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.