Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Rocking Chairs I Love: Survey of Contemporary Rocking Chairs

Since building a rocking chair was one of the things that drew me into furniture making in the first place, I thought I'd devote a few posts to some excellent makers of rocking chairs. These posts are going to be more about photos and less about text. At the end, I'll make a sort of digest post that can serve as a directory (non-comprehensive as it is).

(This teak double rocker was made by Robert Van Norman, Resident Craftsman and Teacher at the Inside Passage School of Fine Woodworking. Photo by David Welter.)

A rocking chair isn't just a chair with rockers on it. It is a chair completely re-envisioned and designed to resist the forces of a human body (or two) riding momentum back and forth. It has a different sitting height, a different seat angle, a different back angle and has to be extremely sturdy but elegant and flexible. The human body isn't just weight; it is weight that adjusts and squirms, gets up and sits down. That's a lot of stress to put on humble hardwood and the joints that keep it together.

Before I go much further, I want to acknowledge Sam Maloof's enormous influence on the genre. If you're not familiar with Sam Maloof, I recommend his autobiography, Sam Maloof, Woodworker and Jeremy Adamson's The Furniture of Sam Maloof. One of the most illustrious artists of the 20th Century (and beyond), in 1985 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (the first to a craftsman), and his work is included in the White House Collection of Arts and Crafts. You can also read about him at the website for his foundation, the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts (www.malooffoundation.org). The chairs pictured here are from the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (I use these two photos with grateful acknowledgment of the Smithsonian Institution). The single rocker is made of walnut. The double rocker is made of fiddleback maple and ebony.

I'm not knowledgeable enough to say whether he came up with the faired-curve rocking chair (as I like to call it), but he certainly put it on the map and inspired thousands of woodworkers with it. I've seen a few Maloof rockers at various galleries and museums, and they are exquisite. I've never had the privilege of sitting in one -- the pesky security guards and motion detectors helped me resist the urge -- but they have a sleekness and a softness that beg you to slip into one of them. Steeped in the Windsor chair tradition and shaped by a late 20th Century aesthetic, Maloof's chairs are iconic and set a very high standard of imagination and quality. Dealing with Maloof's influence, in my view, is a good problem to have. It's interesting to see how chairmakers handle Maloof's influence -- whether they copy it, transform it or ignore it.

What are my criteria for the chairs I'm featuring? One challenge, obviously, is that I'm not able to sit in them and judge them for their most important quality -- comfort. Short of taking a trip around the country to try out rocking chairs (wow, what a great idea for a trip!), I'm relying on the fact that these folks have sold many, many chairs and have many, many satisfied customers. Otherwise, I'm looking for chairs that are unique and well-crafted to the point that they inspire others to make their own or buy them. I think these rockers fit that bill. I hope you enjoy what I've found.

As a side note, many of the makers I'll feature have incredible websites that describe their influences, design considerations and construction methods (also, many of these woodworkers make things other than rocking chairs). Some of them actually studied under Maloof. Gary Weeks' website even has a directory of rocking chair makers. Featuring his competition right there beside his own work speaks volumes about the kind of person and artist he is. Hal Taylor similarly lists other makers, showing that furniture makers would get nowhere without each other to learn from and inspire.

Rocking chairs have a mystique about them partly because of the challenges involved with making them and the beauty of the form, but also because they conjure images of relaxing on front porches and by fireplaces. There is also a sense of envelopement. You sit on a couch and on a chair. You sit in a rocking chair. And what more elemental purpose can there be than a parent rocking a child to sleep? With that, sit back (at least in your imagination) and enjoy some beautiful rocking chairs.

(The Ocean Rocker was made of birch ply by Jolyon Yates. Photo by Gor B Lamme.)