By Tim Preston. Originally published on Castlemaine Independent
Imagine a chair that is very comfortable, light, strong, made with renewable materials, and has a highly evolved design- a chair that will last for generations.
Greg Stirling makes chairs that fit this ideal in his workshop near Castlemaine. Lets take the Windsor chair out of its antique pigeon-hole to look at it in terms of furniture and production for the future.
Leaving behind the antique resonance, what is a Windsor chair about? Start with the experience; if you can sit in one, do – the longer the better. Unfortunately the opportunity is rare, but it is this experience that set Greg on the path to become a master of the craft.
Sitting in a Windsor you’ll notice the warmth of the timber, the hand shaped and finished surfaces, and the considered, generous structure welcoming the body. This is a design that has been evolved for generations and refined by Greg to give an experience that is so much more than sitting in a contemporary mass produced chair. And it’s very comfortable.
Greg’s Windsor chairs often appear within the antique market because of their historical context. You’ll also see them in art galleries appreciated as works of craft. But in the context of sustainable production and consumption these chairs tick a lot of boxes. Boxes that few contemporary chairs try to achieve. A small segment of office chairs engage with: sustainable materials, ergonomics, fair labour, product stewardship etc. things that address the impacts of chairs on the body and the world.
With these kinds of expectations of a chair it would be useful to re-assess the Windsor chair as a model for sustainable, and body-conscious seating, and to consider modes of making other than centralised mass production.
A Windsor chair is a hand-made wooden chair with a one-piece seat, turned legs and stretchers, and a bent wooden arch with thin verticals for the back-rest. There are many variations of the basic form – arms can be incorporated and the layout of the back-rest differs, but it’s the structural engineering that is the commonality.
One of the distinctions of the Windsor chair is that its engineering evolved from cart wheel and cart construction. “Engineering quite superior to any other chair – compare it to a ladder-back chair’s small dowel joints” Greg says.
Given the Windsor’s rural heritage and the similar structural requirements, to develop a chair is quite a natural extension of a cartwrights craft. Carts and Chairs have to: be light yet strong, handle movement or working of the joints (vibration, shocks, and flexing of the structure), be long lasting, made from local materials, be repairable, and do the job without fail. The hub of a cart wheel is made from Elm for example. “Wheelwrights built for strength, they understood the science of the relationships of different woods working together, and how to get the most out of them” Greg says.
A shaped seat you may have come across in computer machined chairs – this is a shadow of a hand shaped seat. Again you need to spend time in one of Greg’s chairs to appreciate the difference. The traditional wood for a Windsor’s seat is a single piece of Elm. Because of its interlocked grain, Elm can handle the load on the seat and structurally connect the legs and back. Strong, turned Oak legs and stretchers form the lower structure, round through-tenoned into the seat with a wedge to tighten and lock the joint. Ash is used for spindles (the thin verticals in the back) and the steam bent back frame-arch (and arms if present).
From a body perspective the firm seat means your weight isn’t born by compressed flesh, as it is in an upholstered chair. The seat shaping, rather than being comfortable by conforming to your bum, offers a landscape that alleviates fatigue in the body by creating subtle changes in support as you shift while sitting. These little shifts are encouraged by the surface texture. Our body is designed to move – the best posture is the next posture, and although long periods of sitting aren’t great physiologically, the sitting landscape offered by Greg’s chairs is surprisingly comfortable for long periods.
Greg understands the traditional materials used in Windsor chairs better than most. He originally made chairs in Australian native timbers, so he was in the unique position to appreciate the characteristics of the traditional timbers.
Castlemaine has mature European trees from gold-rush settlement so Greg uses local Elm. Each of the three timbers have a specific function in the Windsor chair. “As soon as I started working with [them], I knew it was the right wood for the job… so forgiving, and revealed in the action of making properties that supported whatever you where doing with it”, he says. “I wouldn’t have appreciated it so much if I’d not used natives first… fumbled so much, made so many mistakes working it out”.
Unfortunately there isn’t a chair bodger working a nearby forest to supply Greg with the Ash and Oak green. This was the traditional process: the bodger would set up in a stand of trees to fell, split, and rough-out components from green timber to supply Windsor chair production in a town workshop.
The bodger would have a rudimentary shelter with a pole lathe – a bent sapling that provides the tension to a cord that wraps round the turning piece and is connected to a foot-plate. Pressing the foot-plate spins the piece for turning then the pole springs back to reset the cord. A quiet and simple human powered machine. The bodgers equipment included an axe for splitting, and a draw knife for roughing out parts held in a shaving horse – itself a bespoke device of evolved design.
This process was carried out in the forest, trees coppiced, and waste used for kindling or basket making. The whole site left to regrow with nothing but shavings remaining when the simple equipment was moved on. Way better than clear-felling! And surely the bodger had a respect for the forest and an interest in regeneration for future work. For historical images see http://www.chilternphoto.org.uk/Special-Collections/Chair-Bodger
At the height of production 5000 Windsor chairs a day where sold all over the world, Greg estimates this would have required a workforce of 10,000. It was a big industry and must have had impacts on forests at this scale. But the Windsor chair being durable and repairable, could meet the ideal of a product lasting till the resource regrew.
Greg has been making Windsor chairs for the past 25 years. He moved to Castlemaine in 1990, allowing him to enjoy country living while raising a family; and to be close to Melbourne, where he sells the majority of his work.
Greg was introduced to county furniture and craft in 1978 when he undertook an informal apprenticeship in Melbourne with a craftsman from the English Midlands.
He set up his own workshop in 1980, and made tables and stools that he sold at weekend markets. At that time he fell in love with a Windsor chair after sitting in one at a friend’s house. He borrowed it for days at a time so he could study the construction – he also read as much as he could on the topic.
“It was so comfortable and such a generous chair – I was gobsmacked by the details and simplicity of the whole thing”, he says.
Greg ponders what it means to be a craftsman today, working in what is now considered a luxury item – hand made furniture, in this age of centralised mass production. You could look at their value by calculating how many mass produced chairs you would need to seat three generations compared to one Windsor chair.
Gregs chairs sit comfortably in a contemporary setting. Adding warmth to a minimalist setting. He notes, “they need something with a degree of imperfection this is why there is a painting on the wall or a hand woven rug, this anchors these interiors”.
The direct relationship with a client is part of craftsmanship- there is an exchange that is more than the purchasing of an anonymously produced chair from a showroom. “That doesn’t give anything like what I’m trying to do… you don’t feel loved a bit in terms of the exchange” Greg says.
In this world of visual forms of promotion, something experiential like the Windsor chair struggles to gain broad acceptance. Some people understand the craftsmanship, time, and energy that goes into making a Windsor chair, or have felt its presence having sat in one.
A mass produced chair can be made in seconds with plastic injection moulding but surely there is a correspondence between acknowledging the time, energy, and materials that go into a hand made chair, and appreciating that for generations. The Windsor chair represents something that is not part of the design cycle of churn – furniture discarded for the next style, which is what you can do with a chair that doesn’t have a Windsor’s presence.
Is the Windsor chair an option for the future should energy, economies and materials change? Does it neatly reconcile human needs of seating with renewable materials transformed by venerable skill? Greg Stirling is one of the people that have not only carried and evolved these skills, but help channel it to the future where it may be needed – to provide seating, or to teach us something.