Editor’s note: Here’s another essay I wrote in support of my new “Build a Stick Chair” video. My plan was to record these essays and set them to music with some images. I tried it, and it looked like the most boring slideshow with a narrator on quaaludes. So I present my script here, which you can read in your most excited voice (in your head).
When I worked for a woodworking magazine, we had a formula for the sorts of projects we printed in its pages. We always had a certain number of Shaker pieces, a slightly smaller number of Arts & Crafts pieces, some “Country” pieces (whatever “country” is). Plus a handful of 18th-century pieces, mid-century modern pieces, workshop pieces, jigs and fixtures.
The formula was safe. It was based on the thousands of subscriber surveys we sent out year after year. And it worked.
But it was also boring.
Every inspiring Shaker piece has been published to death by every woodworking magazine on the continent. Ditto with Arts & Crafts. Yes, there is a lot of amazing material you could mine from the 18th-century. But a magazine can publish only so many 18th-century pieces before readers revolt (most of those pieces are challenging to build; magazine readers tend to be beginners).
I love these classic furniture styles. If you like the decorative arts, I am sure you do as well. But there’s not much left to explore.* And I have little interest in walking the same path that has been trodden for the last 50 years.
So – and I know you’re shocked to hear me say it – this is one of the great things about stick chairs, and vernacular furniture in general.
It is a field that is largely unexplored. There is no book on stools – one of the most common pieces of furniture on the planet. There are only a handful of books on vernacular chairs, chests, beds, tables and shelving. It’s like there’s a whole planet filled with furniture that has been almost completely ignored.
For the last 18 years, I have specialized in researching and building stick chairs, and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s out there. You can do it, too. How? Look at lots of old paintings. When I look at old paintings – a great source of information on early rural life – I ignore the people and focus on the furniture.
When you do this, you will wonder why there has never been a book on settles. Gate-leg tables. Pig benches. Plus all the convertible furniture that was necessary for regular people to live in a small space – benches that converted into beds. Chests of drawers that also held chickens. Dry sinks that stored all manner of kitchen necessities.
The reason there are few books on this vernacular stuff is, of course, money.
Rich people don’t care about this stuff. That’s because your rich friends aren’t going to be impressed that you have a beat-up bacon settle in your boudoir. All the money for research, coffee-table books and museums goes to the high-style stuff because it was the stuff owned by the rich people in the past.
Rich people loved it and desired it. So it must be important.
I’m not rich. And I’m guessing you aren’t either. So why don’t we explore *our* furniture past? The stuff that was made by the person who needed it. The stuff that wasn’t designed to impress the neighbors. The stuff that looks better the more it gets used.
It might be our furniture past. But with a little work it also might be our furniture present and our furniture future.
— Christopher Schwarz
* There is some new ground to be explored. But alas, we have to twist Megan’s arm to make it happen.
33 thoughts on “Old Frontiers”
Chris, out of curiosity, and frame of reference, what is your definition of rich?
The 1 percent.
I went to see what I’m told was a brilliant production of a classic Irish play. I missed its brilliance because I kept looking at the stools and thinking they were wrong. BTW, I’m sure your other readers would enjoy Claudia Kinmonth’s work on Irish country furniture (where I first saw a hedge chair).
We do! Enjoy Claudia Kinmonth’s book, I mean; I bought and read it with much interest and great pleasure after it was mentioned here on the blog a while back. So recommendation firmly seconded!
Also look for Bernard Cotton’s book on Scottish vernacular furniture.
Also, the books of Christopher Gilbert are great.
But for every one of these books, there are 1,000 about room broaches.
I really like that the business world has been shifting away from the up tight coat and tie for a more comfortable office attire. I feel the same way about furniture. While I appreciate the craftsmanship and design of high-end pieces, there’s a lot to be said for comfortable pleasant furniture of necessity as you’ve labeled it. Who knows where this trend of user built furniture will take us. All I know is I’m having a lot more fun designing and building furniture that doesn’t have to meet a narrow classically defined set of rules. Thanks for opening the door.
Yes please. All of the unexplored topics you mentioned sound great
If you asked magazine readers (or any broad group of people) to design the perfect “insert name of thing here”. I am fairly sure you would get the most unusable, expensive looking yet cartoonish, thing imaginable.
To be fair, most magazine readers are learning the craft and are looking for help on the design aspect of their projects. So that’s why the formula we had worked (and still works).
aka the Thundercougarfalconbird
A superb example of why I like Chris’s approach to the craft and follow him. Keep it up Chris! And all of your side kicks as well!
You learn something everyday. I had to look up what quaaludes were. My excited voice in my head is a bit much so I am happy to just take it all in on a calmer level.
Hi Chis, in which direction would we be twisting Megan’s arm and how can we help? Furniture direction I mean, not to inflict pain.
By the way read stick chair book 3 times and Friday I got the video. I am normally a read it, do it learner and don’t like video, but really enjoyed the video so have watched some parts a second time. Had built 3 creepies and started a 3 legged chair (back creepie?) recently. I have to put the video down and get back to doing it.
Chris, I have been a fan of you and Megan Fitzpatrick for many years and my library reflects this and my shop is full of creations from ideas you both shared. Your chair from a stump and her renovations of old houses are well remembered. Please continue this vein and publish volumes for those of us less talented but eager readers.
singing @Megan: do a little dance, give a little love, finish the DTC book tonight!
I would totally listen to the audio visual version. I might even you know pop a quaalude and listen to it. : ) I think it would be a cool thing to do live at one of your open houses say. I would pay admission to that.
OMG. Obviously I’m a furniture/woodworking novice as I’ve never heard of a bacon settle before but wow. How long will it take me to talk my wife into letting me bring one into the house? Actually the more I look at it the more it looks like the locker and bench combo we built to house our kids school accoutrements and shoes. Regardless new favorite piece of furniture!
I completely relate to your style of writing, it’s almost as if you are channeling my own mind’s thoughts about missing furnishings! Now I know why it’s hard to find articles about building practical furniture!
I’ve built several different beds, and aside from a few plans available from Rockler and Woodsmith, there’s not too much available about beds (nice ones) that I’ve found worth studying. I usually just measure the mattress I’m going to use and build the frame one inch larger because there is so little info about bed dimensions.
When you mentioned the dry sink, I nearly teared up because I’ve deconstructed several antiques from my great grandparents’ farmhouse. Their dry sink being the first.
They had many practical pieces I’ve never seen in a magazine or book, particularly their pine dry sink, of which I’ve built three.
I’d enjoy reading a book about making all the “other” pieces of “poor peoples” furniture. Especially with the economy where it is now!
Nice insight. Thanks
When I design or build something I always use the Kiss method ( keep it simple stupid) .attachments always fall off or get broken , pets will chew on the legs , and small kids will fall and get hurt so I try to design and make things that fit into the lifestyle the people that I know will use and enjoy
In the painting, there is a rectangular whitish object on the wall. An old match holder for strike anywhere matches. Why mention that? It had its use in the day, but not many have them mounted on a wall today. (My grandparents from the Nebraska farm is in a box)
I have in my home many pieces of vernacular furniture, the sea trunk my ancestors brought over from Sweden, a corner cupboard of walnut from the 1880, a secretary with a drop leaf front, all original. Sadly Chris this style has fallen out of favor and they have little value. Well they do to me and my sons like them, but in reality the market is mid century modern. Modify your chair and see how vernacular works during this period?
Midcentury Modern chairs (and Danish Modern) has its roots in vernacular furniture. Read about Kaare Klint and how he taught design and furnituremaking. A lot of the forms from people like Hans Wegner will then show their more common origins.
Very interesting and insightful, thanks.
OK, so it didn’t work for the video…but perhaps open mic night?
I live out west. When traveling in the mountains we would often stop at some hole in the wall to eat. I have seen there some chairs with a low back that was fairly substantial. One could sit on the chair like normal, or turn around, face the back, and lean forward, resting your arms on this substantial back. I have not seen you discuss this type of chair. Also, after looking at several thousand pictures of chairs, I could not find a single example.
jimmy from Ireland, I have Claudia’s book and it is wonderful. I recommend it for what it is worth.
Where did you get the beautiful ilustrations that i see in your post?
I had never heard of a “pig bench” so searched the Internet. I found this description:
“Representing country craftsmanship in its most simple form, this bench has been constructed from a single slab of elm and is supported on four pegged legs. These benches were originally used in the rather grim process of preparing pigs for slaughter, but today they make for a lovely rustic coffee or side table.”
I had thought it was the shape of the bench that gave it the name of pig bench!
Something i have come to wonder about staked furniture. If a conical tenon is better than a cylindrical tenon, but some tools to make conical mortises to hold conical tenons can be hard to find–would a pyramidal mortis and tenon system work as a compromise? They need not even come to a perfect point, so long as you match the angles. This could be especially useful if you are laminating the boards for a bench and you want to drive legs into the bottom. Is this a good idea or a failed ide that has been tried before?
Was there a little foreshadowing that perhaps the Stick Journal #2 could be filled with Stools ?
And yet the ancient venerable pie safe is still ignored and forgotten even up until this very moment it seems, because of which millions of once plentiful pies are being entirely lost to the gangs of pie thieves. The beloved, bespoke, home-made pies have become almost extinct now and posterity will not soon forgive us. Those few pies that can still be found on rare occasion are gone in an instant. Can you not finally remedy this historic failure, Kind Sir? Do you not care? Are pig benches and assemblages of sticks more important to you than pie?
Chris: related, but slightly off topic, is how the market place is sometimes a bad influence on scholarship in museums. Specifically, with furniture, the craze of ‘in the black’ finishes has distorted how some pieces are represented to the public in major East Coast museums. For some reason ‘in the black,’ purporting to be ‘original’ finish, will have the upper echelon collectors salivating and the prices rocket up. With a painting an old turbid, crazed finish will almost always be removed, and a fresh coat of varnish will be applied, but not with 18th century American furniture. Varnish on oil paint and wood were applied for similar purposes – some protection, saturation that enriches color, dimensionality and as it’s always been people like shiny objects. Cabinetmakers who took pains to select premium mahogany, rosewood, etc., veneers to ornament furniture were thinking composition as much as a painter ornamenting a canvas. There is, in my opinion, a lot we do not know about who made what, what their shop practices were, who worked for whom and on and on. As with ‘old’ finishes, an attribution to a maker, based on ‘evidence’ that would have a first year law student rolling on the floor, a few have convinced the ‘market’ to believe the fantastic. Original intent is ignored, the presentation is misleading, scholarship is often flaccid at best, and the ignorance spreads. my two cents worth.
Yes indeed, let’s! Let us sally forth toward the common and mundane and ultimately rich field of the everyday necessities that our forebears wrought in order to facilitate whatever. Count me in.
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