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
It was only natural that the Windsor was superseded by the bent wood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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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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