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All About the Adirondack Chair

Many people consider the early 1900's to be the greatest period in American furniture making history. In reaction to the highly ornate, fussy, and oftentimes rather useless furniture styles of the Victorian era, the Arts and Crafts movement came like a breath of fresh air into the homes of America, turning them from stuffy museums into places of light and simplicity, where folks could really live! Function was the number one concern of the furniture makers of this time, also called the Craftsman period, and chairs, benches, tables, beds all feature plain, comfortable lines and beautiful wood. The famous adirondack chair fits very neatly into this moment in time, a perfect example of the Craftsman principles of superior form and function. No wonder it has been one of the most sought-after pieces of furniture in the U.S. for more than 100 years.

The story of Adirondack chair begins with a fellow named Thomas Lee who owned a summer home in Westport, New York, beside Lake Champlain. He and his family enjoyed vacationing there, but they needed some outdoor furniture for the garden. In 1903, Thomas Lee decided to make his own. Early 20th century families really enjoyed their vacations, and East Coast families commonly left the cities they lived in to spend a few weeks, or even months at some nearby country resort. The fathers would typically commute back and forth to work from the summer place, and this leisurely and happy arrangement is nicely documented in semi-autobiographical works of the era such as Life with Father by Clarence Day, and the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. When Thomas Lee set about designing some chairs for his summer home, his primary thought was for the ease and comfort of his family and he was determined to get it just right. He got some boards and began putting them together in various arrangements, testing them on his family to see how they rated comfort-wise. He eventually settled on a deeply-angled, low-seated and spacious plan constructed of eleven pieces of wood cut from a single board. It featured wide armrests, which no doubt the family enjoyed as they serve almost as a mini table top - a good place to rest a tall, cool glass of lemonade on a hot summer afternoon. Good thinking, Mr. Lee!

These commodious outdoor chairs might have never been used for anyone but the Lee family's enjoyment, had not Mr. Bunnell come along. Harry Bunnell was a friend and hunting buddy of Thomas Lee's, and he ran a small carpentry shop. Harry was looking for a way to bring in some extra cash during the long East Coast winters, and when he saw the chairs that Thomas had put together, he had a bright idea. Thomas Lee lent the chair design plans to Harry Bunnell who hunkered down in this workshop and began turning out a number of the chairs, carpentered in hemlock and basswood. In 1905, Bunnell patented the chair plan, and at this time, he called his creation the Westport chair, not the Adirondack chair. Should you ever come across one of Harry Bunnell's original Westport chairs at an antiques fair or specialty shop, identification of authenticity is made simpler by the fact that each original Westport chair is stamped with the patent date and the words H. C. Bunnell across the backrest. A Westport chair, in fair condition with the original rusty-brown or green stain is worth some $3000 in today's antiques market. Look out, too, for Bunnell's variations on the original Westport chair plan including rocking chairs, tete-a-tetes, lounges, etc. The laid-back style of the plan lent itself well to several kinds of seating furniture, and we like the quote from the one-time director of the Adirondack Museum, Craig Gilborn, who said,
"There's no end to the ingenuity of guys working their way through a long winter in a wood shop."

Eventually, the wide appeal of these chairs lead to other furniture makers creating similar chairs of their own, and over time, the entire genre of the low-seated, slat-backed, slanted chairs came to be called Adirondack chairs.

Adirondack Chairs Today

In modern times, the adirondack chair has become synonymous with times and places of respite. They are extremely popular for use as beach furniture, mountain cabin furniture and, like the original, rustic lakeside seating. Adirondack chairs are available in a variety of woods including cedar, redwood and maple. You can choose from natural wood, various finishes, and paint hues from forest green to neon pink - whatever suits your personal style. We have even seen versions of the chair made of recycled plastic or metals. Many modern Adirondack-type chairs feature a more rounded back, which may be somewhat taller or shorter than that of the original Westport chair. Contemporary furniture makers continue to take interesting liberties with the basic styling with this beloved piece of American furniture, but all styles should feature the swayed back, which Thomas Lee originally designed to better accommodate the irregular land levels of mountain landscape. Some folks like to add cushions to their outdoor furniture, but with a well-made Adirondack chair, it isn't required. It should be comfortable as is. Some people who just can't get enough of adirondack furniture use it indoors as well as out!

Examples of the Adirondack chair and other Adirondack furniture.

This is a photo of your basic adirondack chair. Note the comfortably swayed back rest, wide armrests and low-to-the ground seating. For people who never can find a spacious enough chair, this is a good choice. Sit back and relax in an Adirondack chair as simple and commodious as this. This particular chair is made of cedar which is a durable, weather-resistant wood. Learn more about this Classic Adirondack Chair.

This picture shows a great example of a modern furniture maker's take on the Adirondack chair. Called, the Uwharrie Wave chair, it features a stylized backrest, but the same proportions and comfort you expect from a classic Adirondack chair. This style of chair makes a bright showing in the garden or at a vacation home on the beach. They are made of pine wood. Learn more about the Uwharrie Wave Chair.

In this photo, we see a good example of an Adirondack rocking chair. Some rocking chairs can be narrow and stiff...not very comfortable, but because of the classic styling of this Adirondack rocker, the person seated can be pretty sure of rocking easy. The chair shown here is made of cedar in a natural finish. Wouldn't this be nice on your front porch? Learn more about the Adirondack Rocking Chair.

Adirondack-style outdoor furniture is also available in benches, lounge chairs, ottomans and more. Learn more about this classic style of Rustic Outdoor Furniture.

Caring for your Adirondack Chair

The principles of the Craftsman era of the early 1900's were built on the excellent belief that things should last, that household items should be able to endure the wear and tear of daily living. Isn't that the polar opposite of today's throw-away culture! Nearly all of us are affected by the concept that we can buy cheap stuff, expect it to break, toss it in the garbage, and replace it with more cheap stuff. This idea may extend to how we feel about appliances, dinnerware, furniture...you name it. The result is the unfortunate state of our landfills! But, it doesn't have to be this way. By choosing your household goods carefully, you can opt for natural materials that will last for years and years, and which, when they do decompose, will simply go back into the earth like the leaves off the trees do every winter. Now, isn't that a better plan for the happiness of our planet?

How this relates to outdoor furniture is that if you shop for good quality wooden furniture, as opposed to faux-woods or plastic, you know you are buying items that will give your family years of pleasure, and will not end up outlasting the pyramids, sitting in a dump somewhere. Save up and buy the best quality you can. Most of us so treasure the time we spend outdoors. It really is a necessary thing these days, being out of doors, when so much of life is spent inside, working. We think that every person deserves a really comfortable resting spot in their yard, and we know that we're not alone in this thought. People who buy Adirondack chairs are securing themselves a lasting and simple comfort.

Northern White and Western Red Cedar are some of the top choices for quality outdoor furniture making, because of their durability. The wood can be left in its natural state, slowly maturing to a soft, rustic grey, or it can be painted or stained to make a particular statement in the garden. If left untreated, the porous wood may become discolored if left in a shady or damp spot in the yard. Some folks use a 20 percent solution of household bleach in water with one ounce of detergent per gallon to remove the stain. Cedar can be refinished to its natural bright appearance even if the furniture has been subjected to exposure for many years.

Others like to coat the natural wood with a protective seal such as Thompsons Seal Clear Wood Protector which prevents water and sun damage, and also, mildew. An even older technique is simply to rub the wood frequently with olive oil which is a natural preservative and gives a soft, rich glow to the wood, while at the same time being very kind to the environment. With just a little care, you'll be sitting pretty for years in your Adirondack chair!

Sources:
Wikipedia entry Adirondack Chair

Dawn Perry's article Cedar Wood Care Instructions

 
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