on May 5, 2016
A friend asked for help building a chair, I asked her to describe it to me. One or two sentences of description and I got it.
“Oh! Yeah! That’s a Windsor chair. They’re great! Also, I kind of have a thing for them. Also, I don’t know if I can help.”
“They have a name? I honestly thought those were just chairs.”
In essence, this is what is so great about them. They are identifiably chair. We’ve been surrounded by these chairs in this country for over two centuries. However, because it doesn’t scream to be more than its chairness. As a collective object, it yields its specific significance to each individual chair.
As an iconic form, it is very easy to recognize. A shaped plank for a seat, and spindles that create the back and leg support. An antique original handmade 18th century Philadelphia comb back armchair is as much a Windsor chair as the Scandinavian designed, China made “Norraryd” from IKEA. The term “Windsor” identifies the style, rather than the where it came from. But it becomes hard to pin down what the identity of that style is. The “style” and meaning of the chair is dictated by whoever has got their hands on it.
The rise of popularity of the Windsor chair came from the fact that growing population of colonial American needed light, sturdy, and cheap furniture. Chairs have historically been an indicator or status, courtesy, and indicators of social unrest. America needed it just as a place for its citizens to sit. Instead of being design to give meaning Windsor chair allowed itself to blank canvas for meaning to be placed.
The construction of a Windsor chair is quite ingenious and looks deceptively simple. The seat is the center of the structure. It is usually made a thick plank of softer wood. The softer wood helps to make the shaping easier, as well as create a thicker support for the spindles without adding much weight. The plank seat holds the spindles in angles that make use of the stresses it would take. The spindles would typically made of a hardwood that is less likely to bow over stress without being thick. The splayed legs meant that as weight is put on it, the legs would want to move away from each other. However, the stretchers on the legs use that angled force away from each other to make the structure tighten itself. The spindles for the back, usually turned much thinner, individually are not strong enough to take the fulcrum of a human leaning back against it. However, when they are attached to each other at the top, the slight variations in the angle it enters the seat,
it creates a series of supports that are working together to make a much sturdier back, while allowing it be open and light. The fine tunings of all of these forces have been experimented with by its makers giving different forms that require an extra support in the back, or steam bending hoops that act both as the top and a spindle.
The American Windsor chair design emigrated here with the colonial ships from England. Taking up too much space where cargo space was invaluable, common furniture was most likely not on those ships. Furniture would have to be made in the New World. In common Windsor folklore, the first American Windsor chair was made in Philadelphia, most likely modeled after a crude drawing of the original design in England. This style of chair became immensely popular because of its sturdy functionality and cheap costs.
Michael Dunbar, Windsor chair collector and maker, believes this development of Windsor chairs was crucial to the development of American industry. By looking at the quantity and quality construction of Windsor chairs that existed in America, he believes the production of the Windsor chair had the seeds that created the production methods that shaped American Industry. Because of the high demand and distribution of the chair, it meant it relied on a many people working in a production system that hadn’t been done before, focusing on making a singular product. Shops would hire apprentices that would work for seven years doing singular tasks, such as turning, carving, or whittling, most likely outsourcing the more menial tasks. After seven years, they had the necessary skills to do the assembly which required years of experience with the technology available at the time. However, he concludes that the traditional Windsor chair industry was soon undone when American production began to adopt factory models that required less skill and produced even higher volume of cheaper product that came in demand as American began to expand west and grow. As the style of Windsor chairs became popular again, it began to be made with modern factory production methods which he believed destroyed the craft and creativity of the product. Although focusing on making one product, the focus on skill building in the fabricator meant that design decisions were being made by a skilled craftsman that was aware of form as well as function, as evidenced by the introduction of a bulbous section that started to appear at the bottom of the whittled spindles. However, as craftsman became machine operators, the point of innovation is gone when one specific design is outfitted for production without variance.
Furniture in Britain came from a guild system, where the local woodworker would make all the furniture for the town.
Because the methods furniture making in America was not a set in stone by a guild system as it was in the motherland, this meant these early Philadelphia chair makers were no longer fabricators, but experimental designers as well.
However, the design of the chair would often change past the hands of the maker. The finish was usually done by the wholesaler, who would paint them according to what was in fashion at the time. Also, the people who ended up owning them would also change its design.
Thomas Jefferson famously owned many Windsor chairs. Most well known is the one in which he composed the Declaration of Independence. It was outfitted with a writing desk and a revolving base. It also became common practice of other less famous owners of Windsor chairs to cut the legs shorter and outfit them with rocking legs for it to function towards leisure as a rocking chair. This variation also began to be adopted by the chair makers.
The Windsor chair has become ubiquitous in terms of being a chair. It chairs pretty well. People have seen it chair all over for centuries now. It chairs so well that formally it mostly says chair for butt. In that, it has this unique opportunity to be an empty vessel to be filled up by someone else. When my brother bought a set of factory made Windsor chairs for his kitchen. I asked him how he felt about it.
“Yeah, I bought these at Target because they were cheap and don’t look too bad. These are pretty much placeholders until we can get better chairs.”
I showed him O & G Studio’s modern interpretation of the same chair that cost more than 18 times the cost of his.
“Why would I want to spend that much money on something that looks like a $50 chair anyways?”
To him, the Windsor chair means he is settling for what he can get. For me, it stands for the unattainable, desire, and a connection to some unknown. For most other people, it’s just a place for your butt, stop trying to make it mean something to me. I enjoy the last opinion the most because it shows how well it chairs.
on April 12, 2015
Very nice chairs. I'm a big man and they felt sturdy and comfortable. Vary good looking style and apear to be well built. Fit and finish were great. Price was great for 2 chair set ($88). The only reason I gave 4 stars instead of 5 was the color was much lighter than expected. The picture shows them as stained a medium brown. The actual chairs are definately lighter on color, the ad narrative describes them as "Natural color" which is much more accurate than the picture (un-stained, only clear varnish type finish). I thought the chairs were great, but unfortunately the chairs were too light in color and did not match my table. Fortunately the Amazon Prime return policy is great and I was able to ship them back for a full refund without charge. If you want a light, natural colored chair, I would definitely recommend these chairs.