Why an Institute? Part I

Several years ago I was helping a student who was both a surgeon and a teacher at a medical institute.  He looked at me quizzically and asked, “The Windsor Institute?  An institute is a place that teaches,  researches, develops, and publishes.  Do you do all those things?” 

Yup.  We sure do. My wife Susanna and I did not choose the name The Windsor Institute because it sounded nice.  We chose to call this an institute because we had a much broader vision, and institute was the word that described that mission. We wanted to develop a permanent center for the craft of  Windsor chairmaking.  We had in mind a place that would promote consistency and working standards for the craft. We wanted modern  Windsor chairmaking to develop a culture, and for that we realized the craft would need  an institutional memory.   

The permanency we had in mind would never occur among a group of practitioners scattered across the country, seldom in touch with each other.  Even before the early 1990s the forces were present that would have pulled chairmaking out of orbit into the same bizarre paths it follows in  England.  I wanted modern Windsor chairmaking to be a viable craft that could provide a decent income to those who chose to take it up.  That could only happen if the craft’s culture was very practical and business minded.  Windsor chairmaking could not become a cult of tree worship or a Thoreau-like flight from the modern world.  

Of course teaching would be The Windsor Institute’s primary function.  Susanna and I envisioned more than just classes where people spent a week making a chair.  We wanted Windsor chairmaking to be alive, to grow and prosper as a craft.  This meant people would leave here not with just a trophy for their living room, but with the ability and knowledge required to make the chair over and over again.     

I had been teaching on the road for 14 years when we established The Institute.  Thus, I knew how to teach.  So students would go home able to make chairs over and over,  we  had to develop some resources more permanent than  my teaching skills.  We needed to create extensive written materials that  would support our program.  Students would use these  materials while here and then, take that  paperwork home.  These documents would  take the place of me and the teaching staff when they were working on their own.     This information makes up much of the packet that each student receives at the beginning of class.  The amount of paperwork is substantial, and it  exists for each of the 11 types of chairs we teach.  It consists of procedures, dimensions, photo sheets, and carving templates.  For each individual chair I also developed a teaching syllabus and outline.  That way,  the explanations and demonstrations will always  be the same no matter which staff member teaches them.  Also, if anything happened to me, the staff could go on teaching without me.  All this material that I have developed and keep on my computer, amounts to a veritable  library of  chairmaking information.   As it represents so many years of work and is so valuable to the craft’s continued well being, I have copyrighted it and I keep back up copies in a safety deposit box.  

Because Susanna and I planned to establish Windsor chairmaking permanently, we knew we needed to teach more than one or two types of chairs.  In our second year I  began to add additional classes that focused on a variety of different chairmaking techniques.  That way, a student taking all our classes will have pretty much tackled everything.  In deciding whether or not to develop a new class we have always first answered two questions.  Does this chair  introduce a new technique(s?)  Is the chair saleable? Some of our students  go pro and will want to  add our new  chairs to their product lines.  If each new chair we introduce is saleable, our efforts will help ensure their success.  Assisting chairmakers in succeeding is important.  If chairmakers prosper, the craft will prosper.  

When Susanna and I founded The Institute in 1994 I was already teaching  sack back and  c-arm.  These two chairs have bent backs, and presented students with  the oval and shield seats.  We added Nantucket fan back in 1995, which taught a crested chair with applied arms and carved knuckles.  The  NYC bow back side chair that we developed in 1996 made it possible for chairmakers to make sets. In the later 1990s we added a rocking chair, a settee, and children’s chairs.  The different techniques needed for those chairs are pretty obvious.  The Philly high back  introduced in 2001,  uses a pieced arm.  The Boston fan back introduced in 2002 is the side chair for either

Nantucket fan back  or Philly high back.   The low back settee and the writing arm use different variations of the D seat. The writing arm’s bent arm rail is a completely different technique that we use on no other chairs, but knowing it  allows students to create settees longer than a two-seater.  This year we offer the balloon back chair for the first time.  This uses a mechanical bending form, and introduces students to the crinoline stretcher.  

In our teaching we wanted to achieve and maintain the highest standards, what   experience has taught us to be best practices.  Susanna and I promote among our staff  a culture of quality improvement.  This means we are always open to better ways to do things and clearer ways to present material.  Thus, our program is never stagnant.  It is always getting better.  A student who waits a couple of years between classes  always experiences the fruits of our continuous improvement when he or she returns.  

To be continued in the next post.

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