The Chair Is A Political Item

I originally purchased Chairmaking & Design by JeffMiller as an impulse purchase off of Amazon. The used copy I bought cost about $5.00. Since it was rated 4.8 out of 5 stars, I figured it was a good deal. Since reading it over the summer, I’ve had a chair in my head, desperately trying to get into my shop. So it was with great excitement that I read the Woodworking in America 2013 class schedule during my flight to Cincinnati. On Saturday morning there was a chair class (I know there was one on Friday morning too, but I’m sorry. I’m a modern chair style guy, not a Windsor chair fan).

The class began with the discussion of the evolution of chairs.
I arrived at Chairs: Style & Substance to find Ejler Hjorth-Westh introducing himself to the class. Ejler (Eye-ler) immigrated to California from Denmark in the early 1980’s. Since then he has made his trade as a boat builder, a home builder and a furniture maker. He learned furniture making under the tutelage of JamesKrenov at the College of the Redwoods. Now a master (though probably not one to admit it), Ejler teaches at the College of the Redwoods.

The class was a brief history of chairs from a style and political perspective. Ejler took us through from the simplest chairs (basically just a log) to the most ornate Victorian monstrosities. Then World War I hit. Not only did the war permanently disrupt centuries of European social class, it also disrupted the evolution of the chair. After the war the excesses of the Victorian age were cast away for the more practical and balanced styles of the 20th Century (this disruption technically began before the War, but it was the War that pushed it forward).

One of Ejler's full size mock up demonstrated modern chair design.
Though only in the context of chair design, Ejler was able to define Modern, a task that has stumped and derailed previous WIA presenters. To Ejler, the tenants of modern design are that a chair should be both visually and practically functional. Modern exists on a spectrum, between vision without function and function without vision.

Had the class stopped there, it would have been enough for me. I found the history and philosophy of chairs fascinating. There was more.

After talking about chairs through modern design, Ejler then discussed his design philosophy and methods. He described how his design process is gradual. He takes meticulous notes on the client’s request and then ruminates on that request. Once he has worked out the overall design on paper, Ejler moves to a full scale mockup. He assembles his mock ups with a combination of dry joinery and screws. The dry joinery allows him to test different joints, while the screws allow mockups to be disassembled and re-assembled many times over. He emphasized that these steps take time, and the chair maker should not force it. Rather, they should let the design stew.

This is a sample design sketch of Ejler's.
From design, the class discussion moved to comfort. Ejler explained that comfort can only be measured within its design parameter. No chair is comfortable for all functions at all times. A chair should be comfortable for its intended use – reading, dining, etc. If you adhere to narrow design parameters it is easy to define what comfort is.

This classic from Rennie Mackontosh does not ballance vision and function.
There is only vision and no function.
Talk of design then moved to building. Ejler reviewed which joints are stressed in which types of chairs and how he makes them. He finished the class by demonstrating how he makes his arm to seat joint.

From discussions I had during the conference I know that Ejler’s classes were the most divisive of the weekend. People either loved his class or hated his class. I loved his class. I made sure that I was in the front row for his next one.

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