Monday, August 30, 2010

Chippendale Chairs

I spend a lot of time visiting nice homes. I guess you could say I am fortunate as my shop is within easy driving distance of several areas where very expensive homes are located. The term, "McMansions" has been created to describe this genre of living. Homes with excess of 10,000 square feet would certainly qualify as having more space than is necessary for two people to exist in comfort.

As I have walked through literally hundreds of these McMansions over the years, I have become somewhat immune to the impressive scale and luxurious furnishings, many of which are simply decorative or even fake. What stands out in my mind, as I wander the marble halls, is the occasional period antique that is interesting or rare.

Dining rooms are a particular problem for the antique decorator to furnish. Actual dining tables were not made before the end of the 18th century, and most of the large scale dining tables are made up in the late 20th century to look antique, as the demand rose. On the other hand, period chairs are available, but often broken and repaired so poorly that they no longer serve their function.

Then there are the sets of chairs which have been "expanded." This is more common than you might think. Just take 4 antique chairs, for example, and knock them apart completely. Make duplicate parts, as "repairs" and you then assemble them to be 8 chairs. Each chair is 50% period and 50% "restored" so the collector/dealer can brag about how rare it is to have a large set. And they have been "restored" so they are ready for use!

One day I visited a home and discovered a set of 6 really fine Chippendale mahogany dining chairs, which had never been worked on. They impressed me as to the structural design, with stretchers, tapered legs, and a solid pierced splat on the back. They needed a little regluing, so I took them into the shop, where I made some measurements and a sketch for the future.

Later, when a client asked me to make some sturdy and early chairs, I was ready to go to work. I purchased two Honduras boards, 6/4 and 8/4. One board was slightly darker than the other, so I used the darker board for all the vertical elements and the lighter for the horizontal pieces. This is a traditional practice for 18th century furniture, to accentuate the vertical proportions of the piece. All the parts for 12 chairs were cut from these two boards. I should mention this was a long time ago, when you could still purchase nice Houduras mahogany.

As the client ordered 10 chairs, I made 12. The reason was that I could deliver the best 10 and keep the remaining pair for myself. The seats were standard slip seats, made with a maple frame and upholstered with horsehair stuffing. The client wanted hand made custom needlepoint coverings, so I found an elderly lady who agreed to do the needlepoint.

By sheer coincidence her name was Mrs. Edwards, and she was no relation to me at all. She was in her 90's but willing to make the seat coverings, a few at a time. She took longer to make the needlepoint than I did to make the chairs, but the client was understanding and patient.

Mrs. Edwards made a vow to complete the 10 needlepoint seats, each pattern different, with birds and flowers, before she passed away. As we waited for the final seats to be delivered, we wondered if she would complete her assignment. I must report, with great respect, that she passed away shortly after she finished the last panel.

I choose to cover the two seats on my chairs with damask.

Thank you, Mrs. Edwards.

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