The Adirondack Chair

Posted by Remo Giuffré on

 

All-American Feel-Good Recliner

With its slanted back and wide-paddled arm rests, the Adirondack chair is the North American symbol for the long dog days of a summer spent relaxing lakeside. But who would believe that behind these sturdy recliners lurks a sickly history of design theft and disease! 

The story begins with Harvard-educated Thomas Lee. Born into a wealthy Massachusetts family, Lee dropped out of law school and fled the city hustle for a life of leisure on his family property in Westport, a town located in the magnificent Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. In 1900, Lee decided to make the most of his spare time and set about designing a chair in which he could kick back and enjoy the mountain views, but that would also remain sturdy on the rocky terrain of Adirondack. Three years later, he’d succeeded in crafting what his family and friends called the perfect chair. With a high back made of a solid plank of wood, a slanted seat, and wide arm rests, the chair was robust enough to withstand the wild environment.

That winter, Lee’s hunting friend, a local Westport carpenter by the name of Harry Bunnell, spoke to him of his financials struggles. To help him make an income during the harsh winter months, Lee offered him the chair design to make and sell. So in-demand was the chair that in 1904, behind Lee’s back, Bunnell had the design patented in his name as the “Westport Chair”. But, according to Lee’s great-great nephew, Lee didn’t care. He already had enough money. Bunnell’s design did differ in that it used several planks of wood for the back rest (for ease of manufacturing), a drop-down footrest, and room for a bed pan. 

These curious additions to the Westport Chair did not, however, indicate that the locals of upstate New York were an incontinent people of leisure. Leading up to this time, the US was in the throes of the tuberculosis epidemic. After New York City office worker Marc Cook publicised his success in curing his tuberculosis following an extended stay in Upstate New York with the 1881 publication of a book called “The Wilderness Cure”, scores of patients migrated to the Adirondacks in the hopes of healing their lungs with the dry mountain air. Sanatoriums offering the “wilderness cure” popped up across the region and outfitted their decks with reclining chairs, not unlike the Westport Chair, to allow their patients to reap the benefits of nature. In his design notes, Bunnell explained that the chair “could be adapted for use on porches, lawns, and at camps, and also adapted to be converted into an invalid’s chair.”

Permutations of the Westport Chair spread like wildfire across the country, and the reclined design became more widely known as the “Adirondack Chair”, in a nod to its birth place.

Then, in 1938, Irving Wolpin from New Jersey secured a patent for an improved model that included a fan-shaped back made of slats and a curved seat. It is this model with which the Adirondack Chair has become synonymous today. These days, everyone from Home Depot to Restoration Hardware (and even Bunnings in Australia!) offers a take on the Chair in a rainbow of colours and materials. At the other extreme, if you’re looking to get your hands on an original Westport Chair, you’d better have a lazy $10,000 or so to spare! 

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References

1stdibs.com/en-gb/furniture/seating/lounge-chairs/original-westport-chair-thomas-lee-harry-bunnell
smithsonianmag.com/innovation/how-adirondack-chair-became-feel-good-recliner-cures-what-ails-you
adirondack.net/history/adirondack-chair/
blog.terraoutdoor.com/the-all-american-adirondack-chair

Images

1. The Adirondack Chair
2. Westport, NY. Image: Google Maps.
3. An Original Westport Chair. Made by Thomas Lee for Harry Bunnell in 1904.
4. Bunnell’s Patented Westport Chair
5. Irving Wolpin's 1938 Design. Adirondack chair with a rounded back and contoured seat.
6. Modern Adirondack Chair
7 & 8. Adirondack Chairs in the Wild
9. Adirondack Chairs made for Remo & Melanie for their Hawkesbury River Shack by John in Queensland


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2 comments

  • One of my favourite spots at the river shack :)

    amy on
  • I personally have never understood the popularity of these chairs. I find them very uncomfortable and difficult to get in and out of. Interesting story though.

    Jane on

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