The best Shaker pieces have been published a thousand times. The good ones have been published several hundred times. And now we are down to Shaker Toothpicks, Birdcalls and Corn Scrapers, a Comparative Study.
My secret love was (surprise) Welsh stick chairs, but I didn’t dare suggest we explore that topic in the magazine. I did manage to get a couple articles about chairmaking published in the early 2000s, but those seemed like strokes of luck or sheer will.
Today I get to write about what I want, and if no one buys it then it’s my financial problem. So lately I’ve been writing a lot about stick chairs. Why? It’s not like my enthusiasm for them has increased lately. I’ve been stupid in love with the form for more than 20 years. Instead, the reason I have put them front and center in my work is because this is an opportunity for all of us.
Stick chairs from many cultures are waiting to be discovered. I have been building these chairs for two decades and have barely scratched the surface of what is out there. Honestly, there are hundreds of stick chair forms yet to be explored. I threw out a few dozen examples in the “Sticktionary” chapter of “The Stick Chair Book,” but there are many more that are waiting for you to study and build.
There are pieces out there that absolutely pause my heart for a couple beats because they are so beautiful. Why aren’t those examples published here or in my book? Dealers and museums are stingy with photos of these chairs. I have collected hundreds (maybe thousands) of photos during the last 20 years, but I don’t have the rights to publish them. I have signed Non-disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in order to gain access to collections of these chairs. I have swapped private photos (hush hush, chair porn) with chairmakers and collectors around the world.
I want to invite you into this world. Here’s how it works. Haunt the websites of antique dealers who specialize in vernacular furniture. Collect their images and descriptions because sometimes these photos aren’t public for long. Then observe who follows these dealers (it’s easy to do this on social media). Follow them. And so on. It’s no different than looking at the bibliography in a book then investigating the bibliographies of those books.
It might sound like hard work, but it’s not. And here’s why: These chairs are everywhere once you start looking. Literally everywhere. They turn up at auction nearly every day, but they don’t merit academic study or an exhibit at a museum. (Because they aren’t Shaker, Stickley or commissioned by some industrialist.)
You can quickly become an expert. Find a form that you love. Explore the hell out of it, breaking new ground with every new piece that you build. You can easily surpass me.
Stick chairs aren’t the only undiscovered country in furniture. But they are the one I love. Find your own favorite furniture form and make other people love the crap out of it.
That’s how we change the world.
— Christopher Schwarz