Every class I am asked “What is your favorite chair?’ The answer is the same as for most questions I am asked about Windsors, “It depends.” As I wrote in an earlier posting, my favorite chair from the stand point of design is the c-arm. However, if the questioner is really asking “Which do you most enjoy making?”, the answer is Nantucket fan back and the settee.
To relax at night after supper I play FreeCell. You probably have the game on your computer. It is like reverse solitaire, only the cards are randomly arranged. You have to put them back into order without working your way into a corner, as this is how you loose. When you make the final winning move, all the cards fly to the top of the screen and arrange themselves by suit. I enjoy watching this happen every time I win. So far, I have won 17,602 times, having started years ago with game number one, and playing my way through the games sequentially. There are 100,000 permutations. So, at 10 games a night, I will be playing FreeCell a long time. By the way, His Grace Jim White introduced me to the game. May he be cursed.
Every time I put together a Nantucket or a settee I get the same satisfaction I get solving a FreeCell game. Both chairs are puzzles that have to go together correctly. Like FreeCell, both require thinking numerous steps ahead. November 5 we will commence the 2007 settee class, and as we set up the classroom in preparation, that chair is on my mind.
Our settee is a sack back and at 42 inches long, it comfortably fits two people. It has six legs or, three pairs. This size is sometimes called a love seat, but that is a modern name and is not a term the old guys would have used. Speaking of terms, a lot of people pronounce settee set-ay, as if it were a French word. It is not, and is properly pronounced set-ee. Rather than being French, the word is a corruption of the English word settle, which is an enclosed seating form with a high paneled back that was popular in the 17th and early 18th centuries. So remember. See the settee, but don’t say sett-ay.
Settees present chairmakers with some very interesting challenges. They are very sensitive designs, and any problems that occur in the under carriage scream out loud. The legs have to all be raked in the same vertical plane. The three side stretchers have to lie in the same horizontal plane, and both medial stretchers must form a line that also lies on that same plane. It’s pretty tricky. There is not much wiggle room, but we have worked out some pretty effective techniques for achieving the desired results.
Anyone who has studied here is aware that Windsor chairs are prone to all sorts of undesirable optical allusions. The first illusion every sack back student encounters is the problem that occurs when the plane of the arm rail is parallel to the plane of the seat. No matter how perfectly parallel they are, the two will appear to diverge. Every chair we make contains at least several of these optical illusions. Being an accomplished chairmaker requires the eye to spot these problems and the knowledge to counter them.
I remind sack back classes that the classical Greeks encountered very similar problems in their monumental architecture. Like Windsors, buildings as large as, and as refined as the Parthenon were sensitive to optical illusions. In other words, when a Greek temple was perfect, it looked flawed. To counter these illusions the architects built in purposeful distortions or, flaws that made the building look perfect. We do the same thing with every type of Windsor we teach. We spend a lot of time showing students where the illusions occur and training them to see them. Then, we explain the techniques that counter them. Like the Greeks, these techniques generally involve a purposeful distortion, a small flaw that makes the chair look perfect. For example, the solution to a sack back arm appearing to diverge from the seat is to actually make them converge slightly. That is why a sack back arm is ½ inch lower in the back than at the stumps.
A settee takes a chair form and stretches it into a new form. This elongating exacerbates most of the problems Windsors have with optical illusions, and sets off a slew of new ones. Thus, making a settee not only requires putting together a puzzle, it requires fixing all these optical illusions that would seriously detract from the finished form. As you can see, a settee is not just an elongated sack back, but stands on its own as a separate form. The six leg settee we teach presents lots of design problems. In longer settees those problems compound. Eight and ten-leggers present additional difficulties of their own, both above and below the seat. Because advanced classes always contain students who are making and selling chairs, we know they will eventually find customers who want longer settees. We explain to them how to deal with the problems created by lengthening the form to eight or ten legs. They can return to The Institute and put some of these solutions into practice with the writing arm chair and the low-back settee.
I have several yard sticks I use to access a chairmaker’s skill and knowledge. As I wrote in an earlier post, one is the c-arm. Another is the settee. If someone cannot get a settee right, he either has no eye, or he is not examining his work. Developing an eye requires you to examine your own work, to examine old chairs, and it takes lots of time. I can excuse a beginner for not fixing problems. I can only write off someone who has been making chairs for a while and still doesn’t get it.
Don’t get me wrong. When I assess a chair, I am never rude. I don’t even verbalize my assessment. I always keep my own counsel, as there’s never any excuse for being impolite, or for hurting feelings.
A couple of summers ago Institute staff member Fred Chellis was presenting his chairs at an early American craft show. We wanted to visit with Fred and see the rest of the show. Susanna and I, along with her cousin Bonnie and her chairmaker husband Lance, attended. (Bonnie and Lance met and fell in love at The Institute, but that is a story for later.)
There were several other Windsor chairmakers presenting, and Lance I made our way to their booths. The first chairmaker we visited had a settee on display. Lance and I stood back and looked at the piece, each of us quietly assessing it. Recognizing me, the maker approached and told me he had sent me a picture of his settee a number of years ago. He said that shortly after he sent the picture I had introduced our settee class, and that he figured I had appropriated the idea from him.
Lance and I were stunned into silence. Developing a class is a lot of work, and it takes us about a year to bring a class on line. I may have announced the settee class shortly after he sent his picture however, it was a coincidence. That class had been in preparation for a long time previously. Also, in order to give me the idea of making a settee, he would have had to send me the picture in 1972, as that is when I made my first two-seater.
Lance and I were also stunned by the suggestion that this lamentable settee had been the inspiration for ours. The poor thing suffered from every optical illusion a settee can experience. I walked off shaking my head, not only at the guy’s accusation, but because he had apparently made many of these settees and still was committing every possible mistake. Instead of worrying about me plagiarizing him, perhaps he should spend time sitting in front of his settee examining it with a critical eye. On the other hand, perhaps he should just take our class.
Because we are teaching two balloon back classes in 2008, we had to drop settee from the schedule. You will not be able to take it next year. It and the low back settee will return again in 2009. Although time is short, I can still take one more person in this year’s class.
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