Written by David Savage
Originally published as Love Story in Good Woodworking Magazine / 2001
This month I’m going to tell you about a pair of chairs that are being made in my workshops right now. They say that when one applies for grants from organisations such as South West Arts or whoever, that they, whoever they are, like to see a body of work, a development over a period of time. Well these chairs that we’re making now have been developing for about 7 years. About 7 years ago I asked a beautiful young woman to be my wife and she very foolishly said yes. We planned our marriage in our local village church and during the planning our rector, a guy called Bill Blakey, who I have since learnt has a wicked sense of humour, suggested that we might want to have a couple of chairs in the aisle where we would sit during the service. Knowing that I was a furniture maker, he said with a twinkle in his eye that we could have a couple of For Sale signs on the backs of the chairs facing the congregation. I suppose in that way if we had sold them we could have been one of the only couples ever to have come out of a wedding ceremony with a financial profit.
Knowing that I was a furniture maker, he said with a twinkle in his eye that we could have a couple of For Sale signs on the backs of the chairs facing the congregation.
Although Bill was being joking and a little bit facetious, he gave me the germ of an idea that here we were, Carol and I, two totally complete human beings, coming together to create a third identity, a relationship. Could I express that idea some how in one or two pieces of furniture. And so the idea of the Love Chairs evolved. The two chairs are perfectly whole and complete and they can sit in separate rooms and still look good from all angles, yet they come together and fit inside one another and they create a third identity, something very special, something very harmonious. My first Love Chairs were made very, very, quickly with a very pressing deadline. I don’t make very regularly and this was one of the few pieces I decided to make myself. I was however lucky to have an apprentice working with me called Ian Mather who was responsible for the sanding and fiddly work that I really just didn’t have time for. My job was to develop the shapes and do the major bits of joinery.
The first Love Chairs caused a stir in our village church. Our wedding was timed for just after the village flower festival and the chairs were still in the vestry whilst the village ladies were decorating the church. I think there was a fluttering of feathers in the hen house that night but they made everyone smile and I was very pleased with the general idea of the chairs but I knew it had a lot of room for development.
Love Chairs no. 2 came about when a lovely lady called Nikky saw a photograph of Love Chairs 1, on the wall of an exhibition we were having in London – ‘Could you do something for Kian and myself’ she said. ‘Not like yours, but something for us.’ She then went on to describe how this was their ninth year of their marriage and they’d like something to commemorate their 10 th wedding anniversary. She went on to tell me a little bit about themselves. How Kian was a very stable and solid character, always there, always reliable, how she was terribly flighty and artistic and whimsical and she flung her arm into the air as a gesture of abandoned whimsy. I don’t know whether it was right then or sometime later I had an image of these people dancing and it wasn’t just any old dance, they were dancing the Tango. Not long before that I had seen a movie, a great movie called ‘the Scent of a Woman’ in which Al Paccino plays a retired blind army colonel. In a memorable scene in the movie he, a blind man, dances the most expressive tango you could ever imagine with a young beautiful woman on tiny dance floor. I wanted these chairs to dance the tango . Well I wanted them to have some feeling of movement. A sense of energy that one gets when one’s dancing the tango. Not that I’ve ever danced the tango. After all why can’t pieces of furniture be expressive, why do they just have to sit there and be furniture, why can’t they say things about who we are and where we are. Why can’t chairs be sexy, have sensuous, evocative shapes. These are after all pieces of useable sculpture.
The challenge with these components was to give the support needed in the right place for lower back support and comfort and at the same time create the visual look that fitted in with the idea of the chairs.
So we started off on Love Chairs 2. It took Nick, who is a wonderful cabinet maker over 40 days to make Love Chairs 2. Nick’s comment was ‘it’s like being pushed off the edge of a cliff making these chairs.’ He had no idea what was in my mind and I only had a little more of an idea. We started with a beautiful elm board almost the last of the big English elm boards that I shall see that formed the seat and ran through the two chairs. We then made, as I did in Love Chairs 1, the arms and legs and back slats all in dark English ash. I found the scruffiest, stained and unwanted boards of ash that I could for these pieces, because, firstly I would be wasting a lot of wood and secondly I wanted colour and character and generally you don’t get colour and character with wide, clean, clear boards of ash. You get it with the scruffy, knotty, rubbishy boards
. You band-saw out massive slabs of wood and started whittling away at it. Making the back splats was the greatest challenge of Love Chairs 2. There we were faced with the dilemma of having to have a solid wood back and keep it comfortable. I played around with this for what must have been days, while an exhibition deadline was looming large in the background. The challenge with these components was to give the support needed in the right place for lower back support and comfort and at the same time create the visual look that fitted in with the idea of the chairs. Two requirements that are not always shall we say good bedfellows.
Anyway the chairs were finished and duly exhibited to great acclaim at the Banqueting House Exhibition held in 1999 and it was there that the young woman kept coming up to us and asking if we could possible make a pair for her and her husband. Which leads me to these chairs. Love Chairs 3. I went to see my clients and arrived at their farmhouse, we talked and had lunch and then she said we had better to up to the house. I looked around myself and thought, isn’t that where I am right now – no, no, she said, we’ll go to the house we’re moving into. This was in December and it happened to be one of those few days that snow was forecast.. We pile into their Range Rover and drove along the private gravelled drive for a few minutes until we enter the grounds of the house, it started snowing. We drove over a bridge, there was a lake and I felt Wagner should be playing in the background for looming out of the snowy mist there appeared this incredibly beautiful Neo-Gothic house. Two large wolf-hounds came bounding alongside the car and I really did feel Wagner inside my head. This was the most incredible house and I felt very honoured to be asked to contribute to what was a quite extraordinary art collection. My clients were just moving up to the house and they had been charged with the task of adding to and contributing to the family collection and they had asked me to do this for them.
We drove over a bridge, there was a lake and I felt Wagner should be playing in the background for looming out of the snowy mist there appeared this incredibly beautiful Neo-Gothic house.
The chairs are to be made in English pear wood. This came from a very large tree from their estate. Swiss pear is really beautiful but it does have the disadvantage of having been steamed which makes it a slightly darker colour. This tree although it was un-steamed was relatively dark and also relatively knotty which made the task of getting quite long clear lengths very wasteful but it is such a pleasure to have English Pearwood to do this job. The first thing I made for this job was a model. I spend quite a long time getting the small model right and that’s the only way I feel comfortable exploring this project in 3-dimensions. I could I suppose play around with it in a CAD file but it’s really just as easy to make a small model. Once the model is resolved we can then work out which components can be laminated, which components can be cut out of the solid.
The core for the piece is the seat. That’s more or less the only stable thing on the whole job and in this case it’s made out of Birch or Plywood. A perfectly flat stage is set up so that we can set the seat at an exact height above what will become the floor or ground level. The seats are not dead parallel to the floor and the back of a chair is usually maybe 5 mm lower than the front of the seat to assist a person to sit more comfortably against the chair back. To set this up we create a small jig. Crossing two pieces of MDF and cutting them the exact height. The ply seat then sits on this until the legs are attached. Now we’ve got this datum surface and we can fool around with the angle the legs are attached to the seat and the shape of the legs themselves. With a design like this where the shapes are very free I try to keep the choices within certain limitations to help to preserve a design integrity or common language. In this case all of the back legs were laminated but though all created from one mould they all look slightly different. Each leg was fitted to the seat in a different attitude and at a different point so we were using a similar curve but using different parts of the curve on each leg.
One of the greatest challenges with this design was the top crest rail the design of which was a sinusoidal curve that ran in a straight plane aross the two chairs. Consequently where this sinusoidal curve touched the tops of each of the four legs had to line up exactly. This we had to take account of as we were fitting each leg into the seat and involved Nick and I considerable muttering and head scratching. Definitely what Holmes would describe as a 2-pipe problem
Front legs were less complicate d, apart from the central legs where I wanted the front leg of the female chair to cross behind the left leg of the male chair, almost as if the two chairs were dancing. While making these chairs I couldn’t help thinking about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and whistling songs like ‘Putting on my top hat’ dee, dee, dee, dee, dee, dee, but that’s just me being fanciful. As I write this we are working on the arms of the chair. We have almost got to the stage where the whole piece is looking OK if rather blocky and heavy because the components we’ve made it out of are considerably oversize. The next stage requires considerable courage ‘cos until now you’ve developed all of your components to work with one another in this quite heavy, blocky, 2 x 2 dimension, and you’re used to these shapes and forms and they probably look quite good, yet the form you are really after lies within that 2 x 2 section and you have to have the courage to destroy what you’ve already created in order to liberate the form that you’re really after. Every time I do this I hear intakes of breath and muttering from people around the workshop, ‘he’s lost the plot’, ‘didn’t know what he’s doing’, ‘that looked much better before you slimmed down that leg’, yet this is a stage you’ve got to go through, you’ve got to start to make the whole thing slimmer and lighter and sexier. Next month hopefully we’ll have this damn thing done or nearly done and I’ll be able to show you some more photos.