CHAIR DESIGN STUDIES: An Interior Designer Shares His Personal Journey

collage with different chair designsMany members of our interior design team have artistic talents and creative interests they pursue in their personal time.  For RLPSer Matt Barley, that includes designing and crafting his own chairs.

According to Wikipedia, the chair has been used since antiquity, although for many centuries it was a symbolic article of state and dignity rather than a functional item for ordinary use. Once chairs emerged beyond privileged status, they became ubiquitous in many cultures leading up to today where chairs are an integral furnishing selection for homes, offices, schools, restaurants, meeting spaces, theaters, and numerous other settings. Design considerations include durability, ergonomics, functional features (e.g. stackable or folding, task specific heights or styles, etc.), maintenance and, of course, design style.

Commercial grade chairs have their own set of design standards related to stability and strength. Within our own office, we have specific standards for chairs in different use spaces.  For senior living, chair specifications focus on supportive features such as a seat depth of no more than 21 inches and height of 18 to 18½ inches.  For educational spaces flexibility is a priority to allow students to move around easily and engage in interactive and collaborative learning opportunities. In public spaces, and particularly in medical office waiting areas, we specify 10 to 15 percent of seating in bariatric sizes. These are just a few examples of what all of our designers think about when selecting chairs for space.

The Windsor Chair:  Creating Reproductionswindsor chairsMatt’s journey into the world of chair design began with reproducing an American classic:  the Windsor Chair.  Imported from England to the American colonies, some of the earliest known Windsor chairs were imported by Patrick Gordon who became lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 1726.

Wedged tenon joint

Wedged tenon joint. Photo Credit: CraftsmanSpace.com

There are at least seven different styles of Windsor chairs, but all of them feature a solid wood seat and separate back and leg pieces that are connected to the seat through wedged tenon joints. The seat, often carved into a saddle shape for comfort, connects the various components and provides the stability to both the upper and lower portions.  Traditionally a pole lathe was used to create the legs and uprights, while the back and arm pieces were formed from bent pieces of wood using steam bending techniques.

broken chair illustrationMatt’s interest in the Windsor chair stemmed from observations that today’s machine-made reproductions tend to lack the structural integrity achieved with the traditional techniques which actually “tighten” connections each time someone sits in the chair. This is achieved by joinery that is carefully tapered and wedged to foster this tightening process. As he puts it, “These chairs are built like a suspension bridge that re-tightens each time it is used. For that reason, it is not uncommon to have handmade Windsor chairs that last for more than two hundred years and are still used on a daily basis.”

Another compromise of mass produced chairs is that they are typically made from a single type of wood.  Conversely, a well-made Windsor chair is comprised of three different types of wood, each chosen for its engineering and structural properties making it uniquely suited to its functional location on the chair. Oak is a good choice for the seat back due to its strong and flexible properties that work well for steam bending. Pine is commonly selected for the seat for its lightweight properties, as well as being easy to carve and suitable for creating a more streamlined seat depth. Maple is a favorite for the legs to provide a durable foundation, as well as its ability to hold the turning detail.

Moving Beyond Function to Creative Artistry

quitter chairquitter diagramOnce Matt was comfortable with reproducing the Windsor Chair, he moved on to exploring new design concepts. This coincided with his enrollment at the Rhode Island School of Design, providing a whole new set of equipment and materials resources, as well as regular collaboration with fellow students and advisors.

His first endeavor was affectionately known as the “Quitter” chair due to its comfortable, laid back profile and the reclining user position.  This chair was heavily influenced by Adirondack chair design and was based on traditional joinery techniques, primarily mortis and tenon and dovetails.

The Fabric Royale chair was Matt’s first foray into new joinery techniques, such as a double articulated bent joint, stretching the boundaries of traditional forms, while making more of a sculptural statement. Exploring new types of joinery is plagued with failure and the outcome is often unexpected, an example of this is that the original conceptual sketch looks nothing like the final chair.

Fabric Royale chair

The chair is called Fabric Royale because the new types of joinery employ laminating and bending of different types of woods and metals. The final result is a bold, artistic statement piece.

Fabric Royale chair

The Fabric Royale chair.

Cube Logic was the next challenge, this time using Computer Number Control (CNC) joinery fabrication, while drawing on inspiration from notable artist, Piet Mondrien, a Dutch painter known for an increasingly abstract style culminating in an artistic vocabulary of simple geometric elements.   The challenges with this design pursuit were associated with pushing the limits of structural integrity.

Cube Logic chair designcube logic chair diagramThe first roadblocks for this chair was finding the right thickness. The next challenge was identifying the right material, eventually settling on carbon fiber and Bondo. And of course, the final step was creating an appropriate design finish to complement the structural form of the chair itself. The end result is a unique, yet functional chair that could be mass produced.

Drawing on Lessons Learned for Interior Design

Much like chair design, effective interior design is about putting the rights parts and pieces together.   While chair concept sketches continue to be one of Matt’s “spare time” interests, the insights gained from his successes and failures over the years have provided a better understanding of how things come together.

chair ideasThis has been particularly helpful when working with craftspeople for an interior ceiling or casework detail.  Another lesson learned is recognizing that failure is an inherent part of creative design, but also a critical aspect of evaluating the right materials and best approach for implementing design concepts. The ongoing process of respecting and maintaining classic designs while allowing for potential refinements can be seen in the case of the Windsor chair. The classic chair still works well today with many design styles and particularly some of the contemporary interpretations that have emerged along with the resurgence of Mid-Century designs.

Modern Interpretation of classic Windsor chairs around a table

Modern Interpretation of the classic Windsor chair. Photo Credit: Houzz, St. Ives, Cornwall – Camellia Interiors, Ltd.

Matt Barley earned a Master of Design, (MDes) Interior Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design.  He has 12 years of design experience and, as illustrated here, is himself a craftsman and artist.

Jodi Kreider, LEED AP, Blog Editor

For those who are interested in learning more about seating from a historical and global perspective, we found an interesting article from The Atlantic:  A Global History of Sitting Down.

Also, for aspiring craftspeople out there: The Spruce Crafts:  13 Types of Wood Joinery