Elder Chair

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I’ve been focused on a furniture commission for my new friend Nick Pihakis, a dining set to compliment his family’s Green and Green-inspired home in Birmingham, Alabama. Nick is the co-founder and owner of Jim ‘N Nick’s, a chain of popular barbecue restaurants throughout the Southeastern and Mountain states. Nick uses only fresh, organic ingredients in his food, and is an active proponent of Slow Food and school gardening initiatives.

The chairs I’m making for his family are adapted from a prototype I developed for the Edible Schoolyard a few years ago. I thought of it as an ‘elder’s chair’, to be placed at the head of select tables in the Edible Schoolyard Dining Commons to welcome honored guests and elders. All other seating I’ve designed and built consists of stools and benches, and while the tables I made are wheelchair accessible, it seemed appropriate to provide a sturdy chair with stout arms for folks who need help getting in or out of a seat. Plus, the arms and backrest provide additional comfort and a feeling of authority and privilege. While the Edible Schoolyard loved the Elder Chair concept, their budget did not allow me to add the chair to the collection I was designing and making. I’m excited to have a chance to finally bring it into reality

The design developed from my desire to make a statement with the sheer visual presence of chairs in a large, bustling dining hall, without adding clutter. I was already making backless stools and benches for the students, because I liked the visual environment of the room to feature the sculptural presence of the kids. I also wanted the seating to encourage good posture and alertness, which is somewhat inevitable with backless seating, and helps to focus people on the food on the table and the people gathered around. Middle School kids have so much kinetic energy and communicate with their clothes and gestures; I wanted to make a stage for this kind of expression, and thought it best for the furniture to almost disappear.

Introducing a chair to the ‘family’ table implied a hierarchy, so I wanted the chair to be as low as possible and to communicate something positive in silhouette. So I designed the chair around ‘nesting’ requirements, beginning with a ‘+‘ sign as the visual metaphor, and drew upon related iconography of Arts and Crafts symmetry and proportion, in keeping with its Berkeley, California location.

The chairs stack, which is rare for an armchair, and very unusual for a hand-crafted, traditionally joined construction. Stacking eases storage and conserves resources in shipment by a discernible magnitude. The idea of stacking also invites participation, and brings the user closer to the ethos of the maker, which suggests the second axiom for a Deep Craft Manifesto:

MAINTENANCE = IMPROVEMENT

My experience with the things I love informs me that the acts of maintaining them actually improves them, and that the agency of maintenance is a creative and rewarding activity. My designs are meant to be used, show wear with dignity, and become all the more valuable to their users as they age.

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I’ll be making 8 chairs for Nick, but have acquired enough walnut to make an additional 20-30. I typically purchase my wood by the log, and it’s important to me for my production runs to have their origins in the same tree as much as possible. Individual trees have such unique characteristics when they are not grown commercially, and I design with these in mind. I’ve carefully air-dried the ‘boule’ cut logs for this project from locally milled Black Walnut, which had been grafted onto native Claro Walnut rootstock to produce nuts for a Central Valley orchard.

I make a practice of living with my prototypes for several years before offering a design for production. We use them vigorously in our daily lives. The Elders Chair prototype has been my daughter Aili’s chair, who sits at the head of the table, since I brought it home from the shop floor over four years ago. It has darkened to a rich, slightly reddish mocha, and wears its marks proud from many family dinners, homework assignments, guests of honor and occasional use as a stepping stool. The joints have remained reassuringly tight, despite exposure to direct sun, infrequent use outdoors, and sheer neglect. The occasional dusting and annual rubdown with beeswax makes for a good family friend, and a comforting addition to the table. I think Nick will be pleased.

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Most of my furniture designs begin with a quick full scale mock-up, which I prefer to making drawings. Often times these proto-prototypes hold up and become something else altogether, which I’ve learned to appreciate over the years. I’m beginning to document models and jigs, and will be making an archive on these pages.