Windsor Recall

This one is too much fun to pass up.  I  thank  Sir Mark Ferraro for bringing it to my attention.               

   On August 23, the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a press release on its web site announcing a voluntary recall of  Windsor chairs by the retailer J. C. Penny.   You can see it yourself at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml07/07288.html.   The press release includes the warning that “Consumers should stop using recalled products immediately unless otherwise instructed.” 

The product name is “Windsor Spindle-Back Chairs.”  Duh. What else do you expect to find in the back of a Windsor chair, but spindles?  Windsors are designated by the shape of the back: sack back, C-arm, high back, fan back, bow back, etc.  The chairs’ hazard is described as “The wood stretchers can split while in use and the chairs can collapse, posing a fall hazard to consumers.”   The report goes on to explain that  the retailer “has received four reports of chairs splitting and collapsing.  One minor whiplash injury has been reported.”   

The description of the chairs is given as follows:  “This recall involves Windsor Spindle-Back side chair sets.  The set is comprised of four chairs made of solid hardwood.  Each chair measures 36 inches high.  The backs are painted white and the seat is a natural wood color.”   

The chairs were made in Malaysia and were sold exclusively through the retailer’s catalog and online stores from April 2006 through June 2007.  They were priced at about $250 for a set of four chairs.  That is  $62.50 a chair.  

This  press release reminds me of  the puzzles we used to do as kids.  How many things can you find wrong with this picture?  In this case,   how many things can you find wrong with this chair? Since the press release does include a picture, let’s begin there.  Any experienced Windsor chairmaker will immediately notice the undercarriage.  The rear legs are actually shorter than the front.  At best,  the  pivot point is directly under the sitter’s center of gravity.  It may even be forward of it.  This chair is designed to tip over.   

That may not have been the designer’s  intention, but this is an unstable chair. When the sitter rocks on the poorly located pivot point, there is of course extra stress on the under carriage.  It is pretty predictable that rocking back due to the chair’s instability, led to the stretchers splitting and the “fall hazard.”  

Look at the seat.  It is probably no more than ¾ inch thick.  The leg joints in the seat are blind.  So how deep can those holes be –maybe 1/2 inch, 5/8 inch at the most.    How can any furniture designer imagine that is secure?  In fact, they know its not. Have you ever flipped one of these chairs over? The trick the factories use is to shoot a drywall screw through the joint. Come to think of it, $62.50 per chair may have been price gouging.   

Finally, any competent Windsor chairmaker knows that the legendary joinery that has held antique Windsors together for 200 plus years relies on mechanical joints, not adhesive joints.  Windsor joinery also depends on  the different properties of a variety of wood species.  By the third day of a sack back class, even the most novice chairmaker knows why a Windsor that is made out of one type of wood is a bad chair. 

 The chair being recalled is the inevitable nadir of a process that began 150 years ago, when early chair factories removed  chairmakers from the design process. Machines began to dictate design.  As mass production took over chairmaking, it  no longer mattered if a chair was well designed, or well made.  What mattered was saving labor.  If a machine could not create a certain effect, it was eliminated.  The only effects that were incorporated into chair design were those that machines could accomplish.   

In the second half of the last century, the furniture designer complete with college degree, entered the process.  Any remnant of the old knowledge that may have endured in chair factories was extinguished as the designer did what he was  trained to do – design.  Do designers look back to see what made chairs good in the past?  No, they want to make their own  mark, and that means coming up with something new.   

Sometime around 1980 Woodcraft Supply (then in Woburn, MA) put together an exhibit of traditional chairs by current makers.  I submitted a C-arm.  Fine Woodworking had a genuine furniture designer write a review of the exhibit.  The guy’s criticism  was  that the backs of traditional chairs were inclined at X number of degrees, instead of the industry standard of Y number of degrees.  It did not dawn on him that the standard  may have something to do with the comfort of traditional chairs vs. modern chairs.  

If you are making and selling chairs, print out this press release and post it on your shop wall.  The next time a customer, a friend, or your brother-in-law exclaims “You’re crazy.  You want how much for your chairs?”  Point out the press release. Explain that one gets what one pays for.  If someone thinks chairs should be cheap, that person is welcome to buy a falling hazard whose stretchers split while in use.  That person will also have to  buy a new set of chairs every couple of years.  Or, one can make an investment in a set of hand made Windsors that will last a life time and be passed on through the generations.  Which is the better deal?                                                   

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I recently heard from Sir Joel Jackson.  He reports that he has sold his 150th Windsor chair.  He has enough orders pending to keep him busy until next June — a 10  month back order.

Joel also recounted  a story that made me feel good.  He wrote that he  had  recently made a set of C-arms and NYC bow back  sides for a woman.  When he delivered the chairs to her she told Joel that her first husband had taken a chairmaking class with me about 25 years ago.   He had planned on making her a set of chairs.  However, he died of a heart attack before he could accomplish his goal.   Joel, who has taken many classes with me, finally made that set of Windsors her husband (and my old student) had wanted to make.  It took two and half decades, but the story finally came full circle. 

By the way,   Sir Joel will be back to see us again in December 2008 for the Balloon back chair class.