“I do not get your weird chairs,” exclaim about a dozen messages or comments every year.
I understand your bewilderment.
I remember being a prospective student at Northwestern University in 1985 where I had been paired up with freshmen journalism students. We were supposed to sleep in their dorm rooms and see what university life was like.
My two hosts sat me down on a bed and thrust a Budweiser in my hands.
“Drink it,” they said. “And you’re drinking 10 more. You are getting drunk. Maybe we’ll drag you outside naked.”
Up until that point in my life I had taken one sip of beer. It had been my dad’s Coors Light, which had been poured over ice at the beach during a vacation. It was memorably disgusting.
I took a sip of the Budweiser, and I can still remember the metallic and bitter liquid spreading through my mouth and snaking down my gullet.
Beer is objectively nasty stuff. It’s basically watery bread. Fermented starch. And flavored with a bitter plant (hops) or worse.
I did not “get” this weird drink, and I took about four sips of it that night, each one warmer and worse than the previous. I did not end up naked and drunk in the quad.
Now 37 years after that fall evening, I have changed my mind about beer. I am endlessly curious about the different forms of the drink and enjoy learning about its role in our culture and history. After listening to a podcast about beer in Biblical times, I was struck by the parallels between the history of the beverage and of the vernacular stick chairs I have been studying and building for many years.
I suppose these parallels shouldn’t have been a surprise. The stories of many good things in our world have a similar arc. And the turning point in the story’s third act is always the Industrial Revolution.
But it’s a good story, and it helps explain my love for both hops and these funky chairs that are “a smidgen off being ugly,” according to chairmaker Chris Williams.
For most of human history, beer was something you made at home. Everyone was a brewer. Beer was a source of nutrition and hydration. But ancient beer was unlikely to taste like the stuff you buy today. For a long time the role of yeast wasn’t understood. And hops – the most common added flavor today – weren’t always used. Honey and other spices were common.
Commercial production of beer might have been an innovation of the Ancient Egyptians (you can read a history of beer and business here, which is where much of the following business data comes from). But up until the mid-19th century, most brewers were local businesses. There were no national or international brands of beer.
The rapid industrialization of the West allowed beer to be produced on a large scale and homogenized. Prohibition wiped out most of the local and regional brewers. And by the 1970s, 75 percent of all the beer in the United States was produced by only four monster corporations.
The product also kind of sucked. Coors Light over ice?
And while those macro brewers still exist (and are still growing through acquisition and consolidation), there has been a remarkable renaissance in small- and mid-sized brewers. In 1980, there were only 92 breweries in the U.S. As of 2021, there were 9,247 breweries. A hundredfold increase.
Plus beer as a beverage is far more interesting and diverse these days.
The history of stick chairs is not as long as the history of brewing (as far as we know). But it also has some wild twists and turns.
The first image of a stick chair that I know of is from a Welsh book of laws from the 12th or 13th century called “Laws of Hywel Dda.” There are two images of stick chairs shown in this particular Latin translation. My favorite one shows a judge in the stick chair, and he’s pointing with one hand. His other hand holds what is likely a book (but which I prefer to think of as a cup of beer for the purposes of this story).
Stick chairs have been around for hundreds of years before mass manufacturing. We suspect that most were made by farmers in the off-season, so it was a household enterprise, much like making beer. Judging from the surviving examples, they were made by crafty individuals who likely made the chairs for their nuclear or extended family. Or for people in their village.
Because each stick chair is unique – I’ve never seen two that are identical – we can conclude that they were likely made one-by-one. Or in small sets at most. There are variations in the chairs that can place them in certain time periods or in certain regions. But there’s little to no evidence that these chairs were even a highly organized commercial endeavor. (Irish Gibson chairs might be the exception.)
These vernacular chairs show up in many countries throughout Scandinavia and the UK. And stick chairs could be the ancient ancestor of Forest chairs (aka Windsor chairs).
Regardless of the shape or strength of that family tree, Windsor chairs appeared in the early 18th century and rapidly became a commercial enterprise that employed hundreds and then thousands of people. The city of High Wycombe became Britain’s primary chairmaking region. But the chairs were manufactured all over the UK and were a major export for the country.
The Windsor chair became so successful that today it is widely regarded as the most common form of chair.
“It’s been said that half of all wooden chairs on the planet are either Windsors or are directly descended from the style,” according to the Magazine Antiques.
While there are exceptions, most mass-produced Windsor chairs are unremarkable firewood and share little or nothing with their ancient ancestors – except for a name.
Evidence: All of the broken chairs that have been dragged across my doorstep have been factory-made Windsors. (I decline all chair-repair requests from customers – not because I am a jerk, but because chair repair could easily consume all of my waking hours.)
These factory-made Windsors are the Coors Light of the woodworking world.
Just like with the world of beer, however, things began to improve for the world of handmade chairs in the 1970s and 80s. Mike Dunbar and Dave Sawyer began exploring Windsor forms, and both began teaching others, planting the seeds for thousands of other chairmakers. John Brown self-published his “Welsh Stick Chairs” book, which began to sketch in the early history of chairs from his part of the world.
And now we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to chairmaking instruction and tools. Well-made Windsor chairs and stick chairs are much easier to find. And the chairs are available at a variety of price points.
Plus there are now a lot of talented chairmakers out there that I have never heard of – and I try to keep up.
I get the same feeling when I visit my local beer store. The shelves are brimming with interesting beers from all over the country. I’ve heard of maybe 10 percent of them. There is so much good stuff out there to try.
It’s quite amazing, really. Well, that is until I look across the aisle of the store and see the mountains and mountains of Coors Light there, too.
— Christopher Schwarz
39 thoughts on “Stick Chairs vs. Coors Light”
Sadly………there’s a hint of nautical distress in Mike Dunbar’s workshop!
The Union Flag on the wall is upside -down.
From Wales……Hwyl Fawr o Gymru.
Are you talking about the Finmar Pirkka chairs? because I have a few that we bought used and are older than me (i.e. pretty old), and they are in pretty good nick. If you do not know them, they are now made by Artek. These chairs are, incidentally, an excellent example of how an old design can be aesthetically revised while leaving most, or all, of the technical side intact.
Re: Beer: Do you have the app Untappd? (intentional spelling). It will make you realize the vast universe of beer that’s out there….and how many different ones you’ve had.
Chris, you neglected to mention the modern homebrewers, who may be a better analogy. Most of those new breweries were started by people who started as homebrewers. Your motto is “To build rather than buy.” The motto of one homebrew shop is “Make your own damn beer.”
(Ironically, I just brewed a Schwarzbier on Monday.)
You should consider starting a franchise of boutique beer joints decked out with cool drinking tables inspired by the ADB and a collection of your favourite stick chairs from a range of periods. Customers could come and get hammered in a different chair each visit. This could be an opportunity to reprise the “drunken woodworker” brand…or maybe not.
At least in that case the patrons would be flipping over the tables and chairs to examine the joinery and tool marks, instead of for a barroom brawl?
Chris, I am struck by that Danish chair! The roots of mid-century modern right there.
That one caught my eye as well. I really like it (at least from this view, would love to see more pictures of it).
Enjoying an ice-cold Yuengling while sitting in my stick chair – perfect!
Is this a precursor to a new “Beer Chat” series where you guys dissect a different beer each time with fart jokes? Or Beer and Chair Chat, discussing chairs over a beer.
“Beer in America, The Early Years-1587-1840” by Gregg Smith is a good read.
1980 was a nadir. Beer was at its worst, and the new makers hadn’t started up yet. Woodworking tools were in the same boat. Stanley was dead, Record just had its last gasp, and no one made a decent saw. Cars were pieces of crap that rusted through after just one year. I could go on.
It’s interesting how so many things seemed to bottom out at about the same time.
You are living in the right place https://cincinnatiusa.com/article/built-beer-cincinnati-regions-brewing-history
Not sure that is a coincidence. Correlation does not equate to causation, but ya gotta ask… 😉
This is a case where I really wish the author’s name was at the top of the blog. As I read and got to the part about getting you wasted, stripping you naked, and dumping you in the quad – I kept thinking “Christ! I really hope Megan isn’t writing this.”
As is she.
Excellent piece. What podcast were you referencing? I am interested. On my shelf I have a book with the title Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. It covers the history of psychedelic beer and how millet came to be replaced by hops among other topics.
Sorry for posting on a completely different topic, but I have been waiting for ages for an ATC post to come up…with no luck. So I post my question here: is it OK to screw the bottom onto the carcase if I use plywood for the bottom? I am thinking seasonal movement, but that should be less of an issue with plywood, right? Many thanks in advance!
Plywood does not move, and the ATC sides and ends would move only up and down, not get longer. So I guess you could totally do it.
Thanks, that confirms my reasoning. I’ll go ahead an try. Good weekend!
Editorial comment: “Price” is the amount of money set for exchange of something. “Price point” is the standard price set by a manufacturer. Anheuser-Busch would set a price point; Mike Dunbar would set a price.
Personal beef: price point is an obnoxious bit of marketing speak which does not sound like ordinary speech. “Honey, these jeans were offered at a fantastic price point!” Friends don’t let friends be a marketroid.
I think you might be getting stuck on a term of art. Price point in this context refers to a scale. Most folks understand that a luxury version of an item does not cost the same as the entry level. My scale goes from ‘found on roadside’ to ‘Ikea’, but I’m a price point conscious parsimonious poster. Cheers!
Very good post. Instead of being attracted to the chairs themselves, I am on a hunt for the tables I would make to complement them in style and quality. I will be in your class one day (as soon as I make all the tools), but until then, I would like to know what furniture style compliments the Stick Chair.
Never did “get” beer…Dr. Pepper is the source of happiness.
Do you have the ADB? The stick table would fit thematically. Not too difficult to build, though I messed up the fit of one of the battens, drilled one hole at a crooked angle and had to make a new part. If you made a stick chair the table will be easy!
ADB? maybe not. do I wear a mask for this?
I love this post! I never liked beer until about 10 years ago, when I started to learn about craft beer and how it is made (pitching yeast appealed to my mycology/microbiology background). Now perhaps I like it a bit too much. The first time I saw one of your stick chairs, I thought it looked weird. Now I am quite fond of the form and desperately want to take one of your classes.
Beer is the first, if I remember correctly, entry on this list. Phenomenal book, that I strongly recommend. “A History of the World in Six Glasses.”
While it might take a beer or 6 to enjoy the design of the chairs in question, I can be sober to appreciate the craftsmanship involved in their creation. Also, if anyone is looking to unload a copy of, The Book of Plates, please reach out.
Someone should do a brewpub with stick chairs! That would be an improvement over those galvanized metal bistro chairs seen at every brewery and bbq in America.
Equilibrium Brewery Taproom. Middletown, NY
We used the Hugh Chair from Grand Rapids Chair. Not handmade, but not bad for a factory chair.
Good stuff, great beer/chair analogy. Now add some wine history, and you will complete the beer/chair/wine trilogy.
Chris thanks for posting the Danish chair picture, finally a stick chair that my wife likes, OBTW thanks for beers after Derik’s table class.
Good post and great analogy. There is nothing like studying and analyzing stick chairs with a good locally crafted beer in hand, and then sitting in one of those “weird chairs” happily chatting away with friends and family about the latest IPA from a local craft brewery. The stick chair brewery soon to be born…
Why do people think the chairs are weird? I love them. There’s something Nakashima-ish about them. Though they probably influenced him rather than the other way around.
The mountains of Coors is representative of consumer taste and knowledge. Not that I am an elitist jerk about these things but I am an elitist jerk about these things!
Great read! Thanks, Chris.
I’ve always felt like Windsors are too fussy compared to vernacular stick chairs.
For years, I was likewise offended by beer.
THEN about four years ago I found a micro pub that makes their own, and saw the light.
As far as hops in beer, they also make GRUIT, a kind of beer that used herbs etc., quite common until hops were discovered.
If anyone is in my area (Plymouth MA), let me know and I’ll buy you a glass of what’s on draught.
Indie Ferm is the brewery, look them up.
As for chairs, I haven’t made one yet, but have repaired more than a few.
When I became of age, everything was a pilsner from the major brewers. You could get european stuff, but it spent a month or so in a ship. When I was out of college, Catamount became the 1st microbrewery in VT. There were/was a brew pub, but Catamount bottled their stuff. They are out of business I miss their Christmas Ale, dry hopped with the only VT grown hops at the time.
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