The Turned & Joined Chair
Production of the joined chair began as a cottage industry in the last quarter of the 18th century in Briezi and Striki (western Latvia). The start of chair making as a main source of income was likely due to the shortage of land suitable for farming. Chair making spread to other areas and it is estimated that each year a family could make 70-100 dozen (840-1200) chairs for sale in Kurzeme, Estonia and parts of Russia.
In the Home Industry section of “Woodworking in Estonia” Ants Viires wrote, “As regards chairs, the Latvian product sold at all the fairs was predominant in Estonia for many years.” He described the chair as “mostly of turned wood with a straw seat, later also a wooden seat.” The estimated annual output by Latvian craftsmen was 12,000 chairs.
As you can see, the biggest difference between the Latvian chair and many American examples are the thin back sticks instead of back slats. The seat of the chair was woven from reeds gathered from lakes near the chair making areas. The weaving was done in various patterns and usually by women. This chair is still made today both by hand and in factories.
In 1980 the BDM (Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia) asked chairmaker Eduards Tanne (born 1897) to make one of the traditional turned and joined chairs. Tanne, age 82, gamely took up the request. The video was digitized and subtitled and you can watch this wonderful craftsman make a chair, from chopping down a tree to weaving the seat, here.
The Bentwood Chair
This is an odd duck of a chair. The first documentation of the chair was by Johann Christoph Brotze late in the 18th century. Brotze (Johans Kristofs Broce in Latvian) was German and after completing his studies arrived in Riga in 1768 to teach at the Riga Imperial Lyceum. For the next 46 years, until his death in 1823, he traveled the country documenting, drawing and painting all that he saw. His trove of everyday life is in the University of Latvia Academic Library. One page dedicated to the bentwood chair.
I can barely read Brotze’s handwriting and relied on the description of the chair in “Latvie Tautes Dzives Pieminekli” written by Saulvedis Cimermanis and published in 1969. According to Cimermanis, four pieces of ash or hazel, each no more than 5 centimeters in diameter, are used (the length of each piece is not provided). Each piece is notched where it will be bent. The ends must be carved to a conical shape so that after clamping into the appropriate notch (or bend) the end does not slip out. Brotze’s letter-sequenced diagram shows how the four bent pieces fit together. As for the bending process, we know that steam bending had long been used by coopers, wheelwrights and shipbuilders and to make sled runners. I imagine Brotze saw this bentwood chair as very unusual compared to the joined and staked chairs with which he would have been familiar. Fortunately, he not only wrote about it, he drew it.
When I first found the diagram of this chair I sent it to Chris Schwarz for his opinion. His answer was he would love to see a surviving example of a chair made in this manner. It turns out a bentwood chair from Rucava (far southwest corner of Latvia) marked with the year “1890” on the back was in the collection of the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum. This proved the chair was still being made late in the 19th century and had been made as shown in Brotze’s diagram. Chris’ response: “Oh wow. Just wow.” And, how.
We don’t know how far back this method of chair construction goes. Also, I don’t know if the chair in the photograph (Cimermanis’s book was published in 1969) is still intact. Cimermanis noted one other example of this type of chair construction and cited the work of Polish ethnographer Kazimierz Moszynski. In Volume 1 of ”Kultura Ludowa Slowian” Moszynski had a drawing of a bentwood stool that originated in west central Russia, approximately 800 miles east of Moscow.
OK, I have to add one more chair. There are thousands of brettstuhls in museums in Europe and North America. The backs often have intricate piercings and carvings and they have never appealed to me. However, I have taken a fancy to a 19th-century Latvian chicken-backed brettstuhl.