Local Style and Manly Hands at Home: The Adirondack Chair

IMG_1870Talk about your manly hands at home! A regular guy was looking for a way to provide vacation relaxation for his family and he created a chair that has become a style icon!

The story goes that, in 1903, Thomas Lee was vacationing with his family in Westport, NY, a small town on Lake Champlain and in the Adirondack Mountains. His family needed outdoor chairs, in order to better enjoy the scenery, so Lee built them some. He experimented with designs, enlisting his family as testers, until he arrived at this:

02floor-adirondack2-blog480

That chair, made of wide planks of wood, became known as the Westport chair, which is generally believed to be the precursor of locally-ubiquitous Adirondack chair.

photo by Michael Pekovich

photo by Michael Pekovich

The Adirondack chair is an icon of a place, as associated with my home region as wrought iron is associated with New Orleans or the saltbox house is with New England.

The elements that define the chair are a sharply-raked seat, a high back, and wide and flat arms. While the Westport chair was made of wide planks of wood, often hemlock, the Adirondack chair is made of slats, perhaps because those wide planks were harder to come by.

The slatted Adirondack-style has been around at least since the 1930s, when some of the style variations were patented.

The unusual raked seat of the chairs is said to be specifically designed for use on steep hills, so the chair would be stable and sitter would be comfortable looking down the mountain or hill toward the view.

The wide arms were perfect for those vacation necessities–a cold drink and a book.

The traditional colors were the hues of the outdoorsy setting—medium reddish-brown and dark green, though some chairs were left unpainted to weather attractively to grayish-brown.

In my experience, the chairs are only okay for sitting in—they are kind of hard and those slats are not easy on one’s posterior. The raked seat makes it hard to get out of the chair, especially when it’s set on flat ground.

And, yet, we love them. We all have them, whether in the traditional wood in subdued colors or plastic in colors of the rainbow. You can find the style translated as rocking chairs, love seats, even lifeguard chairs. And, of course, they can still be made by loving hands at home:
adirondack plan 3

As regular visitors know, I like Adirondack chairs best as photo props, to serve as a focal point and evoke the “summer in the North Country” vibe I hold so dear. In fact, when my sister decided she wanted a photo series of her daughter at “camp,” one photo a year for the first 18 years, an Adirondack chair became the item that always appeared with the child.

em1yr.2

The Adirondack chair has moved beyond the Adirondacks and can be found in summer homes, lodges, and outdoorsy settings all across the United States.

Has this style come to your part of the world?

Now, as we all know, standing up while viewing a summer sunset is nice, but watching that sunset while comfortably seated with a cocktail at hand is always nicer.

Orvis

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58 thoughts on “Local Style and Manly Hands at Home: The Adirondack Chair

  1. There is something about the angle of the seat to the back of the chair that feels so good…like it’s stretching my spine and relieving pressure. Thanks for the history and the patent…you know how I love patents!

    • Actually, the patent story is even more interesting. Lee had a friend, Bunnell, who needed a way to make money during the winter so Lee let him use the chair design to make some chairs to sell. Burnell went off and got the patent! I couldn’t find anything that clearly started whether he did that with, or without Lee’s knowledge and permission!

  2. Beautiful photos… As a flatlander, I have never enjoyed sitting in these chairs because they have me leaning back too far and my neck craning, but it makes sense if they are designed to be placed on a slope. I know that people in the northeast are practical, and this never made sense to me.

  3. I love this post and thank you for telling us about the history of the Westport and Adirondack chairs. Love the photos, too. Canada’s version of that chair is the Muskoka chair and I have no idea which came first, but it is a comfortable chair. The wide arms have accommodated many things, from a cup of tea, to a dinner plate, to a journal and a newspaper.

  4. Great post! I have of course seen these chairs all over New England, and never found them comfortable until this summer. Because that was the first time I sat in one on a hill – and you are right – they are perfect for that!

    • I bet an orange chair looks great–stands out yet fits into the surroundings. My husband has talked about making chairs but hasn’t done it yet. We do need new ones . . .

  5. I often use them as a photo prop for vintage quilts or blankets. As Cynthia has said, we refer to them as Muskoka chairs, Muskoka is the lake/cottage area north of Toronto
    Glad to know that someone else finds them difficult to get out of…..I thought it was the wine!

    • I have one of our chairs as a prop in almost every blanket or afghan listing on my Etsy, too–it just seems right. I’ve learned that, if you drink enough wine, you won’t care about getting out of the chair. 😉

  6. I didn’t know much about the Adirondack chair,can’t recall of ever sitting in one… Here in the south ,we have wooden rockers ,or swings. I think the reason for movement of sitting here is to keep the nasty little gnats away ,they don’t think air movement.

    • Maybe now you’ll start noticing ADK chairs everywhere! Isn’t that how it is? Once you learn new word, you hear it everywhere? I think Southerners must do anything they can to create a bit of air movement for themselves!

  7. Yes they are well known here too – though for the first half of my life I did not know them as Adirondack chairs, just as ‘beach chairs’. These days a scaled down plastic version is readily available, but I like the real thing! To me they speak of summer and water and long lazy days. Once in them you are not supposed to want to get out too soon, having everything to hand so readily. I also like the version that has two chairs joined by a small umbrella table between them – most companionable! I enjoyed reading the history as I did not know it. Isn’t it wonderful how your local icon has become so well known all over the world 🙂

    • Yay–they’re in New Zealand! I wondered if they had made it that far. I agree that the bright plastic ones seem somehow wrong although it makes me smile to see a rainbow “fleet” of them lined up along the shore.

      • My suspicion that they are in NZ has been confirmed by Pauline. Yay. I haven’t sat in one, and they don’t look particularly comfortable for someone with back problems. However they are very pleasing to the eye.

  8. I like the history of this–and have always gravitated straight to these chairs whenever I see them. Last summer I watched lobstermen going from pot to pot in Linnekin Bay with a cup of coffee in the morning (me, not the lobstermen, but they may have had coffee, too). They are, however, made for tall, long-limbed people, which I never realized until someone much shorter than I mentioned she thought they were uncomfortable!

    • Again, I think if you tried one out that was set on a steep slope, you’d see the point of the angled seat. They are really hard to get up from when set on flat ground . . .

    • They do, indeed! I’ve seen newer models that have a little well, of sorts, in the arm, to hold a cup firmly (like the drink holder in a car). But I don’t see the point-the simple, wide arm has served us well for 100+ years!

  9. Your photos are wonderful, Kerry! Wonderful series!
    Thanks for sharing the history, and I agree with you. While the arms are perfect for summer drinks and books, the chairs are less than comfortable … especially for us shorter folk.

    • Thanks, Laurie! I need to go find a hill to try out the theory that these are easier to get up from when placed on a slope. Our lawn is completely flat so it’s always a struggle to get up!

    • Maybe they need to design a booster seat! I’m glad to know the chairs have made it all the way around the world. When we’re putting ours away for the winter, you folks with be bringing yours out for summer!

  10. Thank you for that bit of history… We have 4 of them in our backyard and I wouldn’t go a summer day without sitting in them for a few moments. Such comfy, comfy creatures! 🙂

  11. Interesting stuff. These chairs are available in the UK, but they’re not part of our heritage, so their lack of comfort speaks against them. But with a history like that, I’m glad they exist!

    • I really intend to go find an Adirondack chair sitting on a steep slope, to see if that makes the difference in their comfort. Some people think they are super-comfortable–I’ve never quite understood that . . .

    • I like seeing how the chairs get used as outdoors decor–people choose the colors and different permutations, and that can give insight to the sorts of people who live there!

  12. Living in Virginia, you can’t swing a cat by its tail without bumping into one of these gorgeous chairs. We all have them, we all sit in them, many of us complain about them, but life wouldn’t be life in the Blue Ridge without them.
    I loved learning about their origins, and tonight, if I’m so lucky as to find the time and a cocktail, I’ll watch the sunset and raise a glass to Thomas Lee.
    Cheers, Kerry!

    • Thomas Lee deserves your toast! He allowed a friend , who was in real need of money, to build chairs of Lee’s design and sell them. The so-called friend had the design patented in his own name! Tsk!

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