It was a betrayal between friends that produced the first Adirondack chairs. Local lore has it that Thomas Lee of Boston was vacationing in the Adirondacks in 1903 when he set about trying to construct a comfortable outdoor chair that would accommodate his mother, said to be a woman of great girth. Lee spent the summer nailing boards together to create prototype chairs for the many family members in residence in Westport that summer. All 22 people were asked to test the chairs and offer their thoughts on which was the most comfortable.
Finally, Lee settled on a design that featured a wide pine plank for the backboard and broad armrests — so broad that the sitter wouldn’t need a table on which to set a plate or glass. His relatives approved, and soon Lee had made enough seats to populate the grounds of the family’s sizeable retreat. He had no intention of selling his design, being an already wealthy man with many business interests.
On a hunting trip that summer with a local carpenter, Harry Bunnell, Lee offered his friend the plans for what would come to be known as the Westport chair. The carpenter had been fretting about how he would make it through the winter, and Lee suggested he craft a few of these chairs and try to sell them to well-heeled city folk vacationing in the Adirondacks. Bunnell accepted his friend’s gift and, without asking permission, proceeded to apply for a patent on the chairs. He received it in 1904. While no one knows what happened to the men’s friendship after that, one can imagine Lee did not take kindly to Bunnell’s disloyalty.
Bunnell crafted the slope-backed, wide-armed chairs from 1904 to 1930, when the supply of knot-free, wide pine planks began to dry up. His business shuttered, but by then the chair was known both within and beyond the Adirondack Park. Local craftsmen took up where Bunnell left off with his Westport chair, and the Adirondack chair we know today, with its narrower back and seat slats, was born.
Since the 1930s, the chair has been an icon of leisure and outdoor relaxation — seemingly ubiquitous and timeless. Like most utilitarian pieces of furniture, the Adirondack chair tends to be taken for granted. What started as a regional, functional craft is now mass-produced in countries thousands of miles from the Adirondacks and bought by people who couldn’t locate the majestic park on a map. But this emblem of rural industry still means something to the people whose lifestyles inspired the chair more than 100 years ago.
To understand the relative importance of the Adirondack chair in our country’s craft history, it helps to know something about where it came from. “The Adirondacks” refers to 6.1 million acres of constitutionally protected, privately and publicly owned state park land. Adirondack Park is the largest contiguous park in the continental United States; since 1894 it has been “forever wild” — protected in perpetuity from development and industry that would ultimately destroy the character of the land and its residents.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Adirondacks began to symbolize the outdoor life and the camping ethos in the minds of the American elite. The roster of moneyed city dwellers who owned grandiose lodges in the region reads like a “W ho’s Who” of industrial barons: Morgan, Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Guggenheim were just some of the park’s frequent visitors.
People outside the park began to associate it with a particular lifestyle rooted in leisure, says Laura Rice, chief curator at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Lake, N.Y. Because the chairs were born within the Blue Line — the mark on maps that delineates the park — they came to represent this type of repose.
It makes sense that local craftsmen would continue to produce Adirondack chairs, as they came to be known in the mid-20th century. Much like the rustic twig furniture of the Great Camps for which the region is also known, the Adirondack chair was “make-do furniture,” Rice says. All the carpenter needed was scrap lumber and a rough plan. Because they were outdoor chairs, they didn’t need to be beautiful, or even comfortable — only functional. “They were easy to make, inexpensive and kind of disposable, in a way, which is what you want for camp life,” Rice says. “That’s why they’re as popular as they are.”
In the 1930s, as the American middle class began to emerge, the iconic Adirondack chair proliferated; it even became a status symbol of sorts, according to Daniel Mack, author of the recent book The Adirondack Chair. The chairs needed only to sit on suburban lawns, with or without occupants, to suggest success. “They were more of a tableau,” Mack says. “Look at us, look where I’ve come to, they seemed to say. The chair was a function of suburbanization, when people were able to have a backyard.”
Crafting the chairs could be an expressive project for this new, less harried working class, too. With fewer physical tasks demanding men’s attention, many of them turned to hobbies, Mack says. Magazines of the 1930s were filled with designs for simple furniture. Because they only required a handful of wood and a few basic tools, Adirondack chairs became hugely popular with these do-it-yourself carpenters. Mack, an experienced furniture maker, estimates that a sturdy Adirondack chair takes eight to 10 hours to construct. Today, the chair is still one of the most popular home-shop projects, and many design programs use it as a beginner’s assignment.
In the Adirondacks, hobbyists who build the chairs often sell them to tourists by the roadside or out of their garages. Driving through the park, it’s not uncommon to come across hand-lettered signs advertising Adirondack furniture for sale just down a driveway.
But commercial manufacturing has moved far beyond the Blue Line. Few local craftsmen produce the chairs in great enough volume to make a living, and most of the Adirondack-inspired furniture on the market is now made outside the United States, says Steve Maselli, president of Old Adirondack, a rustic-furniture company in Willsboro, N.Y.
If there’s one thing Maselli knows, it’s the business of the Adirondack chair. Maselli, a former business-development consultant from Philadelphia, bought the 38-year-old furniture company in 2002 with the intent of helming a business that focused as much on its employees as it did on profit margins. He offered health care and 401(k) options to all of his 20 employees. That’s nearly unheard of in the Adirondacks, where high-paying jobs with benefits are scarce.
Over the course of a year, Maselli’s company produces between 10,000 and 15,000 pieces of furniture, ranging from bed frames to rockers to its bread-and-butter item, the Adirondack chair — of which it makes 2500 to 3500 each year. Old Adirondack strives for sustainability and tries to keep the production as local as possible. Eighty to 90 percent of the northern white cedar used to make the furniture is milled in Barton, Vt. The rest comes from Saranac Lake and Chazy, N.Y., explains factory foreman Kevin Colegrove.
Maselli’s company has struggled to compete with Adirondack chairs made in Asia for a fraction of his company’s costs. But recently Old Adirondack scored a huge account with Williams-Sonoma, the San Francisco-based housewares giant. That commission gave the company a much-needed shot in the arm at a time when the last thing most Americans are thinking about is purchasing new outdoor furniture.
Maselli, whose company also makes chairs for Plow & Hearth and a number of other catalog retailers, is thankful for the investment. But he predicts that, as people realize what cheap Asian manufacturing is doing to the American economy, they’ll seek out products made in the USA. “People are yearning for something authentic and made in the place of origin,” Maselli says.
On a recent weekday, his factory was making a run of Adirondack chairs, which foreman Colegrove calls the company’s “heart and soul.” The factory floor was covered in sawdust, which the company collects for North Country farmers who use it for animal bedding. The delicate scent of freshly cut cedar filled the air as the machines buzzed and whirred.
Colegrove, from Keeseville, N.Y., stood watch as the employees shaped, planed and sanded pieces of wood. The 43-year-old has worked at Old Adirondack since 1987 and climbed his way to the top of the manufacturing team. “There ain’t nothing I don’t know how to make. I’ve built just about everything there is to build here,” Colegrove says. “I like doing what I’m doing because it’s a challenge.”
Instead of manning a particular workstation, such as sanding the back slat or planing the legs, each employee builds a chair from the ground up. When each chair is finished — the production expectation is 10 chairs per person per day — the workers box them up and get them ready to ship. One of the employees building chairs is Colegrove’s 23-year-old son, who also works on the manufacturing floor. Until recently, Colegrove’s father worked at the factory, too.
Nearly everything at Old Adirondack is done by hand. Each piece of wood for the chairs is shaped with a jig and an employee’s skilled hand, rather than a computer-controlled machine. And all that wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Maselli notes with evident pride that his company sources its raw materials from forests that are well managed and healthy, whose owners adhere to strict environmental standards.
Old Adirondack’s finished product is true to the original chair design — a slatted back with significant pitch, ample arms and a natural finish that will develop a silvery-gray patina as it ages. With minimal maintenance, Adirondack chairs will endure through generations, privy to the stories of their occupants. Over the years, the Adirondack chair has become as much a cultural touchstone as a place to sit and reflect. “That chair,” says Daniel Mack, “holds a lot of meaning.”