Chairing the Burden

What’s in a chair? Much more than you’d think.

I heard once that the term “chairman” originated centuries ago, when dwellings had little in the way of furniture. When there was a chair, there was usually just one, and it was reserved for the most important person in the house, or an honored guest.

When it comes to building chairs, this piece of furniture that most of us (and our fannies) take for granted still retains its perch on top of the furniture-making hierarchy.

Stacks of chairs in our Woodbridge shop await the final finishing process. They’ve all traveled a long, meticulous road from blueprint to reality.

General Manager Greg Gloor explains why chair-making is so difficult: “You can have a dresser that looks good, and it’s good dresser. You can have a good-looking chair – but it’s damned uncomfortable. A chair has to cradle and support the human body, which no other piece of furniture does. It’s the most meticulous work we do in the shop because the pieces are so small compared to what you’re asking them to do.”

The subject of chairs came up the other day when owner Mark Gatterdam was going over plans to install a “chair wall” at the new Fairfax warehouse, which is finally in place and pictured below.

Wall of chairs in our Fairfax showroom

When the topic of custom chair-making came up, Mark rolled his eyes and tossed back his head. “Ugh,” he groaned. “Chairs are horrible!”

Greg later stepped in to translate. Chairs are composed of 20-plus different parts, and none of them are perfectly square. And there needs to be a “jig” created for each part – a model for the part that will be used in the chair’s production. All those jigs, plus a prototype for the new chair, take a craftsman 70-80 (expensive) hours to create. A chair in normal production, with all the templates at hand, takes 25-30 hours to make.

The Middleburg dining chairs

Therefore, Hardwood Artisans will only make a custom-designed chair for someone if the owners are confident they can sell 100 more of them – “Then I can amortize the research and development investment,” Greg says. “The very few times I get involved with custom chairs is generally because I have an interest myself in doing that design, and then I look for someone to subsidize the research and development.”

The Linnaea dining chair

The Linnaea dining chairs are a perfect example of what Greg was talking about. A long-time customer had purchased the new Linnaea dining table, but at that point, there were no chairs to go with it in the collection. They came up with four prototypes, and with the customer’s input, chose the one that is now the official chair for the collection.

The customer paid “nowhere near” the cost of what it took to produce those first six chairs, Greg says. “I’m not going to make money on these chairs until I sell my first 50 or 60.”

But they are so sleek and beautiful (not biased, or anything), we’re hoping that won’t take long to do.

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