Chairs, chairs, chairs

or is it “books, books, books”?

I’m making windsor chairs. And re-reading Nancy Goyne Evans’ Windsor-Chairmaking in America: From Craft Shop to Consumer. Nancy read a staggering amount of period records in her research for her 3 volumes on American Windsor chairs. This is the 3rd volume.

Finishing up work on Jennie Alexander’’s book with Megan Fitzpatrick on JA chairs. Shooting some last-minute missing photos; so making a chair this week to do so. 


And reading Claudia Kinmonth’s Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000. In chapter 1, Stools and Chairs, she writes about súgán chairs – what I know of as a ladderback chair, but with a straw (súgán) seat. 

As I was looking at those chairs, I thought of our friend Masashi Kutsuwa – and I dug out his book Van Gogh’s Chair

Masashi Kutsuwa’s Van Gogh’s Chair

I can’t read Japanese, but Masashi gave me an English synopsis of his book. It involves Shoji Hamada, “one of the most famous Japanese potters”, Tatsuaki Kuroda, Japan’s first living national treasure woodworker, Soetsu Yanagi (author of The Unknown Craftsman) and a convoluted tale of chairs from Spain that look like a chair painted by a Dutchman in France 75 years earlier. The chair was introduced into Japan by Shoji Hamada in 1963, after his travels in Spain that year. A few years later, (1967) Tatsuaki Kuroda visited the same workshops, recording in photos and film some of the chairmaking process. 

Masashi’s book also includes a photo series of making copies of this chair form. In his notes he writes: “I visited Spain in 2015 and met the chairmaker’s family who welcomed Tatsuaki nearly 50 years ago. I also visited the last chairmaking shop in Guadix. 

The 1967 film is on youtube – I just re-watched it. Amazing. As far as I can tell, the chairmaker maybe uses 4 tools; a frame saw, a brace & bit, and a knife that he both pushes and pulls (thus not a “drawknife”) – I saw some more tools, but didn’t see him use them; the film isn’t the whole chair-making process I don’t think. The posts are pith-centered (I could see that in Masashi’s book too) and when he split a section to make rungs – he used his knife to split it. 

Back to Kinmonth’s book, she writes “Similar designs are also found on the continent, particularly in Spain and Portugal, linking them to a wider Atlantic European tradition. One celebrated version features in Van Gogh’s painting “Bedroom in Arles (1888).” Below is a sketch of the bedroom at Arles.

Van Gogh letter to Gauguin

(I read about the painting(s) – watch those chairs, in one version the chair on the left gets its rear feet kicked backwards – or one of them at least. )

The súgán chairs also reminded me of a chair I photographed at my friends’ house a few years ago. This chair was bought at Brimfield, the famous Massachusetts antiques fair. Around here, these are usually thought of as being from French Canada – but it certainly has much in common with those other chairs – except the bowed seat rails; particularly the square or rectangular posts and narrow slats. This one has through tenons on the rungs and slats though. So different, but quite similar. 

13 thoughts on “Chairs, chairs, chairs

  1. When I went on a sewing mission trip to Haiti in 1989, out in the villages there were few chairs. The chair you owned was taken with you to the neighbors to sit on.

  2. Wow! That film is fabulous, I love seeing the measuring with hands and that boring setup. Such a small footprint for work, and nice to see someone finding so many good uses for a gut (I knew I’d been cultivating it for a reason). That drawknife is pretty interesting, too; it looked pretty crude, and actually reminded me of what I’ve seen Japanese craftspeople dressing bamboo rounds with, but the last shots of him cleaning up the tops of the posts betray a bit more subtlety to that knife. Thanks for sharing all of this; I’ll have to try navigating that website to order a copy of the book.

  3. The bowed rails derive from Louis XV versions. Winterthur Library owns a book in French about chaises de paille, literally straw-seated chairs but really rush seated. Many of these have neoclassical backs, still in production. Pierre Fry was making editions of these in the1980s and 1990s. Often painted bright yellow as a reference to Van Gogh’s chairs in Arles. The through-tenoned ones from French Canada survive in huge numbers, sometimes with inner bark seats, sometimes with rawhide seats. It would take an army of students to pull all the vernacular seating in the Americas together. Also, I recently bought every book about Hispano-Americsn furniture, and they all feature the Monk’s chairs with leather sling seat and back in tooled leather with big brass nails, their equivalent of a Cromwellian. They often have extremely high seats, 21″ and more, which accounts forwhy my Caribbean gateleg table is 33″ high!!.

  4. Also, Bernard Leach, the British potter who worked with Shoji Hamada in both Japan and at St. Ives in Cornwall, influenced Hamada to furnish his house in Japan with English Windsors and oval leaf tables! I think there are Youtube videos of Hamada’s house in Japan, which is preserved as a shrine.

  5. Thanks so much Peter you always find and share the coolest stuff, I didn’t think I was such a chair geek until I realized how much I was enjoying the video. Thanks again!!!

  6. Anybody catch or know how the chair stays together. I saw no sign of glue or pegging of the pieces. Does the woven seat provide enough tension to hold everything together?

  7. Sorry to be off topic. I just watched Thomas Johnson carefully (I would dare say respectfully) re-glue a joint stool. You might find it interesting:

    Thank you, Peter, for sharing your skills and thoughts.


  8. Awesome Peter! I got to see a presentation on the Van Gogh chair by Masashi a couple years ago. Weren’t you there for that Wood Week up at North House? Those events are starting to blur together! I believe they were carving young poplar trees. I love this film, and how quickly they put together a humble little chair so casually. I wonder if it’s one cigarette per chair?

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