Chair Wars

 

BearChair
David Wright’s “Bear Chair”

As symbols of cottage living go, the Muskoka chair is right up there with the loon, and way ahead of the chainsaw and the Friday-night traffic jam. I have one on my front deck at home on southern Georgian Bay, screwed together a dozen years ago from precut and drilled white-pine parts that came in a flat-packed kit that cost about 70 bucks. In this weather-beaten throne, I slurp morning coffee, read whatever’s worth reading, keep an eye peeled for the school bus, and listen for unusual sounds emanating from the septic system. The best thing about a Muskoka chair is that once you’ve sat in one, you feel no obligation to stand up again for anything short of a four-alarm blaze or the approach of a tax auditor.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Cottage Life

The problem is that name: Muskoka chair. When things are named for places, we generally assume that’s where they originated. Swiss cheese. Champagne. Canada Dry ginger ale. That’s not always the case, obviously. I’m under no illusion that a GMC Yukon is built in Whitehorse. But if we’re going to call this item of furniture a Muskoka chair, there should be a better reason than the fact that anything cottage-related in central Canada presumably sells better if it has that most brand-worthy of vacation destinations. And, indeed, the general perception, especially among Muskokans, not surprisingly, is that the chair’s name denotes its true birthplace.

Which brings us to the second problem: It seems likely that we’ve nicked the chair from our American neighbours. Because the moment you cross the Canada-US border—heck, the moment you cross the Muskoka-Haliburton border—the “Muskoka” chair turns into an “Adirondack” chair. Imagine if the Yanks brazenly claimed the toque as their own and were going around calling it the Wisconsin Head Sock. We’d be writing polite but feisty e-mails to Anderson Cooper at CNN. So as for this chair: Which is it—an iconic creation of Ontario cottage country, or an upstart from upstate New York?

I decided to find out.

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It’s widely accepted, regardless of the provenance of the modern chair, that the ur-chair, the original breed type of the Muskoka/Adirondack chair, is the Westport chair, so named for Westport, N.Y., a community on the western shore of Lake Champlain within the boundaries of the Adirondack Park. The Westport chair was invented around 1903 by one Thomas Lee, who owned a resort called Westport Mountain, where he bottled spring water for sale. (Lee also served as greenskeeper at the local golf course, reportedly employing sheep to trim the fairways, another possible indication of his innovative bent.)

Lee’s Westport chair was anomalous on two counts. The first was function: The Westport was probably not intended for his family’s use, as the story is usually told; rather, it seems far more likely he conceived the chair for an institutional market, as something that could be cheaply made in semi-mass production and left out of doors at resorts and golf clubs.

The Westport’s second distinction was a stylistic quirk that differentiated it from most other chairs: Its seat and back were angled way back, so that the sitter naturally reclined. (Everything that follows in the murky history of the Muskoka/Adirondack chair is true to that essential theme.) This configuration was remarkably similar to an 1866 chair designed by William Morris and later widely imitated by British and American furniture makers. It, too, had a reclining back and a tilted seat, albeit upholstery unsuited to being left outside. The Westport, like the Muskoka/Adirondack, was made of unadorned wood. Unlike the “twig and log” furniture of the Arts and Crafts movement being made in the resort area at the turn of the century—original examples of which are treasured by collectors—the Westport, although ingenious, had little in the way of art or craft; it was based on the efficient use of cheap, standard cuts of lumber.

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Bunnell’s 1905 patent

Tradition has it that Lee took his prototype to a hunting buddy, a Westport carpenter named Harry (sometimes Horry) C. Bunnell. On July 18, 1905, Bunnell secured a US patent (No. 794,777) for a “chair of the bungalow type” that was either based on or directly copied from Lee’s design. Bunnell also secured a Canadian patent for the design on February 5, 1907. Bunnell’s chair is quite recognizable as an early Muskoka/Adirondack chair, having the reclining seat arrangement as well as the second critical identifying element: the broad, flat armrests that are sculpted for maximum width at the front, where you park your beverage or plate of nachos.

Whether or not Bunnell flat-out stole the design from Lee, as has been charged, he was the next link in the Adirondack/Muskoka chain. He made his chairs at least into the 1920s, patenting a rocking-chair version as well in 1922. An outlet of the W.C. Leonard & Co. department-store chain in Saranac Lake, 70 km west of Westport, sold the original design as an Adirondack Bungalow Chair, with specific reference to the Bunnell patent in its catalogue. Today, a Bunnell original, with the identifying stamp and patent number on the seat back, can fetch thousands of dollars. If you’re less flush, on the other hand, you can buy an unstamped Adirondack Bungalow Chair of undetermined date and origin, and in as-is condition, at auction for about 60 bucks.

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“Adirondack Bungalow Chair” based on Bunnell patent, for sale in W.C. Leonard & Co. catalogue

But where, you may be asking at this point, is the Muskoka connection? It turns out that Bunnell’s original 1905 patent included a variation (with a bedpan in the seat) for invalids, which points to an underappreciated aspect of the chair’s heritage. Besides golf courses and resorts, the Adirondack region was home to another major institutional market: numerous sanatoria devoted to treating tuberculosis. Patients who were prescribed plenty of fresh air required something in which to recline comfortably out of doors. Saranac Lake was a major sanatorium centre, and the Bunnell chair’s service in treating tuberculosis is mentioned in more than one account of its history.

And this connection to tuberculosis draws an interesting vector where the Muskokas are concerned: Gravenhurst was home to the Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium, the first such facility in Canada when it opened in 1897. It seems at first glance entirely possible that Bunnell’s design migrated to the Muskoka Lakes as a tuberculosis treatment, which could explain the 1907 Canadian patent. Might the Adirondack and Muskoka chairs then have evolved on parallel lines from the same inspiration, leaving us with regional variations with legitimate claims to their names?

It’s an intriguing possibility. Unfortunately, the evidence for the Muskoka evolutionary branch is scanty to non-existent; at best, it was a natural-selection dead end, a Neanderthal of a chair. In the few photographs of early sanatoria available at the Archives of Ontario, none shows patients reclining in any sort of furniture. In fact, photographs of cottage life in general in Muskoka around the turn of the century suggest that there wasn’t much call for any sort of sunning device at the time—and this when Lee and Bunnell were inventing away in the Adirondacks. Enclosed porches in these early photos are full of rocking chairs, twig furniture and Morris-inspired chairs. No one in those far more modest times seems to have slumped in anything down at the dock, catching rays while reading a John Grisham paperback—or a Joseph Conrad hardcover—and slurping a cold one. In short, there is no photographic evidence that a “Muskoka chair” had evolved locally, or that there was any regional variation in design that would set apart a “Muskoka” from an “Adirondack.” Considering that even the T. Eaton Co. was advertising “Adirondack” chairs in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1946, we have to wonder when the Muskoka appellation for the chair actually reared its head.

How, then, did the chair reach Canadian porches and docks? Americans, alas, probably brought it to their Canadian cottages. By the 1930s, the modern chair was definitely taking shape in the United States, and was being sold nationwide as a piece of cheap, mass-market lawn furniture. As early as 1933, a firm called the Adirondack Chair Company was leasing space in New York City. A newspaper ad in the May 15, 1935, edition of The Oshkosh Northwestern (in Wisconsin) offered an Adirondack chair made of “unpainted cabinet wood with new fan five slat back.” A 1936 Sears, Roebuck and Co. advertisement in the Fitchburg Sentinel (Massachusetts) announced, “We have 1,000 unpainted Adirondack chairs on order.” The price? 88¢.

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Rietveld’s 1918 “Red Blue Chair”

In the patriotic gloom, there is one glimmer of hope for battered Canadian pride: the rogue possibility that if we didn’t invent the present-day version of the chair, maybe the Americans didn’t, either. In 1918, the Dutch architect and furniture designer Gerrit Thomas Rietveld designed his Red Blue Chair, embodying the tenets of the modernist de Stijl movement. Despite its harsh angularity and resemblance to a Piet Mondrian painting, it looks strikingly like today’s Muskoka/Adirondack chair. Like Bunnell’s chair, it has a tilted back and seat, and horizontal armrests. But it includes vertical support posts for the back that were lacking in Bunnell’s original design. While its armrests are rather short and the forward posts don’t align with the front of the chair base the way they do in a Muskoka/Adirondack chair, it’s hard to look at this Dutch innovation and not see the fundamental expression of a key variation on the design we know today.

The Red Blue Chair was such a landmark in furniture design that an example of it is enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There is, however, no record of a US patent issued to Rietveld for this or any other chair. As easy as it is to see the Muskoka/Adirondack in Rietveld’s chair, it’s doubtful he ever saw one of Bunnell’s chairs. It’s difficult to imagine exactly how Rietveld’s chair might have come to influence American (or Canadian) chair makers.

Ironically, while the Lee and Bunnell chairs were ostensibly intended for relaxation and convalescence, Rietveld’s chair design was meant to keep you perky. Paul Overy, in his 1991 history of the de Stijl movement, wrote: “One of the functions of Rietveld’s chairs, with their hard seats and backs, is to focus our senses, to make us alert and aware. Rietveld was not interested in conventional ideas of comfort (the 19th-century armchair that relaxes you so much that you spill your coffee or fall asleep over your book). He wished to keep the sitter physically and mentally ‘toned up.’”

Rietveld seemed to be on to something. Despite its initially inviting form, an Adirondack/Muskoka chair can keep you alert, maybe a little too alert. How many of these chairs are ever depicted with seat pads? Spend too long in a Muskoka/Adirondack chair without a good cushion and your backside goes numb. Or so I’ve heard.

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If we can’t claim invention, how about reinvention?

The Adirondack chair lost favour after the Second World War and went through a long unfashionable period in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. As a child of the 1960s, I can attest that the market had changed, with new materials such as aluminum tubing giving us folding chairs and loungers that were lightweight and easy to store. Adirondack chairs by comparison are heavy and cumbersome for cottagers to put away for the winter (and for stores to ship and stock when fully assembled).

As the chair fell from mass-market grace, it did find a place in home workshops as a drop-dead simple carpentry exercise for dad. But it wasn’t until the mid-’80s, with Reagan-era America riding a wave of prosperity and nostalgia for simpler times, and the scourge of plastic, stackable outdoor furniture blighting lawns and docks everywhere, that the Adirondack chair began to experience a retro revival. “As a symbol of summer,” rhapsodized The New York Times in 1985, “the Adirondack lawn chair is as American as apple pie, ice cream sodas at the drugstore counter, or the Stars and Stripes waving against a white clapboard house on the Fourth of July.”

Enter David Wright. Now the owner of The Bear Chair Company in South River, Ont., Wright at the time was operating out of a basement workshop in Magnetawan, Ont., fashioning replacement chairs for cottagers. Wright suspected that the chairs they were asking him to copy had been brought to Ontario’s cottage country by Americans, since most of his replica customers were from the States. “Some of the chairs were at least 50 years old. Some of the designs were terrible, but some weren’t bad. I would trace out the patterns from these rotten pieces that were still left from the chairs, and after doing that for a summer, I thought that I would just build one that incorporated the best features of the different designs that I had built and make one style that fit most people the best.”

The result was the Bear chair, which Wright designed in 1986 and which launched his company. “I took the chair to a couple of trade shows and just had people sit in it and give me their opinions. I made some further modifications from their input, and the chair has been virtually unchanged since 1988.” The highly publicized President’s Choice “Muskoka chair” came out of his operation, and that was the one I screwed together. At the beginning of my chair-heritage digging, I was prepared to credit/blame the original president of President’s Choice, marketing savant Dave Nichol, for turning the Adirondack chair into the Muskoka chair. But according to Wright, the chairs that the cottagers were bringing him to copy were already known as Muskoka chairs. “Probably some handyman near Lake Muskoka or the Port Carling area started calling them that, as a local name for Adirondack chair.”

Besides the Bear, Wright also makes a slightly smaller model called the Muskoka and a plethora of variations on the main theme. Most of his Adirondack-style furniture has the four-post structure of the Rietveld chair. Wright now sells to markets around the world, including the US, and believes he’s Canada’s largest manufacturer of the Adirondack furniture style. “Our design,” he claims, “is the one that everybody else copies.” Even Americans.

What’s especially intriguing about Wright’s tale of chair development is that evidence for what inspired his design can be found in Island Odyssey, the history of the nearby Sans Souci region on eastern Georgian Bay. A photo shows a pair of chairs at a High Pine Island gas dock circa1950. They’re the only early chairs I’ve seen that employ the Rietveld structure embodied in Wright’s chairs. As such, they’re the missing link between the Red and Blue chair of the de Stijl movement and the Bear Chairs (and their imitators).

It’s a nice twist on the Muskoka-versus-Adirondack debate. The chair’s root concept might have come to Canada from the United States, but it might be the case that it was some craftsperson in Ontario cottage country who applied the Rietveld structure to the American classic. Wright then polished the design up and sent it back to American customers (and inspired American imitators), not quite so unequivocally Stars-and-Strips as apple pie and ice-cream sodas anymore.

So maybe, just maybe, there really is such a thing as a “Muskoka chair.” It’s a hybrid of the Bunnell/Adirondack chair and Rietveld’s structural vision in red and blue. It combines Rietveld’s four posts with the curved fanback and sinuous, slatted seat that has come to be instantly recognizable as a “Muskoka” (or, as Wright would prefer, a “Bear”). And maybe, just maybe, we actually should be calling it the Sans Souci chair.

Sinking into my own Muskoka after hours of typing at work, a plate of snacks on one armrest, a beer on the other, it strikes me that maybe a chair can be rightfully named after whatever topography you happen to be looking at or thinking about when you take that deep breath you’ve been waiting for all day.

Now I only need to figure out if there’s really such a thing as a Georgian Bay chair. Apparently, it has a cupholder routered into the armrest… —Douglas Hunter