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The Westport Chair, otherwise known as the classic Adirondack wood chair, is a good example of what we might call a generic product: a simple, seminal idea realized in a material that it is ideally suited by process and form by local indigenous craftsmen. The first Westport was made of solid boards; later versions were of slats for economic reasons, as wide, thick slabs of wood became rare. The designer of record, Thomas Lee, gathered twenty-two family members on the front lawn of his home, Stonysides, one spring day at the turn of the twentieth century for a picnic and as co-conspirators in the design of a chair. They probably included the entire ergonomic spectrum, tall, short, fat, skinny, adult, child, healthy, halt and lame. Uncle Tom nailed boards together and family members sat on it, suggesting when the seat and back angle felt comfortable. A wide arm allowed beverages and food to be placed not juggled, a table built in that moved with the chair. The result was a generic chair of lovely proportions, in a style of the time. It is the peoples constructionist chair, a craftsman’s chair, a chair easily duplicated, modified and it proliferated. The formal expression was in the “air”, the arts and crafts movement was in full bloom, and the simplicity of the form would happen world wide, it were inevitable. The variations are endless, defying any norm or canon. Settees, sofas, and high backs all forms of wooden outdoor furniture owe their existence to an afternoon in the sun. Plastic now replaces the wood slats and still the form screams through. Few people know the designer, but if most designers contributed as much as the Thomas Lee’s Westport chair in a lifetime they would accomplish something. The rightness, the anonymity of the chair is an ironic contrast to the utter unimportance and great celebrity of much of our designer furniture today. The Westport chair came directly out of the process by which it was created. Thomas Lee didn’t impose his image of “chair” on us; he literally created the chair right under us.

Westport Chair, 1905
Thomas Lee

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Design is a Performing Art
Bruce Hannah 1997© | Illustrations by Bruce Hannah