Publisher’s note: For the release our new video “Build a Stick Chair,” I’ve written this short essay that explains one of the many reasons these chairs are first in my heart. I apologize if it sounds like I’m on a soapbox. Or, worse, that I am trying to sell you a time-share condo in Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky. For me, encountering these chairs in the 1990s changed the way I interpret furniture. And how I choose to sell my work and make a living. I can’t promise you that these chairs will change your life, but they will keep your butt dry.
For me, the history of seating furniture reads like a history of oppressors and the people they held down.
For most of human civilization, chairs have been a symbol of authority or dominance. I can go back further in time, but let’s start with the curule – the sella curulis – which was a folding chair that literally represented the seat of power in ancient Rome. Only certain powerful people were entitled to sit on a curule. This idea – that a perch represented power – spread quickly across Europe and all the way to China by the 2nd century CE.
Even our language is embedded with the idea that chairs represent authority: chairman, seat of power, first chair/second chair, to get a seat at the table, to take a back seat to someone, the driver’s seat, and the catbird seat – to name a few.
Chairs weren’t just a symbol for the throne room and the royal rear ends. Before mass manufacturing made chairs cheap and plentiful, the head of the household in even the humblest home would sit in a chair, while the other members of the family sat on stools, rocks, stumps or dirt.
But we’re past that now, aren’t we?
Nope. If you have spent any time in the corporate world, you can tell exactly where someone sits in an organization by the chair in their office (cloth, leatherette or carbon fiber?).
So yes, in some ways, chairs have been democratized. Mass-manufacturing has made them available to almost everyone. But market forces have ensured that they still represent hierarchy. You might own a chair, but it’s not an Aeron 8Z Pellicle with elastomeric suspension.
That’s why I like stick chairs. These vernacular chairs aren’t found in catalogs or department stores. Your purchasing department cannot order a gross of them for the office in Dubuque. You might think, “Ha! I am rich and can buy one.” But it will be that – just one chair.
Sticks chairs were usually built by the owner of the chair. Perhaps they were made for someone in the chairmaker’s family. Or for someone in the village. To obtain a new one, you had to know the chairmaker. And the chairmaker had to agree to the transaction because – and this is important – the chairmaker didn’t have a boss. That’s because stick chairmakers weren’t typically professional woodworkers working in a chair shop. Chairmaking was a side business or done out of necessity.
This (and sorry for the economics lesson) isn’t capitalism. This is the same arrangement that has been in place since at least Medieval times.
“Hello, you make something I need. And I have something to exchange for it. If you are willing.”
Aside from the way you obtain a stick chair, there are other odd aspects to them, such as the raw materials used to make them.
What are they made of? Whatever was on hand from the hedge, the forest or the firewood pile.
This tied the chair to the land. To the species of trees that were easily available to the chairmaker. Or to the bits of wood that could be swiped from the local kingswood.
There wasn’t a choice of maple, walnut, wenge or snakewood. The chair was made from the best wood available (even if that was dodgy). If the chair looked weird because of all the different species used to build it, you were welcome to paint it. Or cover it in sheepskin. Or let it sit by the fire for a few years until the soot made it look a deep brown-black.
What about their overall design? Couldn’t you order a six-stick comb-back and get one that looked just like the chair the Davies family had?
Sorry, but no. Each chair comes out a little different because of the sticks on hand and the fact that these things are made one at a time. There are no duplicating machines or mechanical patterns for the chairmaker to follow.
This is not a romantic notion. It’s just how it is.
I’ve made stick chairs for sale – off and on – for 18 years. But I’ve probably made only 150 or so chairs. And no two have been alike. Each was made with the materials I had – sometimes wood left over from another job; sometimes home center lumber; occasionally green wood from a tree service. And each one reflected my interests at the moment and the tools I owned. Perhaps I was looking at a lot of Irish chairs or Scottish chairs. Or experimenting with spoon bits or rounding planes.
Sometimes I feel guilty that I sell my chairs. I suspect many makers of stick chairs feel this way. Some of my chairs go to wealthy people and occupy expensive homes. I don’t accept this fact lightly. But I atone for this by teaching anyone and everyone how to build these chairs.
And so I remind myself: It’s a chair you can’t buy at a store for any price. A chair that will outlast all the plastic crap, or the chairs joined with cheap metallic fasteners. It is a chair that will look better and better the more you sit on it. The more you rub its arms. The more dents and abuse it suffers. And it’s likely the chair will be desirable long after you’re gone.
Few people in this world can ever afford to buy a chair with these properties. But you can make one. Ask, and I will gladly teach anyone the following: Join the sticks to the best of your ability. Carve your name on the underside of the seat. Rest your bones in it every night and think about music, religion, life, destiny and the trees that tie it all together.
Remember those lessons because that ability – the skill to make a chair – is the true seat of power. And if they take your chair away? Laugh, and build another one. You cannot be dethroned.
— Christopher Schwarz
34 thoughts on “Chairs for the Chairless”
As a writer for my entire adult life, I know moments occur when excellent prose comes forth. Usually that is when I have deep feelings about the subject. Congratulations Chris. As a technician of the written word, you hit your stride in this short essay.
Chris, whether in a book or blog your writing inspires both as a stumbling amateur woodworker and as a thinking human. We all have many personal reasons for picking up a saw and plane to create, to make. Exploring those reasons helps us understand ourselves and our place in this world. Perhaps, if we are fortunate, even our place with our progeny. Capital is the means of investment to generate a result, most frequently a profit. Profitable businesses extract as much cash as they can from production and sales. This “efficiency” has many impacts most common is as you point out to separate the creative product from its maker. I appreciate you sharing your skills and thoughts to help me be more creative, to produce real things for me, my family and friends without a profit going to someone who did no work. Thank you!
I truly don’t understand the issue with more wealthy affording the chair(s). Anything of quality, especially hand built, is worth far more than items for the masses. They also hold value and are handed down from one generation to another while increasing in value at the same time.
“Son, I made sure you’re in our will, I’ve bequeathed to you all of our Walmart furniture”.
“Gee thanks dad, I’ll cherish and remember you forever”… (as I travel to the junk yard).
I can only answer for myself. I’m not concerned with what the wealthy can afford. I am concerned with where the things I make end up. And money is not part of that equation.
I write that as an amateur, to be clear. I do not make things for a living, so it’s easy to ignore the economic aspect. But it’s a great feeling to make something with a particular person or use in mind, rather that getting the most dollars from it. But that feeling, unfortunately, is a luxury.
As a side note to your comments on how seating denotes power… I recently retired from working at a large appliance factory just down the road from LAP. Whenever the company wants to play hardball with the union, they remove the chairs from the factory floor. The company claims it’s for safety/ergo reasons. The production workers will then start fashioning seating from empty parts bins, cardboard, and duct tape. Their creativity can be impressive.
Anthony, as a young man, I once fashioned my own stool at work for just such reasons… great point!
I love your chairs Chris. I love the thought of making one, but every time I do I am reminded of the movie The Patriot when Mel’s latest attempt falls apart under him and he throws the shattered carcass in to the corner of the barn where it joins his other failed attempts. Maybe, someday, when I can find nothing else to do, I will start my own pile of kindling.
Your blogs are the best. I always enjoy reading them amd learning. I never thought about a chair in such a way. Thank you for sharing.
Never in a million years have I ever looked at seating in that light. I’ve been slooooowly working my way into “woodworking”. Mostly picking up sticks and branches from my yard. However, I stumbled across Lost Art Press and am discovering stick chairs. Bought the video. Next will be the book. Then I will set about building two Irish stick chairs for my mother-in-law for a sitting area in her room. She lives with us by the way. Thanks for the thought provoking article. Slàinte mhath, a charaid.
Okay, chairs have never been near the top of my “want to learn to build” list.
Now I want to build a damn chair.
Dear Mr. Schwartz:
I love reading your articles. But I’m an old man, and on occasion, you write things I wish I could talk with you about, face to face. This letter will have to do. It’s in response to your 8/14 article and is nothing more than a few simple observations from an old man who feels he might be able to share something of value with you.
First off, a chair is anything that keeps your ass off the ground. In all likelihood, the first chairs were nothing more than rocks, or ledges. Earlier civilizations were opportunistic. They had to be. Trying to stay alive in an angry environment is hard work! So “getting off your feet” may well have been the one best thing that contributed to humanity’s early survival.
I won’t argue that chairs “…have been a symbol of authority or dominance.” That’s true. Of manufactured chairs, as opposed to rocks or stumps. Chairs made at the request (or forceable demand) of another. And so it will always be.
“This … isn’t capitalism. This is the same arrangement that has been in place since at least Medieval times.” I must gently disagree here. It is capitalism, and it’s been around since the Dawn of Time.
When it comes to exchanging something one creates for money, for loaves of bread, shoes, chairs, knowledge, information (yes, they are different)…for something—anything—in return, it is capitalism.
Capitalism is the exchange of goods or services, willingly, between two or more parties. While the notion of capitalism has been denigrated by politicians and younger generations lately, we would all be in trouble if we simply waited for an individual, or a government, to provide us with everything we needed and wanted. The Soviet Union made this mistake and they ran a once prosperous country straight into the ground in short order. Even the Chinese have learned that capitalism (no matter how limited) is necessary for economic survival.
In short, capitalism isn’t just a good thing. It’s the only way humans can survive and progress. And barter between individuals is the best and highest form of capitalism I can think of. True capitalism can only happen in free societies. Societies free of government intervention and regulation. But I digress.
If you will allow me, let me disabuse you of the notion that you should feel guilty for selling your wares to wealthy people. The only difference between wealthy people and the less fortunate is the number of economic choices they have. There is, and never has been, anything inherently wrong with having wealth.
If you don’t like wealthy people, well that’s a different story and a choice only you can make. But if some of your clients are wealthy, and you don’t like wealthy people in general, then don’t sell to them. You’re free to make that choice, are you not? Simple. Guilt all gone.
You can choose to do whatever you want, and for whatever reasons. It is not “wrong” to sell a chair to a “rich” person any more than it is to sell one to a “poor” person. Or to exchange a bottle of water to a thirsty man for a small cupful of pleasure in being able and willing to help another human being.
What you do with what you have is your willing choice. You need not atone for your choice by “…teaching anyone and everyone how to build these chairs.” If I’m not mistaken, you exchange your knowledge for money, goods or services, do you not? No matter the economic condition of your students? I hope you don’t feel guilty for this as well.
It is a fact that any exchange of anything (goods, services, money, information, instruction) between two willing parties, no matter their stations in life, is a good thing. Because everyone gets what they want or need. Willingly. Everybody’s happy! When kings or governments of any sort step in to regulate, monitor, control trade or exchange is when everything gets effed up.
All that said, if you wish to teach me how to build stick chairs at no cost to myself, I’m all in! I’m certainly not wealthy, I’m not even well off. As a matter of fact, at my age on a small, fixed income that is forcing me to move to another state where my wife and I can live. I’m sure we’ll find people more to our liking there.
As an aside, to make the move I’m selling all my powered woodworking equipment. I’ve decided to start making all my projects with hand tools. Tools that I can make myself or buy cheaply at flea markets from people who no longer have use for these treasures.
In sum, you do a very worthwhile and meaningful thing with your life (and hands). Don’t lose sight of these simple truths:
1. No matter what pressures we get from the outside, we all make our own choices.
2. People are neither good or bad. They’re a funky combination of both, in varying degrees. We can only determine for ourselves who and what we are. Let the rest of the world sort itself out.
3. Guilt is a useless waste of emotion. It neither corrects an error we made, makes anyone else feel better nor enlightens us. It is self-pity at its best, and manipulation used on us to force a desired reaction at its worst.
4. Capitalism is nothing more or less than what we (as individuals) make it. It should be an unregulated, unfettered transaction between two parties to exchange goods/services for mutual benefit.
5. The highest form of achievement one can attain is the sharing of knowledge. Not opinion. Not propaganda. But real, useful, worthwhile knowledge of skills and information that transforms the lives of others in positive ways.
6. Finally, be well and be happy. Life is meant to be enjoyed, from beginning to end, no matter what circumstance you may find yourself in. There should not be a single, precious minute wasted.
My takeaway from Chris’s column wasn’t “Capitalism=BAD”, “Socialism=GOOD”.
My takeaway was “Now I want to build my own chair for my computer desk, because I’m getting sick of buying a new chair from OfficeMax every 2-3 years after it falls apart, because it was manufactured using cheap labor and modern capitalistic economics.”
The Soviet Union ran a once prosperous country straight into the ground?
That’s wrong. It was several countries.
Excellent reply sir, I had the same thoughts.
An interesting piece of history of when the idea of capitalism began in mass.
First though, regarding it’s has always been around, it’s true; merchant’s traveling trade routes in search of new markets; vendor’s selling their products on streets of cities and villages have always been a staple of people living in close quarters living their lives.
It’s a built-in human mechanism. Seeing a need then figuring how to supply it either with one’s assets or labor.
It’s the oil that makes life run smoothly.
The first real economist and brilliant thinker Adam Smith called it the invisible hand. The power of the masses of individuals around the world all doing what they do to live, thrive, so just survive, creates an invisible power.
The event though that got the world to rethink what this invisible hand does for society and capitalize its power classifying it into our daily consciousness was during the Black Plague of medieval times.
The loss of life was devastating during the era of the plague especially to land owners who depended on cheap labor, almost slavish, to maintain their standard of living as a hereditary noble.
The silver lining of the devastating plague was the realization by the labor class that they now had power, since there was a massive shortage of labor. These lowly workers rightly realized they could negotiate for their labor and not be holden to the land owner’s generosity.
The nobility was trapped, they needed the labor, hence a new era began of workers able to name their own compensation.
It’s interesting to note that this was the beginning of society coming out of the dark era, workers began having more economic power and disposable incomes compared to the meager wages the greedy land owners offered in the past. New business sprung up to accommodate the new found economic growth. And so it goes. Capitalism was identified and sought after.
Many today think capitalism is a dirty word, but they are confusing it with a phenomenon that began many decades ago. It all began when politics and capital decided to join forces. The result is the ugly union of crony capitalism.
I’ll stop here because the last subject will take a while to explain and this is not the forum.
Thanks for your comment.
Well put, Phil. Thanks for the erudite comment!
Gonna mostly ignore and do my best to not engage the countercomments but while I wouldn’t say I am an anarchist I do agree with you. Chairs owned by elites do seem a perfect example of “conspicuous consumption”, commodity fetishism, whatever you wanna call it.
And I really appreciate the free PDF of Anarchists Workbench, and the blog articles… finished it, of course, during my union breaks! May get another ebook from the press to read… Warehouse work dulls the brain.
The last few lines sound as if Wendell Berry could have written them. “The Mad Chairmaker Liberation Front,” perhaps.
Cliffs: basically, stick chair makers were the first gig economy.
Great observation, Jay!
Excellent words. Being toward the end of my first stick chair, thanks to you, I can’t wait to put it into use. Thanks for the encouragement and guidance.
Those last four paragraphs sum up your ethos, pathos and logos quite succinctly. Perhaps not in that order, but it’s all there. Another great Blog Chris.
I think you have stick chair of the brain.
You sound like my English professor in college weeping when I read Beowulf passages out loud to the class.
( I’m not a very good poetry reader, trust me)
Anyway I like your insights even though I don’t understand them completely.
Maybe he was weeping because I completely mangled the old English?
I got a A in the class by the way……whatever that meant. I felt I never earned the grade.
I like very much what you do, keep up the good work
Now if only I can figure out how to make these raised panels for a door I’m making using this panel raising plane I spent big bucks for…..
Man I love where your interests have taken you and I’m thankful you’re willing and (amply) able to share the journey.
To be clear, what Chris Schwartz describes in not necessarily capitalism. The mere fact that an exchange takes place does not mean that capital or capitalism are involved.
Look, for example, to the very well documented economies of reciprocity in the Pacific (see Marcel Mauss’ “The Gift” as a starting point). In these cases, exchange always entails community and a connection between the people involved in that exchange, embodied in the thing that gets carried on. There’s a profound difference to a transactional encounter where two parties walk away owing each other nothing.
The idea that capitalism means zero regulation is a notion that only became prevalent under late-twentieth century neoliberalism. In actual fact, the earliest advocates of the market, such as Bentham, more or less invented social welfare and regulation as a way to “tune the machine” as it were. This kind of intervention was less essential in pre-enclosure agrarian society, where poverty was simply not a problem in the way it came to be and still is (oh, people looked after each other!).
If all of this is new to you, and your understanding of economic and social history begins with a second-hand reading of The Wealth of Nations and ends with something or other about the Cold War, then its unlikely any kind of dialogue would be productive.
Capitalism is the exploitation of the worker, paying them a wage and extracting excess value above and beyond their wage, with that wage going to the owner of the factory / tools etc., and the worker explicitly not owning the means of production.
Selling a product for money is not capitalism per se. Capitalism revolves around labor and ownership, and the production of excess value with that value again – not going to the worker, the individual who made the thing.
Wow. I’m kind of giggling, I didn’t know there were Marxists woodworkers, that’s a new one to me.
Then again, I’m ignorant to many things involving forced labor. I’m 65 years old and have never received a W-2 for my labor from a company. The things I made or designed have always been from my own work as a self employed worker.
Looking back, I now realize that I have abused myself regularly as the sole laborer according to your comment Raphael. When I figured my time spent on certain projects then the profit or my labor calculated I made 50 cents an hour.
I can distinctly remember during those projects that I thought to myself, I should just get a job at one of those greedy and soul eating corporations, then join a union, and go on strike occasionally for better pay.
It was a depressing day after those projects were finished. But then, the next project came along which profit purchased a family vacation plus extra. I again reaffirmed my vow to be an independent soul and never work for anyone or any company.
I can tell.you, during my working life, that is not over by any means, I look back with great pleasure and often brag that I looked forward to my work everyday. I thoroughly enjoyed banking the big enormous paydays I occasionally had. That new found capital from my labor affordede me the ability to invest in other even more profitable projects.
I guess I am a dyed in the wool capitalist.
For those debating capitalism and socialism, I’d suggest looking into the economic theory of distributism. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it comes pretty close to what Chris espouses with his “anarchist” philosophy. And I think it’s a common sense and imminently practical approach to economics: a “third way” of sorts that puts the means of producing real wealth (the stuff necessary for living a good life), into the hands of the common folk, instead of either the state or large corporations. And a great thing about it is this: you don’t need to wait for any major revolution to realize this ideal. Save up, buy some tools, and build a chair—for your own needs or to sell to a neighbor. Congratulations, you’re a distributist. Of course, making a living as such a chairmaker is not going to be easy, when most of society is geared to actively favoring large corporations through means which are anything but natural (sorry Adam Smith); but I believe it’s possible. There are furniture makers and other artisans out there proving that it is. Every piece of furniture I make and sell tells me there’s hope yet, no matter how invincible IKEA may seem. But here’s the good news: even if our society never runs primarily along distributist lines, we still have the freedom to realize the better life that it promises—in our own homes, shops, and neighborhoods. Such good work, going as it does against the grain of our current economy, is necessarily subversive (or “anarchist”). But, as I would argue, it’s in fact the living into being of an economy and society, which, though it may never be realized to the full in this age, is written in our hearts as a pattern for the renewed world to come—which will be perfected and completed by a power far greater than either the state or IKEA.
While I’m not familiar with the “distributist” term, I agree wholeheartedly with your statement. My post may not have been clear enough. In my mind, life and lifestyle is all about choices. If you want to work for a big corporation, that’s your choice, and more power to you. But if that’s not your ideal, you have a wide variety of choices you can make.
My whole point is that personal choice is just that: personal. Capitalist? Socialist? Distributist? These are terms that seem to get in the way of the choices people make. When it comes right down to it, we all need to make a living. Sometimes you can do that by pursuing what you love to do. Most feel they don’t have that choice.
I didn’t mean to set off such a maelstrom of comments. Please forgive me. You are all far wiser than I, and obviously more well educated. In the future I’ll limit any comments to woodworking.
Nor did I mean set anything off. I felt triggered to respond and, while I thought I was holding my tongue at the time, can see with hindsight that I was a touch obnoxious. Sorry for that.
The blog post was quite nice, anyway.
I was right there with you. But also did not want to create a debate.
You’re right about chairs and socioeconomic status. Just today I was looking for different book on architectural design at the Texas A&M library and spotted: The Politics of Furniture: Identity, Diplomacy and Persuasion in Post-War Interiors (Ashgate Studies in Interior Architecture and Design): Floré, Fredie, McAtee, Cammie: 9781472453556. Not on my reading list, though.
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