symmetry; who needs it

I saw this wainscot chair yesterday, for the first time in 10 years.

Hingham wainscot chair


It’s privately owned, and was made in Hingham Massachusetts in the mid-seventeenth century. Oak with some inlaid bands. These might be walnut heartwood & sapwood. I though some of the “dark” pieces were cedar. I don’t think there was any microanalysis done, but I am going to check. The placement of the inlay is really absurd, it is trenched into the stiles and some rails right at the edge where a mortise is cut, and the corresponding tenon shoulder meets the mortised member. Some Yorkshire wainscot chairs have bands of inlay, but usually they are set in from the edge of the stock. Like a sane person did it…

panel detail


I am planning to make a copy of this chair, much like I did for another Hingham chair for the Brooklyn Museum last year. The V-tool work is really quite vigorous; it’s about the deepest-cut stuff I can remember.  While I was shooting some photos of it, I noticed the crest rail’s carved pattern. Symmetry is suggested, but not really attained. I always emphasize this idea to people when they see my carving and ask how I get it “perfect” and by that they mean symmetrical. Upon closer examination most folks can see the deviation from right to left, top to bottom, whatever the situation might be. But you have to go looking for it in most cases. Our brains like repeating patterns, and will scan for repeats while tolerating some discrepancies.

crest rail


And that is some of what I look for in period carvings…if they aren’t there, then I get suspicious.

12 thoughts on “symmetry; who needs it

  1. Ah… symmetry. The more precise and exact the object is, the more likely we are to pick out minor problems. Create a textured object that suggests symmetry and your brain accepts this as so, filling in the blanks as needed to keep itself happy.

    Which is why I will never shop at Ikea. Along with their meatballs, their stuff is the pits.

    • Gary here is another brain acceptance thing:
      Olny srmat poelpe can raed tihs. I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs psas it on!!

  2. I KNOW! I KNOW! I KNOW, this guy bought a new saw you see and by god we are gonna do some inlay, placement be damned!

    I like it, it has a quirky quality to it thats very american and adds to it’s appeal. Do we know that it is american made?

    Nutting offers that as of the 1920s, there were only 6 known American wainscot chairs, aprox how many are we up to now, anyone know?

  3. James
    The chair is in Robert Blair St George’s book The Wrought Covenant, for which I think microanalysis was done & showed red oak, thus New England-made. It descended in a family from Hingham.

    off the top of my head, I get about 12-15 wainscot chairs, so I imagine there’s two dozen at least, figuring that I have forgotten a bunch. If we sat down to list them all, I bet it would get up to 2 dozen or more.

  4. Cool! Another project to follow along and take ideas from! I hope you document the chairbuilding as thoroughly as you do many of your other projects! I’ll look forward to following along and dreaming of future projects!


  5. I thank God every day for those wacky thinkers back in the colonial 1700s. Because of them, I can.

  6. There are about 26 or 26 New England joined armchairs, I think. The alternating wave pattern seen on this chair is derived from similar carvings going across the main fields of Roman sarcophagi. In those you see similar “plan-ahead” syndrome. Not sure what the motif evokes. Perhaps the ocean, like the Greek key motif. Almost all the New England motifs go back to Roman work which was emblematic of religious imagery, THEIR religion, which obviously made many references to Nature. The ocean can evoke/invoke either Poseidon (male) or Venus (female). Because Roman sarcophagi survived in such numbers, they were important sources, also the overall form fed into cassoni and casapanca, chests with backs, the ultimate ancestor of the Emoure couch. Although there were surviving bronze couch feet and arms that fed into that too.

  7. BTW that armchair is sensational, what does Peter think about the turnings and the potential relationship between the crest plume flourish and the crest of the Michael Metcalf chair at Dedham HIstorical Society. When I get a windfall profit, I’m going to ask Peter to make me one of those!!! After I replace my molar.

  8. 26 huh, and thats just N.E. How about southern chairs, have there been any others discovered besides the “square turned” Virginia chair?

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