Disappearing chair

Sackback Windsor by author, photo by author

Two years ago I visited Mount Vernon, home of George Washington. It was a weekday in late September and I thought we might sidestep the crowds. Boy was I wrong. The line to see the mansion snaked the length of a football field. It seemed to be moving steadily which should have set off red flags. The only pause in the  tour was when four groups got tangled up in the large foyer. While we waited, I had the chance to gaze at the key to the Bastille prison given to Washington by Lafayette. I can’t blame those entrusted with running the site; I just wasn’t satisfied with a fast food version of a great historic American interior. Once outside we were free to roam at our leisure and take in the beauty of the setting. I stepped back and took a look at the house and the porch that faces the Potomac River. It’s lined with several dozen Windsor chairs. My designer’s eye was taking it all in and what I noticed was that from  a short distance the Windsor chairs almost disappeared. They took nothing away from the façade of the building. If the porch was lined with benches or more high style chairs (with more physical presence) the effect would have been much different.

Last Saturday down at the regional SAPFM meeting the theme was Windsor chair construction. As I looked at the collection of chairs I couldn’t help notice how distinct a Windsor is because it’s “almost not there”. Think about it, basically a Windsor is a wooden net conforming to the human shape with minimal material. I’m always amazed at how original chairs can withstand centuries of hard use but it’s doubly amazing when you think how little material is in a Windsor. We talked a lot about how the chairs joinery exploits the physical properties of wood, but again I kept being struck by the fact that it’s piece of furniture that nearly disappears in an interior space. I tend to think a lot about how furniture compliments a room interior.

Wingback easy chair, much more physical prescence, photo by author

Contrast a Windsor with a wingback easy chair. Here is a form meant to wrap around you, keep you warm, give you privacy, and create your own little room. Contrast that with an Art Nouveau high backed dining chair by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A set these around a dining table with their high backs creates a small room within a dining room. Both these examples are at the other end of the spectrum from a Windsor. I’m not making judgments here, just observations. When designing a chair for an interior, you might want to first consider how much presence you want the piece to have.

George R. Walker

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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