Where Are the American Stick Chairs?

Typical English Windsors (what I call Forest chairs). Note the rake and splay of the legs. It’s important. From “The English Regional Chair” by Bernard Cotton.

Editor’s note: I prefer to use the earlier term “Forest chair” instead of “Windsor.” Read more here. I know it’s stupid and confusing. But sorry. I’m a spaz and a weirdo.

If you study American furniture forms, the following question might have occurred to you: Where are the American stick chairs?

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It’s a valid question, and one I have thought about quite a lot. North America is filled with people who emigrated from countries and regions with long histories with this vernacular form, including Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the West Country.

And I have yet to see a verified vernacular U.S.-made chair that looks like one of the vernacular stick forms from those Anglo-Saxony places. Instead, the most common vernacular American form is a ladderback chair. Venture into any hollow in Kentucky, and you will see them on porches and around dining tables. And they are still being made there (as Andy Glenn has been investigating) and sold as everyday objects at everyday prices ($53).

These shaved (or turned) ladderback chairs came over from Europe, as Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee have pointed out. And the Forest chair form (what most people call a Windsor chair) obviously leapt the Atlantic and put down deep roots in the local soil. You also will see German/Moravian stick forms that were sometimes made in the U.S.

But funky Welsh, Irish or Scottish stick chairs? Not so much.

The only examples I’ve found of vernacular stick chairs in America were ones that were made in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the West Country and later traveled here. (To be fair, I have found a few Canadian stick chairs that were likely made in Canada.)

I don’t have any answers for why this is the case. And I am not a fan of wild speculation. But I do have some thoughts and observations that have been churning around in my head for a few years. And because you don’t pay anything to read this blog, I decided to put this stuff here instead of into “The Stick Chair Book.” Here are my you-get-what-you-pay-for synapses:

Common English hoop-back Forest chairs. From “The English Regional Chair” by Bernard Cotton.

I don’t think that American Forest chairs and English Forest chairs are 100-percent stylistic blood brothers. Sure, the forms are built on the same principle: driving sticks into a planked seat. But that style of construction has been around since the ancient Egyptians. The town of Windsor didn’t invent it.

You are unlikely to confuse an English Forest chair with an American one – they are that distinct. A typical English example has legs that have minimal rake and splay. The front legs are nearly vertical in many cases. A fair number of English Forest forms have a pierced backsplat. The sticks are fairly straight or have some entasis. And the seat is almost always a hardwood.

American comb-back. Note the splay (how can you not?). From “The Windsor Style in America” by Charles Santore.

In contrast, American Forest chairs have far more radical rake and splay. (Almost like… a vernacular stick chair from Wales or Ireland.) I can tell an American chair from an English one simply by looking at the legs. Also, American Forest chairs are unlikely to have a pierced backsplat. Backsplatted Americans are out there, but they are rare. American sticks are typically thinner and also more bulbous near the seat. Americans use softer woods for the seat.

Also interesting: I see far more American comb-backs in the wild than English comb-backs (except for the very early English Forest chairs that were comb-backs). American makers and their customers loved comb-backs. (Interestingly, comb-backs are a very common vernacular stick chair form.) In England, however, comb-backs were less common. Hoop-back chairs and what we now call sack-back chairs were more common in my experience.

What does this all add up to? Not much, I admit. But when I blur my eyes and look at American Forest chairs, I see a dynamic and angular silhouette that looks like the vernacular stick chairs I love. Then my eyes focus, and I see all the turnings, carvings and ornamentation.

So for now, when someone asks me “Where are the American stick chairs?” my answer is “Just wait a minute. They’re coming.”

John Brown brought them here and named them. He was followed by Chris Williams, John Porritt and others. And this fall, I hope to do my small part to make them part of the American tradition with “The Stick Chair Book.” 

Sure, we’re about 250 years behind the Forest chairs. But hey, some of us were born too late.

— Christopher Schwarz

Irish comb-back. Check the rake on those back legs. Photo by me.

Source: lostartpress.com

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