Some passions are easy to grasp — chocolate, the sea, or Marx Brothers movies. Others are more elusive, harder to explain. I’m afraid the love of chairs falls into the latter category. It’s the sensuous lines, the curve of the back, the embrace of the arms, the carved details that reflect fashion, station, history, and artist. I played verbal volleyball on the phone trying to get an appointment with someone to talk about the subject.
“I’m doing an article on chairs, and I was wondering if I might talk to someone there.” “Chairs?” “Chairs.” “Chairs?” “Yes, chairs.” Chairs are the most common form of furniture, but when you think about what it is to sit, the chair takes on dimension and depth. From chairs we survey, ponder, decide, judge, confide, relax, recline, dine, read, think, rule, and watch TV. As children we play musical chairs; you lose when you are without one.
Chairs are the most anthropomorphic of our everyday tools. They have backs, legs, bottoms, knees, ankles, arms, feet, and ears. They even wear skirts.
In general terms, a chair consists of legs, usually four, a seat or bottom, and a back. But an infinite number of variations are possible. It may have arms; one, two, or three legs; and two or more splats —the upright, wooden, central support of the back — and that splat may be pierced or carved.
Fancier styles may have aprons (or skirts), the decorative horizontal support just below the seat rail, and one of 17 different stretchers, or no stretcher.
A stretcher is a crossbar that joins two of the legs for support. This visible undercarriage adds decoration and/or function to a chair. If the stretchers are a simple box type at a low height, the front piece can make an easy footrest. Regency chairs, in vogue at the time of George IV, have graceful outward slashing saber legs with no stretchers.
The form and function of a chair are about support. Each piece adds to the function. You might assume all four legs are the same length. Look again. Chances are the back legs extend the full height of the chair, forming the side supports for the back. Above the seat, they’re called stiles. The top, or crest, rail is mounted atop the stiles. The splat goes into the bottom of the crest rail and the top of the seat rail, adding strength and balance.
Lathes, invented in the 9th Century, elevated the art of furniture making through a new process called “turning.” While the lathe turned the wood, the craftsman used a hand tool to make the piece round.
Early furniture making was the craft of joining together wood, shortened to “joinery.” Chair makers were called “turners and joiners.”
Antique chairs are held together with pegs or mortise and tendons, not nails or screws. The joints had to be as perfect as a human could make them or a few years of sitting would rock them apart.
Just as with the hula, in chair making every movement has a meaning, or I should say, every style of every piece has a meaning. For instance, the pierced splat of a Chippendale, when topped by carving reminiscent of a pagoda, means the chair is not an early-18th-century piece but a later one influenced by what is called chinoiserie, or “in the Chinese taste.” I always thought the pagoda was a Japanese motif, but it doesn’t matter. In a time before political correctness, oriental was oriental. Because many different variations of each part of a chair exist in a single example, interpreting a chair can be tricky.
What kinds of chairs are valued and preserved, bought and sold, in San Diego? When the need arises, where can you take a chair for repair? Where do you begin to hunt for something that is literally everywhere? I discovered the answer was easy — almost anywhere.
On West Washington in Mission Hills, the smell of the area was more memorable than the look of the shops. Eau de Taco Bell wafted for blocks before and after the fast-food outlet. Atmospheric conditions, I supposed. There was a slight haze that kept all the odors as well as the heat in. It was a warm November. I saw a green awning that said “Antiques” and walked into the shop called the Private Collector.
Dark Victorian furniture, statues, and display cases made islands with narrow walkways. My large shoulder bag was a hazard. I wandered around to get a feel for what was available. In the back-room office were two small sheltie dogs behind an accordion-type gate made to keep children at a distance. The younger one started making a racket to get out and I couldn’t help but encourage him. He let me pet him after the usual coy shyness, but the older dog was more reserved.
David Schutte, the owner, was on his way to a haircut appointment. John Zarling, a salesperson and dealer of antique chairs, answered my questions.
“When you see a chair you might purchase for resale, what’s the first thing you look at?” I asked.
“General overall appearance. Is it unique? Does it have any striking features? Does it have nice lines? What condition is it in? Is this a kind of chair people in San Diego are looking for? We carry a lot of Arts and Crafts chairs of the plainer oak — there’s a large amount of building that goes on in San Diego. There are people who like very formal looks, French chairs or the English Chippendale or Hepplewhite style.”
“Which styles are the toughest to keep?”
“The Hepplewhite style is tough to find, period.”
“I don’t know. There’s quite a range of everything else. The Asian look goes very well in San Diego.”
“Does every culture have its own style of chairs?”
“That’s an interesting question. I’d say there is a wide range in what people expect in chairs, depending on perhaps economy and material even more than cultural.