On Chairs, and Happiness as a Byproduct

A set table

Building traditional English and American chair forms is all about tension. I say this never having built one, but listening to traditional chairmakers talk about the practice, and watching Ben restore antique chairs, has shown me that in order to keep a traditional chair together, you often have to risk it ripping itself apart. The very thing that makes it capable of lasting for centuries is the same thing that could — if not correctly managed — cause it to become kindling. 

On a cold winter night we had a group of traditional wood chairmakers and friends over for dinner. Our idea was to introduce them to each other over a meal rather than an email. It was their idea to bring some show-and-tell. "Such luck!", we responded, enthusiastically agreeing to the premise. It is not often, after all, that one is presented with the opportunity of listening to some of the best in the trade describe how they work, and why, with a glass of wine. 

Michael Billeci describes his process making a Windsor chair

Our adventure in chairs started with Michael Billeci, a chairmaker who specializes in traditional American Windsor forms. We met through his wife, our architect, and conned him into becoming our friend over the course of an interview in his workshop for the Magazine Antiques (Object Lesson: All About the Windsor Chair). Since then, Mike's helped us learn to stitch a broom and we salvage wood spoons and turned scoops from his 'scrap' pile. We've directed clients to his work when they want an exceptional Windsor, and brought him dinner when we were too impatient to wait for him to invite us over. 

John Porritt speaks on the Welsh Stick Chair

John Porritt spoke first, though, which was fitting chronologically given that his Welsh Stick Chairs are thought of as the predecessors the Windsor form. Porritt is a new friend. We finally got to visit his workshop when we went to pick up an antique dresser base he was deaccessioning from his collection and we were adopting into ours. His chairs informed by centuries of tradition and the work of a true craftsman. Porritt is also a writer, and his book The Belligerent Finisher, challenges readers to embrace the physical and psychological exercise of achieving a perfectly pre-worn finish. 

Earlier, as people drifted away from the dinner table, Porritt, his wife Sue, and Mark Power, a spoon carver whose work we'll be bringing into the store soon, discussed happiness. It's a word I find challenging, because the idea of being 'happy' in a static sense, where that's the mood you reside in most or even all of the time, is foreign to me. Contentment has long felt, to me, like a better goal. I liked something Porritt said, though. "Happiness is a byproduct of something else." So it's not happiness you should be chasing, but those something 'elses'. And happiness may not be the only byproduct they create. Sometimes the byproducts may include calluses or tiredness or frustration — and that's okay. Those challenges may even augment the happiness that comes alongside. 

Seated at Dinner

Later, Mark Power was sharing his process as a spoon carver. To oversimplify terribly, he sees himself as in conversation with the wood. He can't force something out of it. That isn't his nature, nor is it that of wood. Wood forced into form without tension to hold it in place, as in a traditional chair, fights back. Instead, he notices where the wood takes him, and finds a functional form within that process. We're now lucky to have two of his serving pieces in our collection, and they each balance what is needed of a spoon and what the wood wants to be. 

Porritt, too, spoke on how wood will show you what it wants to be. The arm rail of a painted stick chair was formed from a tree already bearing the necessary bend. Laden down with snow by a storm, it had been shaped by its environment. The chair it became carries the history of the Welsh Stick Chair and the history of the tree and the history of that storm and the history of the man who made it...layers of finish developed over time. 

The Library Lamp illuminates the bar


Thank you to everyone else who joined us for dinner, Eric Conroe of Finding Form Design, Emily Majer of White Clay Kill Preservation, Lydia Curran of Monster Machine, to name (and tag) a few. They all pursue happiness as a byproduct of hard work, celebrating traditional forms and keeping cræft alive. Being in and among you all brings us great joy, with happiness as a very welcome byproduct. 


Quittner designs shown: Library Lamp, beeswax candles

Previous Article Next Article

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published