Spring 2015 Newsletter - Feature Story

Friday, October 23 2015

This time next year I will be teaching chair design at the Sturt School for Wood. I quite enjoy teaching, but I don’t often get the chance because it is so hard to get away from the workshop.

I would love to say that I teach solely because of a burning desire to pass on my knowledge. The truth is that teaching chair design forces me to evaluate and explore what I am doing. I always come away from a teaching period with a new design or concept gurgling away.

The most challenging aspect of chair design to teach is “comfort”. Comfort is not a strictly measurable thing. Comfort is not even a consistent thing; not only can two people have a different opinion on what is “comfortable”, an individual can change their opinion on what is “comfortable” over a lifetime.

To my disappointment, few woodworkers come to chair making because they want to make comfortable chairs; often they simply want the technical challenge (chairs are widely considered to be the most complex piece of furniture to make.) Many woodworkers “enjoy making things” from a personal perspective, so naturally the process of chair making appeals to them. It is difficult to design a classic chair if you are looking inwards.

I think a great chair is one that welcomes the sitter. Naturally this only applies if you actually care about the sitter. I have heard some modern designers propose that a chair should be a “challenge” to the viewer. Why should a chair fight the potential owner either visually or ergonomically? I certainly don’t consider that a chair should be bland, but nor should it be weird, uncomfortable, exaggerated or structurally unsound.

Can this essentially conservative approach lead to something special? I believe so. Our Cataract ergonomic rocker is a radical design that was arrived at through what was essentially a conservative approach. I recently heard a Richard Fidler interview with the French chef Stephane Reynaud. Reynaud is a highly respected and successful professional chef who runs a restaurant in eastern Paris. He is not trying to reinvent cooking or make ice-cream that tastes like beef steak, but he has a distinct and identifiable style. His aim is to create an environment where friends or family can come together and have a wonderful experience with food. He is trying to craft an exquisitely convivial experience, not “challenge” his audience with novelties. As I listened to the interview, I thought “that’s what I am trying to do with my chairs”.

I now have over 21 chair and stool designs in production. Each chair is designed with a particular person or occasion in mind. Each design is subtly different, but if you look carefully you can see the evolution. Some designs, like the Academic chair, we hardly ever make, while others, like the Waterfall stool, we seem to be making all the time. The point is, our chairs sell because they work on every level. They are simply delightful to live with.