Bent Wood Chair Forms
Affordable and Desirable Chairs

by Joel and Jean Mattison

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1996

Antiquers all too frequently assume that all furniture was elegant and of high style. This is to forget that utilitarian furniture was required, especially in seating, which was needed not to make a statement about the wealth of the owner but as objects to be sat upon. Lots of chairs were needed. Thrones are interesting and important, but there were more peasants than kings, and there is more furniture for the people who were greater in number. That includes most of us.

Labeled Thonet high stool using "S" scroll forms. Legs are turned and fluted (with a Sheratonoid touch), but the rest of the structural members of the chair are rectangular in cross section. Three continuous rectangular stretchers! Hand-woven cane seat. Notice the carving and the red finish. All photos courtesy of the author.

After the chair had been differentiated from the backless stool and had emerged as a basic form, the Windsor or stick chair proliferated because it represented a means of providing seating for the masses, for the people who needed chairs on which to sit, not to mention tavern keepers and others who needed great numbers of chairs. The Windsor was comparatively inexpensive and it was a form of furniture that challenged abusive use, including fights, often bending rather than breaking. It was comfortable and it was resilient enough to survive shock. Many Windsors involved the bending of wood, as a technique of construction, especially for chair backs and arms. They represent a midpoint between carved or turned furniture and "bent wood".

It was only natural that the Windsor was superseded by the bent wood chair. This technique allowed for rapid production so that adequate numbers of functional chairs could be produced. The curved back of the Windsor was simplified and survived, even if without spindles. The comfortable carved seat was replaced by the caned seat or by a formed wooden one. The stretchers in Windsors (for leg stability) were replaced by a continuous bent member that ran up one rear leg, turned forward, ran behind both front legs (connecting them and then down the other rear leg. Eventually, this gave way to a simple circular single stretcher, joining and stabilizing all four legs at a point about a quarter of the way towards the floor from the seat. This meant that the legs were stabilized at their juncture to the seat and to each other at some other point towards the floor.

Classic Chinese form labeled Thonet chair. It has a wonderful early splat form with "V" notches which are then repeated in the curved single-member arm. Note the embossed alligator seat and red finish.

Although it is a basic assumption, not all bent wood chair backs are continuous. In the continuous back, a rounded length of bent wood rises out of the floor, bends into a hot air balloon shape, and then heads back to the floor again. Alternatively, some chairs had a crest rail joining the upper ends of the rear legs as in earlier furniture. Typically, however, there was a continuous, single, rounded wooden member that ran from the floor, up the back of the chair, across, and then back down to the floor on the other side.

Considerable variation then occurs with the inner member of the back or inner loop as we will call it. This inner member is usually a closed loop at the top that either runs (largely parallel) up to and joins the outside member (described above) at the high point of the back in the center, or else it runs up close to or alongside one side of the back loop and then travels across to join the other at some point about two thirds of the way up the back. Other variations include the "S" or sigmoidal form of the inner back, the shepherd's crook (the upper half of an "S") or, in some cases, a simple pierced splat. When the inner member runs to the top, it can either be of wide or narrow structure and the effect is quite different. My favorite forms of backs seem to be those in which the three spaces in the back are divided roughly into three equal spaces (areawise) by the two loops of the back. I have also noted that I tend to like less the truncated forms or incomplete "S" forms which I have referred to elsewhere as shepherd's crooks. I simply do not find incomplete loops or incomplete circles or incomplete "S" forms to be pleasing as alternatives to completeness. Interruption seems harsh in any form. Occasionally the inner member of the back is a simple circle (or an oval on its side) with woven cane.

A fairly successful arm chair with separate arm rests which somewhat compromise the flow of the form. The embossed seat is a hybridization of the shell and chrysanthemum forms. Note that the stretcher is a continuous rectangular form.

Sometimes the seats were caned, sometimes of embossed wood (flower patterns, including chrysanthemums, or sunbursts, double sunbursts or even alligator hide patterns). As for the caned seats one can assume that machine woven cane (held in place by a wedge-in spline) came later than those chairs in which the cane was hand-woven into a series of holes around the circumference of the seat.

Windsor chairs were intended to be painted (since they were frequently made of three different woods), sometimes with more than a single color. Bent wood chairs are frequently stained and varnished. Two signed Thonet chairs in our possession are of a lightly pigmented red finish that only thinly obscures the wood.

Thonet chairs were not originally conceived by Michael Thonet of Austria, but he did popularize them after he developed the techniques of bending steamed wood under pressure in the 1840s, and they became popular in America after about 1860. Thonet was born in 1796, and his chair and other designs can at least claim to have been the product of a person born within the eighteenth century; these are therefore not to be regarded as Johnnys-come-lately by those who would otherwise feel a disdain for products not related to the eighteenth century.

Bentwood Church Chair with hymnal rack beneath seat and over a continuous (rectangular) single-level stretcher. Note turned legs, finials, discontinuous crest rail, pleasing "opened" inside loop in back. Embossed seat. Aesthetically superior in design and function.

Bent wood is especially recommended for the young collector with an eye for beauty. We all enjoy looking for sleepers, and bent woods are still asleep because they are comfortable. Resilience is part of their comfort and durability; they give and do not fracture. You can still find them on most Saturday afternoons; this past May, in St. Petersburg, I found a "set" of four for twenty-five dollars. They will require some removal of the dozen coats of (white!) paint and some regluing of the various members, but after all, where can you find a six dollar chair today that has good design and a history. Or where, for that matter, can you find a six dollar chair, period.

Guidance to Shoppers:
1. Buy only the chair that "sings to you" (Charles Montgomery). If it is ugly, it is no bargain at any price. A bad chair can demean an entire room.
2. If you want a set, get a set. If you think you would like to assemble a set, go ahead, but be aware of how you may look on it a year down the road.
3. Remember to think about the time and cost of restoration and add this to your bargain price.
4. If you cannot repair the chair yourself, be certain that it is solid and that the legs are not loose at either their attachment to the seat or to the "stretcher."
5. Look for a label or a burned in mark of the maker or country of origin. Too few people do, and that is why you can find a Thonet occasionally for an incredibly low price.
6. Watch out for rockers and for cradles. These are forms that were not generally well suited to bent wood; avoid them unless you find one at a very reasonable price and that you need specifically.
7. Look for special interest bent wood chairs. One of the most unforgettable sets I know has a "hymnal rack" in the stretcher below the seat, obvious testimony to its once having been used in a church or even cathedral.
8. One construction detail is of great importance. In many bent wood chairs, the seat is fashioned out of a single piece of wood curved to make a circle. Others, especially some inferior variations, have the circle made up of eight or so shorter arcs of wood that are pieced together roughly like the pattern of a cut pie, considering only the outer one to two inches. These latter forms are extremely difficult to repair and are frequently in need of it. It requires much more than a surface dabbing with glue.
9. Keep your passion under control. Most of us cannot find space for more than a hundred at home, without having to resort to low-rental-warehousing.

Somewhat diminutive chair, originally purchased in quantity for a sisterhood. Hand-woven cane seat. The back has a crest rail rather than a continuous loop.

Go out then and search for good bent wood chairs. There are enough that you will be able to find some, and it will be up to you to be selective. Learn to analyze the lines. To me the top of the back must be convex or bowed, not flattened or (worse) "heart-shaped". The angle of the back must be "right" and has to be comfortable and not threatening to fall over backwards. Sit and check the "feel"; uncomfortable equals ugly because we have some sense within us that beauty has to have some function associated. Arms are hard to add to a design without interrupting its rhythm, even at the time of manufacture. Front legs should splay outward and forward ever so slightly. Screws should not be seen, they are distracting.

About the Author:

Joel Mattison, with his wife, Jean, specialize in American antiques and natural history prints, particularly Catesby and Audubon. The Mattisons live in Tampa.

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