esigning and building chairs is somewhat like writing. Whether you are producing a simple stool or an ornate dining chair—a short poem or a complex novel—each project has its own form, intent, and inherent challenges, as well as personal, social, and cultural meaning. This range of possibilities is what makes chair design so challenging and appealing.
Since training at Peters Valley Crafts Center in Layton, New Jersey, 20 years ago, we have developed nearly two dozen chair designs for limited production and custom orders. All have benefitted from our first chair, made from recycled oak barn wood, with a simple canvas seat and back. The item was supposed to be the ultimate in inexpensive, comfortable seating.
The first person to sit in this chair was Mary Coes, the diminutive adult daughter of our friends Vinton and Eleanor Coes. She nearly disappeared in our first masterpiece, designed for “every-person.” Her generous comment was that experiencing our chair was like sitting in her grandfather’s lap. From that first humbling review, we have been reminded continually that chair making is a reconciliation of esthetic, functional, technical, and personal requirements, frill of compromises.
There is no such thing as a standard chair. The seat height of a dining chair, for example, can range from 13 И to 20 xh inches. Chairs can be used for any number of activities, from reading and relaxing to talking and dining. Some chairs are built solely for ceremonial occasions, others to alleviate the distress of physical disabilities. Consequently, it can be helpful to have a convenient and reliable technique for measuring the physical form of a chair’s user and experimenting with their personal preferences. We use our adjustable measuring chair, shown in the photo at left and on page 13, to supplement other traditional design tools, such as drawing models and prototypes.
Whether a customer is tall or short, wide or narrow, long or short of thigh or calf, we can easily investigate different options and combinations for a chair’s dimensions and angles. The rig features five back supports, and adjustments for the height and angle of the seat and the arm rest. By moving the supports up or down, or in or out, we can fine tune the rig until we have the best “fit” for the sitter. Using graph paper or a computer, the settings are then plotted, creating a side view of the chair. That forms the basis of a three-dimensional view from which we can then fashion a full-size mock-up using corrugated cardboard.
But the fitting chair is only a beginning. The outline the rig provides is like the outline of a story. It’s a skeleton upon which you can build everything that you want to embody in the chair’s style, using, meaning, and emotional content.
Carolyn and John Grew-Sheridan build custom-fitted chairs in their studio in San Francisco, California.
For millenia, chairs have been expected to exceed the seemingly simple demands of seating. Comfort, durability, and beauty are the criteria they must meet. The best provide a seamless blend of all three qualities. The worst can be bad indeed. Well-designed and properly built chairs provide comfortable and durable seating, are pleasing to look at, and fit into their surroundings. Small wonder that chair making is often considered to be the pinnacle of the woodworker’s art.
By the time their use became more widespread in Europe in the 16th Century, chairs had become stylized to serve specific purposes. Dining chairs were built to fit around dining tables, and writing chairs were often paired with desks.
Often, neither was matched to the human form; comfort frequently took second place to the formal function.
Traditional dining chairs, for example, feature a backrest at an almost 90° angle to the seat, obliging the user to sit ramrod straight.
Although function remains an important design consideration, chair makers today typically give first consideration to
the human form in their work, particularly when they are building custom – made chairs. The jig shown at left allows a chair to fit as snugly as a comfortable pair of shoes. The charts and illustrations on pages 14 and 15 will help you reconcile the sometimes conflicting demands of function and human anatomy in your designs, allowing you to build chairs that are both useful and comfortable.
Once you have designed a comfortable chair, it is time to turn your attention to appearance. A visual gallery of the most popular and enduring chair styles, from the Greek Klismos of the 5th Century BC—an armless chair that Homer said was favored by the goddesses—to Sam Maloof’s classic modern rocking chair, is presented starting on page 18. As the examples show, the design possibilities for chair making are virtually limitless.
The information on pages 16 and 17 will help you in one of the more ordinary, but crucial, aspects of chair making: selecting the appropriate woods for your projects and determining how much lumber you need.