Class notes from “Rethinking Period Rooms”, a series of lectures at BMA — 2. The Evolution of Chairs

The most interesting thing in the study of objects is that not only the styles inevitably change, but also the notions of what that particular object means to people have changed in a dramatic way. The rarity of fabrics in the 17th century made its presentation and preservation (such as linen press or kas) the most important part of home decoration; and now we constantly donate to Goodwill. The Delftware, attempted likeness of Chinese porcelain (that fell short), were still treasured in the Jan Martense Schenck house in the early 18th century; while his grandson Nicolas Schenck, would enjoy quite a large set of British transferware that made for export to the United States after the war ceased. But chairs, among all common furniture, have witnessed the most dramatic changes, as can be seen from Jan Martense Schenck’s house and other period rooms in the Brooklyn Museum. To some extent, we understand them so differently from our predecessors that they are almost unrecognizable as time goes by.
Chairs were still associated with aristocracy and royalty in most of the 17th century. Before 1660, even Renssenlaer used pine benches in his council room and had to ask his mother to send him eight chairs from the Netherlands. Those benches or forms, as they were called at that time, unfortunately, didn’t survive to prsent day since they are bulky and lack of aesthetic values. In the 1760’s, families with a financial standings like Schenck’s, would have at most one chair in the house. Chairs made in the Dutch farm land may not be as grandiose or high as those used by the kings and dukes in England, but they certainly bear the same notion: It is more symbolic than functioning and whoever takes the seat takes the prestige that were made within the chairs.
But what a burden for the prestige? Chairs, at that time, were made without consideration for comfort. Maybe the makers knew that comfort comes with a deadly price which cost one easily lose his/her upright gesture (how many times we fall asleep in those monstrous sofa?) that they intended to make them the less ergonomic of all times.
A wainscot oakwood chair in Brooklyn Museum shows a perfect example of a joiner’s work that could be bought by middle-classed Jan Martense Schenck. Made between 1650 to 1700, it is fairly high off the ground that one’s legs would naturally be placed straight. The back is high and vertical to keep the back tall. The arms are necessary to secure the hands on the top of them. In some degree, these designs are successful in that one immediately knows how he should behave once he sits down.
A joiner’s chair is low-tech, but sturdy with a price of being very stuffy and bulky. The back of that wainscot chair is composed of two rails (horizontal wooden slats) and two stiles (vertical wooden slats) joined together with pinned mortise and tenon. (The pegs now protrude–possibly from shrinkage.) Because the wood shrinks across the grain and the grain of a rails and a stile are perpendicular, the joiner’s chair can be very sturdy. The wainscot carved board may be bought from a carver (a low imitation of renaissance style chiseled at a very shallow level) ; and there are some turned legs in the chair; but overall, it is the joiner’s effort that defined chairs of that period.
By the early 18th century, chairs made by turners became popular due to its easy-to-make characteristics. Since the Jan Martense Schenck’s house was reconstructed to the 1725 period, certainly there would be a few turned chairs owned by the family by then. In the museum, such chairs are lined around the walls as they are multi-functioning furniture and can be pulled to different places when needed. Chairs with turned rails and stiles with rush seats, in contrary to the joiner’s chairs, were an engineering disaster. Such chairs, still tall and stern looking, are much lighter due to the slat back but more unstable because of the joining technology. Thus stretchers are an important part of the chair for stabilization. Such chairs on the market almost certainly would have some replacement at certain time. (The rush, matt or caned seats are certainly new since they are supposed to be replaced once a while. But back then labor cost can be ignorant compared to material cost; to have someone re-cane a seat is nothing compared to the value of the chair itself.)
An early example of such chair was donated by early decorative art scholar and collector Luke Vincent Lockwood to the Brooklyn Museum. The chair has some unusual wear on the second rail of the back. It is true because woods shrink at different speeds thus no two spindles would be identical. But one can easily identify the replacement by looking carefully of the rhythms of the voids between the stiles of the back. Sadly, the repair which was done later, can seldom both replicate the turned shape of the rails and the void shape between the rails.
By the time of the revolution, cabinet makers provided professional furniture which was much more engineered, more tech-adept than those chairs made by earlier joiners or turners. Chippendale was the dominating style of the period. The availability of chairs means that they were more comfortable (back splats usually follow human forms) and more luxury (mahogany are the preferred wood in big cities, if not then maple can be also selected.) Some chairs could be used for dining purpose, but they were still not the modern dining chairs in modern concept. Chairs, finally began to migrate into what we think of them from then on.

The craftsmanship in Chippendale chairs could and should amaze most of the modern furniture makers. The cabriole legs (formed from one convex curve on top of a thinner concave curve) are not just eye-catching but also mechanically stable. The rails and the styles are still joined with mortise and tenon technology. A horizontal seat frame is used to hold slip seat which usually can be upholstered wither in damask or check pattered fabric. Sometimes glue blocks are used under these frame for further support (which can only be seen when chairs are upside down).

The cabriole legs are extremely sophisticated as for the construction. Unlike some modern reproductions, a cabriole leg carved from a single wood block contains both the leg, knee and the corner part that will join on each side to two knee brackets (which further connect to seat rails ) to form a acanthus leaf carving. Thus the unification of the legs and the rails and the elimination of the seams between vertical parts made them sturdy yet not stuffy.

More interesting, chairs began to reflect the regional differences. All major cities would have their styles which can be summarized into two categories: regional preference and regional characteristics.

Two Chippendale chairs from the Cupola House in Brooklyn Museum vividly show the difference of the cabinet makers between stylish New York and the more restrained Boston.

From regional preference point of view, New York Chippendale chairs tend to be square, heavy, more solid ( or in other words a little bit squat) and more elaborately carved compared to those made in Boston. The puritanical New Englanders favored a more restrained, conservative style (which some people nowadays see as an virtue). In this case, the New York one has a carved splat with a tassel shape in the middle. The front skirt has gadrooning decoration, a reminiscence of dutch Baroque style. The Boston chair, even though from about the same period, still has stretchers even though they are structurally unnecessary.

From a regional characteristic point of view, there are more carving in this New York chair, from the crest rail to the back splat. In fact, the Boston chair is void of any carving in the back splat. But nothing is more evident to show the regional characteristics than the “ball and claw” feet. The New York Chippendale chairs, almost without exception, had talons closely grasping a squarish ball. The balls are in general big and the claw go downward straight. The Boston chair, in comparison, has much lighter and airy feet. The claw is carved more muscular and the tips of the claws clench inward as if the bird is ready to fly. (The Rhode Island Chippendale chairs even have space between the ball and the claw to make them such sough-after masterful looking!)

How could these regional characteristics came into being? Scholars usually relate to the local apprenticeship and workshops. Another possible reason is that by then furniture making had evolved into the primitive streamline manufacturing so that it was possible different cabinet makers bought the pre-made legs from the same famous workshop.

By the late 18th century, Philadelphia was the richest and the most sophisticated city in the United States. (Brooklyn Museum does own several Philadelphia made Chippendale chairs, but they are too special to be tugged into a corner of a period room with dim light. The fifth floor – American Art- features an exemplary Philadelphia chair. ) No other city can boost more elaborate carving than Philadelphia at that time when the city can afford to import the first rate carver from Europe. The claw-and-ball almost has a sculptural quality, with the most finely articulated talons. The Acanthus leaves or other carving that are featured in New York chairs to distinguish Boston preference are much shallower compared to those from Philadelphia.

But interestingly the most easy-to-identify feature of Philadelphia Chippendale chairs is not the carving or feet, but the universal through mortise joining technology. From the back of the chair, one can see the tenon from the side rails. It is not something that customers pay attention to; nor something that regional cultural and social influence have an impact. Such feature has to be related to some cabinet makers. But Philadelphia at that time featured so many local and foreign furniture makers and in general it is not possible to trace back who made them. Possibly because of the easy access of local examples, those that made the best sell were finely studied by others. When such imitations were voiced in a large scale, the personal preference eventually became a regional construction style.

Chippendale is not the first type of chair when style and comfort, instead of clashing against each other, come to play together harmoniously. Earlier Queen Anne style chairs, with its smaller frame and beautiful curvy form, show the first sign of airiness, sleekness and elegance, the same characteristics that we tend to associate with modernity. The cabriole legs, lightly resting on pad feet, have a perfect balance between the charm and the intimacy.

The Brooklyn Museum has a set of Queen Anne side chairs which are not only best for their pristine condition and marvelous design, but also brings scholars with intriguing conflict between its regional preference and regional characteristics. These chairs are the original furniture to the Porter-Belden house in Wethersfield, CT and now displayed in the parlor room.

First, the set is a fine example of the Queen Anne style. Pad feet, cabriole legs, both splat and stiles are spoon-curved with the crest rounded to conform a natural smooth design. The splat, the most fashionable part of the chair, is formed by two different-sized vase shapes with the smaller one upside down and connected with bottom one through a ring shape. From the side view, the two side stiles are slightly forward compared to the splat so that the sitter can fee a little bit embraced by elegance. The pad feet are oval shaped, not as prominent as feet in later Chippendale style, but they sprawl outward with a candid openness. Inside the original seat is dried marsh grass, which is common in New England area. Such grass when dried can be very dense, thus it is not a bad alternative to the horse hairs.

Though we do not know who is the maker, his craftsmanship was admirable through quite a few construction details. A close examination may also reveal that in order to match the front cabriole legs, he chamfered the back legs so that they look almost rounded. Even more, to transition the semi-rounded legs to the square frame, he added an s-shaped triangle block to smooth such transformation. Also each seat is supposed to perfectly match each chair by means of a simple marking system. Inside of the front rail of one of the chairs, he carved three dents. The bottom of each seat (with its original canvas straps) also bears a number. Unfortunately such details were buried in the daily household life after years’ usage. Not surprisingly some number three seat was placed on number two chair since stacking seats together for cleaning is common and the wives or housemaids would seldom think of the underlining matching system for the set.

Secondly, the chairs, though lack of any written record, speak to themselves through a seemingly conflict between the regional preference and the regional characteristics. The chairs were made of cherry, the kind of wood that would not be favored in places like New York or Philadelphia. Cherry wood is commonly used for country area, such as Connecticut. Its simple and refrained shape also shows the puritanical regional preference. But the chairs all have the through mortise, a branded characteristics of Philadelphia makers. The museum scholar has thus conjectured that the maker was once apprenticed in Philadelphia. While he could bring the regional characteristics of the big cities to the countryside (since buyers would probably not notice such details), he could only make furniture that appeal to the local tastes.

Today, we sit on the chairs everyday, enjoying the comfort and seldom think they were once such a rarity. To some extent, we are both lucky and unlucky. The abundance of merchandise and materials have greatly reduced the cost of chairs. We can all be called “chairman” by the old standards. On the other hand, although furniture makers have been striving to make chairs cheaper, more stylish and more comfortable before and after the mass-production era, chairs have lost their distinctive hand-made characteristics. We look at the chairs in the museums, each of which epitomizes the craftsmanship of the maker’s predecessors and his own intelligence. Each one is unique in that the magic subtle human touch and handling. Sadly I don’t feel it on the super sleek IKEA chair that I am sitting on.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


Leave a Reply