Spirit Chairs

A few years ago, when I bought the carved chair back pictured below left, I thought it was perhaps a Mexican green man image, or just a grotesque face from the carver’s imagination.

This week I was surprised to see a very similar piece (pictured right) being offered for sale here in the Bay Area as a ‘North Wind’ chair.  In this case the artist was named as Elizabeth Smith, who lived and worked in Los Gatos at the turn of the twentieth century.


I was intrigued. What is the story of ‘North Wind’ chairs?

Well, it turns out that chairs of this type were very popular in the mid- to late-nineteenth century as part of the Gothic Revival period. The gargoyle-type face was usually known as “Old Man North”, although images of other mythical creatures such as ogres and the Celtic “green man” were also in vogue during this period.

Here are a few more examples from the web:


Is the North Wind chair particular to California? They were actually made across the US, initially by European immigrant carvers, but the resonance of the gargoyle face with Hispanic carving and religious iconography could suggest a stronger tradition in the West and South-west than elsewhere. Is it possible that these chairs retained some vestige of their primary spirit-cleansing function for the native population?


Two Old Rockers

Not Mick and Keith, but two examples of that quintessential American invention, the rocking chair. At first glance these are not the most attractive, nor even the most comfortable, but each has elements of formal design logic that make them interesting.

The first one, dating from the 1870’s, has a fluidity that draws inspiration (perhaps) from the organic form of a tree.  It also reflects, in its curving form, the experience of movement. The most striking feature are the arms, executed in a wave that anticipates a favorite motif of the aesthetic movement.

The second example dating from 1900 takes an entirely opposite approach – fluidity and organic design are rejected in favor of an elemental composition. As an assemblage of ‘sticks’ it is virtually a constructivist piece, a woodsman’s version of Rietveld’s de Stijl chair.  It is an uneasy design that almost challenges the sitter to try rocking without the frame collapsing like a stack of kindling.

The rocking chair offers a wealth of design approaches that could draw upon metaphors of movement or instability, fluidity or rigidity, comfort or unease.  It is curious that the modern movement has left this form behind or, as in the case of the weakly designed Eames rocker, failed to recognize the distinct nature and dynamic of the rocking chair.

The Dreaded Nest of Tables

As a design concept the ‘nest of tables’ must have fallen further out of fashion than almost any other furniture category.  And yet there are lessons we can learn from actual examples that could be reinterpreted to produce an exciting result.

This set is difficult to date, possibly 1930’s or immediate post-war.  The interesting feature is the pictorial finish to each table top:

The grouped image infers that the scenes are part of a greater, vertical composition, each table occupying an aspect of the visual field from near to far. In fact they are not interlinked, but this could be adopted in a reworked version to make a direct connection between the diminishing form of the nested tables and the diminishing horizon line of the image.

These tables from the 1950’s are matched rather than nested, but echo the first example through the use of color:


Again, a reworked example using triangular nested forms could extend the theme of interconnection through the sequential use of complementary colors or shades.

The key design element for the nest of tables is surprise – as each table is revealed the surfaces have the potential to create a larger visual narrative.

‘King’s’ Chair

Here is an intriguing chair being offered through SF Craigslist. Described by the seller as a ‘king’s chair’ it combines a triangular leg configuration with circular or ovoid arms and a plank-style back. The proportions are equally unusual – 51″ high by 17″ deep by 23.5″ wide.

The design style is a peculiar hybrid of gothic detailing, modernist proportions and craftsman materials (quarter-sawn oak). The piece could easily be reworked to give the impression of a mid-century modern piece or even a Memphis-style offering from the 1980’s.

A Play on Materials

Designers have become so tightly governed by the adage ‘Truth to Materials’ that we are surprised when a piece deliberately flouts this rule.  To illustrate the point are two tables of different styles dating from around 1920:

The first example is a typical occasional table of timber construction.  What makes the piece extraordinary are the elaborate turned leg details with four carved and applied strap features that together recall wrought ironwork.  There is no ‘logic’ as such to this feature or sense of irony about the ‘correctness’ of materials – it simply represents the whim of the cabinet maker to inject something unexpected into the design.

The second example is a far superior piece, and better documented thanks to the lot description provided in this month’s Clars auction catalog.  The table was designed by Warren McArthur (1885-1961) and made for the Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix.

At first glance this appears to have a hexagonal timber top on a thin-section, ebonized frame. However it is in fact all metal, a combination of copper sheet and wrought iron.

As a more self-consciously ‘designed’ piece this also has a clearer message: it evokes the homeliness of a family dining table (natural copper standing in for the warm patina of a hardwood top) but with a rugged metal construction suitable for heavy use in a hotel environment.

The Mid-century Modern Craftsman (2)

A new selection of unusual cabinetry pieces from Bay Area Craigslist posts:

Executive-style desk, possibly in teak, c.1960

The most striking feature of this desk is the complex design of the frame, which is similar to a wishbone car chassis: it comprises a horizontal x-frame that supports both the top and the filing/storage units, and terminates in four splayed legs. The animistic design of the frame brings to mind horns or antlers, perhaps to reflect the executive-user’s bullish ambition?

It is hard to tell from the images but the top also appears to have curved edges, reinforcing the organic undertones of the design.

Pedestal table, c.1970

An attractive design, possibly by one of the major manufacturers (Hille?). The L-shaped steel supports clustered to form a cross is an elegant solution using inexpensive off-the-shelf sections. This is the only image available and so the connection of the supports to the underside is unknown.

Dining table, 1930-50

An appealingly simple design which is a hybrid between the craftsman and modernist styles. The plank legs and cross-bar peg connections suggest this could be made by a talented amateur from found materials, but the quality and elegance of the item make it likely that it was commercially produced. Date of manufacture is hard to guess, but signs of modest wear suggest anywhere from 1940 to 1970.

The Mid-century Modern Craftsman (1)

Aside from the star names associated with mid-century modern furniture design in wood (Eames, Nakashima etc.) there are countless other obscure designer-producers whose work crops up in flea markets or the ‘for sale’ section of local classifieds here in California.

A few examples, found recently on the Bay Area Craigslist, are shown below. They have been chosen because the various pieces have unusual or particularly elegant details. The designers are unknown, at least to me, and we welcome any further information on their origins and date of production:

Drop-leaf table with an unusual reverse-folded central section – assumed Danish, c.1960.

This is an extraordinarily compact design where each element is pared down to the minimum. See for example the leg supports, using a gateleg arrangement with the two hinged sections half the depth of the main frame to give a flat profile when folded. The general appearance of the fully expanded table is also intriguing – a combination of Danish modernism and Japanese minimalism.

Glass-topped coffee table with sloping under-shelf and chevron-style legs – assumed American, c.1960.

An idiosyncratic design veering towards the Jetsons aesthetic, this is almost a parody of mid-century modern living. A particularly enjoyable feature is the shelf which seems designed for the display (rather than the actual reading) of coffee table-style books, to be glimpsed in all their glossy wonder through the glass top.

2 x 3 chest of drawers on front and back H-frame legs – possibly Danish, c.1960.

Despite the poor quality images this has the look of a classic modernist piece, with Danish-style legs and the proportions of a credenza.

Nest of tables with rosewood tops and chrome-steel legs, c.1965.

Unlike the typical nest of three tables in diminishing sizes this consists of one large table that is twice the width of the two smaller (but equally sized) tables, enabling them to be concealed almost completely.

More examples to follow as we come across them.

Learning from Eastlake

In his best-selling book ‘Hints on Household Taste’ published in 1868, Charles Eastlake promoted a reaction against the prevailing neo-Baroque design style. Ironically the enthusiasm with which his ideas were adopted in the US led to the widespread industrial production of his furniture designs, undermining the very raison d’etre of its crafts-based aesthetic.  Consequently Eastlake’s star has faded in comparison to the later arts and crafts purists such as L&G Stickley, and despite his use of very particular details that have lessons for us today.

One example is the Eastlake table, a design that comes in a variety of sizes and shapes but which share certain common characteristics.  These include the fretted leg form with little three-dimensional modeling, and the central pin or newel feature at the intersection of the leg frets that appears to tie them together. Here are some illustrative examples:

If we reinterpret the Eastlake style in its fundamentals, we can envisage forms that are essentially ‘flat-pack’ in nature, joined with a central knuckle or pin. Some examples are shown here, drawing upon simple geometry to delineate the forms and dictate the size of the central joint:

The version on the left uses a combination of aluminum and glass to define the shard-like legs, joined by a steel or aluminum plug in drum form.  The version on the right is a more lyrical design, with legs in aluminum only.  Both tables have glass tops.  The central design is more closely related to the Eastlake precedent, being a side table in oak or similar with an aluminum newel.