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.

‘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.