Quick History: Adirondack Chairs

Retrospect

Now that we've reached asphalt-melting temperatures in New York, it's time to start thinking about breezes skimming across lakes, icy tumblers full of Pimm's Cup, and the rustic luxury of a quiet hour spent in an Adirondack chair. Which for me, design history nerd, means that it's also time to start thinking, what ARE Adirondack chairs anyway, and where did they come from?

The first Adirondack chair was created by Thomas Lee around 1903. Lee was searching in vain for comfortable outdoor furniture for his country cottage in Westport, NY, which is near, you guessed it, the Adirondack mountain region of upstate New York, on the banks of Lake Champlain. According to legend, Lee created several prototypes for chairs made out of just eleven pieces of knot-free wood, all from the same tree. His family — all 22 of them — tested each chair, and ultimately decided upon the gentle recline and wide armrests of what we now know as the Adirondack chair.

Lee had a hunting buddy, a local carpenter named Harry Bunnell, who was in need of some off-season income. Lee showed Bunnell the chair and encouraged him to start making them for the locals. Bunnell immediately saw the appeal of Lee's creation. Unbeknownst to Lee, he applied for a patent on the design, which he received in 1905. Bunnell called them Westport Chairs, and he made out of hemlock or hickory, and sold them very profitably for the next twenty years. Lee never received any of the profit from Bunnell's savvy business decision, and there is no evidence that he sought any. Whether this is admirable or tragic is up for personal interpretation, though it is generally accepted that Bunnell essentially "stole" the design from Lee.

In the ensuing 105 years, the chair has been adapted again and again. The back is often raked, made out of between 3 and 7 slats of wood instead of the single plank of the original Westport chair. One explanation for this is the difficulty of finding knot-free wood; a single slab of wood with knots and other irregularities is less comfortable than several slats of the same wood, and considerably more expensive. The chairs are typically now made out of pine and other inexpensive woods. Other variations include material. Design Within Reach, for example, constructs Loll's version out of 100% recycled polyethylene and stainless steel.

Despite these adaptations, Adirondack chairs are remarkably recognizable, and unflaggingly popular. Their endurance shouldn't be too much of a mystery: simple, comfortable and unpretentious. Although Thomas Lee created his chair supposedly out of a combination of necessity and economy of materials, there were obviously reasons why the typical late Victorian wrought iron or wicker garden furniture wouldn't do. His Adirondack chairs carry associations of a vernacular past, like a shared collective memory. In this way, they remind me of Gustav Stickley's Craftsman furniture from the same era (image 4), solid, hand-hewn wood furniture that evokes a folk aesthetic. The years around 1900 were ripe for that sort of folksy, handmade furniture, at least in part because the rate of modernization and urbanization had increased so profoundly that designers and consumers sought a material connection to the past.

In our own era, the chairs' association with a vernacular past is compounded by their literally being artifacts from the vernacular past — funny how that works. Today, they are universal signifiers of summertime leisure. Can't you feel the lakeside breeze?


Images: 1 Adirondack Chairs on the beach, via Boston.com; 2 Lakefront Adirondack chairs, via ArtworksSouth.com; 3 A replica of Thomas Lee's original Westport chair, via Bessboro Builders; 4 Gustav Stickley's 1901 "Morris" chair, via The Curated Object; 5 Adirondack Chairs around a fire pit, available for $480 at Country Casual; 6Adirondack Chairs on Heart Lake, a photo by Johnathan Esper, available via his website, WildernessPhotographs.com; 7 Beachy Adirondack chairs made of 100% recycled plastic, available at Eco-Furniture.com; 8 Poppy-colored Adirondack chairs on Governors Island, via the Governors Island Blog; 9 Lime green Adirondack chairs in Amagansett, from an AT House Tour of Terry & Shawn's Technicolor Dream Home; 10 Adirondack chairs overlooking the ocean, via Nature's View Railing & Building.

Sources: Bessboro Builders claims to create a dimensional replica of Thomas Lee's original Westport chair. The chairs around the fire pit in image 2 are from Country Casual and will set you back $480. The white chairs in image 3 are made out of recycled plastic, and are on sale at Eco-Furniture.com for $322.53. Design Within Reach's version, 100% recycled polyethylene, comes in several colors, and is now on sale for $467.50.

Originally published 6.10.10 - JL