On Bruce Ware’s porch above the shores of Lake Champlain, I lower myself into a deep wooden chair and lean back. “The way you’ll know a real one is the height of the chair off the ground, and where your knees come up to,” Ware tells me.
“In some, where the angle is wrong, they’ll throw you back. With others, you just sit down in them and they fit you naturally.”
Actually, I’m not so sure about this one: My knees are at the right height, but the chair seems overly deep and the angles a bit rigid. I feel as though I’m forced to stare at the ceiling. The wide arms extend far out in front of me like an experiment in perspective. I look over at Ware, who’s sitting in a similar chair a few yards away, and it feels a little as though I’m peering out of a ravine. This may be a “real one,” but it’s not the one I was hoping for.
The history of the Adirondack chair is like a great river–something that started as a rivulet and in time has gathered up shapes and colors and materials as it churns resolutely from the past to the present. At this moment, I happen to be sitting at the very headwaters. The two chairs in which Ware and I repose are versions of the chair made by Thomas Lee, who was Ware’s great-great-uncle. Lee, it turns out, invented the Adirondack chair.
The Adirondack chair is defined as “an outdoor armchair having an angled back and seat made of wide, usually wooden slats.” In 1903, Lee–Boston blueblood, global adventurer, and early bohemian who spent more time at his family’s Lake Champlain summer house in Westport, New York, than his family might have preferred–nailed together the first proto-Adirondack chair out of some wide boards. The seat and back were crafted of single wide hemlock planks, which met at an angle designed more for leisure than labor.
The precise angle may have evolved from the chairs crafted for patients taking the fresh-air tuberculosis cure at nearby Saranac Lake, which was home to many sanatoria. But perhaps not. Thomas Lee’s niece Mary once recalled that her uncle got “various members of the family together to sit … and tell him when the angles felt exactly comfortable.”
To my mind, Lee’s real stroke of genius came in adding the chair’s broad, practical arms–nearly as wide as small sideboards. “I guess they were designed [so that you could] sit with a cup of coffee and a newspaper,” Ware says. The arms make the chair a self-contained pod, a place where you can settle in with a beer, a sandwich plate, and a book or magazine, and still have plenty of room for splaying out your forearms and elbows. Adirondack chairs are destination furniture, one-person resorts you put in your yard.
Thomas Lee, of course, invented more than a chair. He invented an icon–something that would come to personify a season as neatly as a Weber kettle grill or an hourglass-shaped hummingbird feeder. In the proper location and under proper conditions, Adirondack chairs speak. But they speak a language with only one word. And what they say is: Summer.
For much of my adult life I’ve been involved in what I’ve come to think of as the Goldilocks Project. When I see an Adirondack chair for sale–whether it’s outside a retiree’s garage workshop or stacked at an outlet mall–I stop and I sit.
John Cheever’s character Neddy Merrill traversed Westchester County by swimming from one backyard pool to the next; I’ve been sitting my way across New England, one Adirondack chair at a time. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in 15 years of dogged lounging, it’s this: You can’t tell an Adirondack chair by its appearance. You really have to sit in it. Some are too big. Many are too small. And some–very few, actually–are just right.
It’s not only a matter of angle and knee height. There are the materials to consider. The modern versions available in extruded plastic and sold at big-box stores are actually not bad-looking, and they’re pretty comfortable, too, but they lack the proper rigidity. Anyway, a late-afternoon squall will send them flying across the yard like tumbleweeds. That’s more than a minor flaw. An Adirondack chair needs ballast.
There are other considerations, like color. Green is good, with forest green the very best. Fire-engine red is cheerful. White is classic, but there’s the problem of glare. Yellow, not so much. A blue chair is, for some reason, always uncomfortable.
Here’s another important thing about Adirondack chairs: Where you put them has an outsized impact on their comfort. Place matters. Inside a house? Never. It’s like a spray-on tan–there’s something unsettlingly unnatural about an Adirondack chair with a roof over it. Adirondack chairs need to be outdoors and, ideally, should be set off by themselves–at the end of a dock that extends into a large lake, or on an open, grassy rise with views of distant mountains, or simply at the far edge of a suburban lawn.
The writer Paul Auster captured what for me is the ideal chair in his 2007 novel Travels in the Scriptorium, about a man whose memory has failed and who struggles to recall his past life. At one point, the character “closes his eyes [and] he is once again in the past, sitting in a wooden chair of some kind, an Adirondack chair he believes it is called, on a lawn somewhere in the country, some remote and rustic spot he cannot identify, with green grass all around him, and bluish mountains in the distance, and the weather is warm, warm in the way summer is warm, with a cloudless sky above and the sun pouring down on his skin …” That’s my memory of every Adirondack chair I’ve ever sat in, even those on misty spring days with a chilly north wind.
When I read that the first Adirondack chairs had been invented more than a century ago in Westport, New York, I drove there to find out what I could learn. I checked in at The Inn on the Library Lawn, and asked the host, Anthony Wheeler, whether he knew of anyone to whom I should talk about Adirondack chairs. His wife walked in, and he turned to her and asked, “You know anyone who knows anything about Westport chairs?”
So the first thing I learned was: In Westport, you don’t call them Adirondack chairs. (I’d learn later that you don’t call them Adirondack chairs in Ontario, either. There, they’re called Muskoka chairs.)
Westport is a quiet village that slouches along the shores of Lake Champlain, with breathtaking views of Vermont’s Green Mountains across the way. It has an 1880s library and a 1960s post office, and great, sloping lawns everywhere. That’s pretty much how it should be. The well-tended lawn is to Adirondack chairs what the savannah is to lions: their natural habitat, where you expect to see them ranging freely.
Wheeler directed me to Bruce Ware, who’s been a real-estate agent in Westport for many years. He filled me in on the history. Ware told me that Thomas Lee had a local hunting buddy named Harry Bunnell who was having trouble making ends meet during the long winters. Lee suggested he start making and selling his chairs. Bunnell did, perhaps a bit too eagerly. In 1905 he had the chairs patented under his own name and then started a manufacturing operation. (The patent reads, in part: “The object of this invention is a chair of the bungalow type adapted for use on porches, lawns, at camps, and also adapted to be converted into an invalid’s chair. A further object of the invention is to produce a strong, durable chair adapted to withstand rough usage and exposure to the weather.”)
The Bunnell chairs are suspiciously similar to Lee’s Westport chairs, but the long, rearward-facing back legs are more narrowly set than on Lee’s chairs. Ware has a Bunnell chair in his office across the street from his house. We walked over and examined it. Ware lifted an arm of the chair, then lifted an eyebrow. “It’s got stability problems,” he said, ominously. I detected a trace of longstanding grievance between the Lee and Bunnell clans.
The Westport/Bunnell chairs wasted little time before migrating out of Westport. I drove around the south end of Lake Champlain and up to the Basin Harbor Club in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, on the water about seven miles west of downtown Vergennes. Basin Harbor is an old-fashioned summer resort and could serve as a sort of Westport Chair National Park. On its 700 acres I found about 200 brightly painted Westport chairs scattered about, as they have been since the Beach family first started making them for the resort in 1909.
The Basin Harbor version has a single plank for a back, capped with a graceful semicircular crown; four slats make up the seat. They’re still made by hand using the original plans, which current resort owner Bob Beach informed me involved 17 parts and 55 screws.
Their placement here is unrivaled; most overlook a circular cove, a shimmering lake beyond, and then the bluish hills along the water. “They’re very comfortable to sit in and watch the lake go by,” Beach said. “The view has never really changed.”
I walked around the property and saw guests sitting and reading and generally having the precise opposite of a riotous time. I found a chair (dark green) and took a seat for a while. The Basin Harbor variation, it turns out, is somewhat smaller than I prefer; I felt I wasn’t so much being embraced by it as walking arm in arm with it. Also, the arms were relatively narrow (scarcely enough room to lay down a paperback book), and they committed the great sin of angling downward toward the rear. It wasn’t hard to imagine that a slight jostle could cause a cocktail placed there to begin a slow, gravity-powered migration toward the lawn, resulting in a tragic denouement. I asked Beach about it. “That’s an excellent point, and I don’t know,” he said. “We just haven’t changed the design.”
Others have changed the design. The single-plank Westport back morphed into the multislat back of the Adirondack chair, sometimes fan-shaped and sometimes not. Sometimes playful shapes (sailboats, pine trees) are jigsawed off the back slats, and some chairs come with attachable slatted ottomans. I’ve seen others made with big circular backs, giving them the appearance of large light bulbs, and still others with squiggly, irregular slats, giving them an informal, rakish appearance. Ingenious systems have been devised to allow them to fold up, thus requiring less winter hibernation space. And I have in front of me U.S. design patent number D503,550 from 2005, with a diagram featuring chutes and levers and slats that when properly assembled result in a “combined beer-dispensing cooler and lawn chair.”
Bad Adirondack chairs are bad each in its own way. But all good Adirondack chairs have one thing in common: They possess their own gravitational field, and they pull you inexorably into their orbit.
“They become their own destination,” is how Zeke Leonard puts it. “They start to define a social space that’s at some remove from the main house.” Leonard is a furniture maker in Fall River, Massachusetts; he also teaches from time to time at the Rhode Island School of Design, his alma mater. He’s thought about Adirondack chairs more than most of us, since they were a focus of his master’s thesis. (So was the dining-room table; he’s interested in furniture that encourages you to slow down your life.)
Perhaps it’s because they engulf you, or that the backs are sharply angled, but Leonard notes that Adirondack chairs are usually not for socializing. “It’s hard to talk to people when you sit in them,” he says. “The seat pitch is steep enough that you’ve got to lean forward, and so it’s not conducive to talking. But it makes a great place to sit and read a book or listen to a game.”
People will at times put them in a cluster, and more people will show up than there are chairs to seat them. The arms are broad enough that a late arrival can perch on an arm, creating instant multilevel seating. That’s good for making a short-term connection–discussing dinner plans or watching the sun slip over the hills–but not for a long discourse. It’s best to avoid this sort of arrangement.
The best arrangement, I’m convinced, is two Adirondack chairs off by themselves. Sit in them with a friend or lover, and you’re simultaneously by yourself and with another. It’s the best approximation of real life that I can imagine.
The Adirondack chair’s ability to carve out a personal space amid a public one brings me to another minor point: I’ve lately seen an epidemic of child-sized chairs. This may make me sound like a crank, but I’m wholly opposed to them.
Full-sized chairs are perfect not just for adults, but also for kids. Watch a 5-year-old climb up and into a full-scale chair, and that little one quickly gets lost in his or her imagination. The chair becomes a castle, a fort, a villa on a lake. The miniature versions make adults happy when they can gaze adoringly at kids sitting in them–so cute!–but notice that the kids invariably look pained, as if wearing shoes too small.
The Goldilocks Project had its most significant breakthrough in Nova Scotia a few years ago. I was driving west from Lunenburg, and what should I see but a grand arc of colorful Adirondack chairs arrayed on a lawn next to a house in the village of Upper LaHave.
A sign indicated that this was Zwicker Woodworking, a moderately large backyard operation. The chairs were painted in what Frank Lloyd Wright used to dismissively call the “colors of the ribbon counter.” They were solid, with fan backs, very broad arms, and nicely cambered seats.
Of course, I stopped and sat. The Adirondack chair, like wine, has an entry, body, and finish. The Zwicker chairs’ entry was excellent; I stopped leaning back at precisely the point I should. My knees came up to exactly the right height. I didn’t require an assist from a passing person to stand up. The chairs didn’t feel too rigid–not too oaky, in other words. They were very reasonably priced.
I immediately bought one, which I secured upright to the top of my Volkswagen van for the drive home. Like local druggists’ delivery vehicles, which once had a mortar and pestle on their roofs, my van with its iconic chair made me look like a vendor of summer leisure as I drove home. The honks and thumbs-up from passing cars never ceased. Two years later I went back and bought three more.
That was about eight years ago. The chairs now spend the summers at a lake in eastern Maine, which, not coincidentally, is where I also spend my summers. I put two in a clearing just below the house, and two down a path near the water.
An Adirondack chair deteriorates slowly but steadily. I believe an Adirondack chair year is equal to about seven human years–that is, if one lasts a decade outside, it’s doing pretty well. The feet go first, and start to get punky where they sit on the damp lawn all summer. You can trim and repaint them to slow the process; they get shorter, lower to the ground, harder to get out of.
Then the joints start to go: Where the slats are screwed in, a bit of rot forms. The paint comes off, sometimes revealing unfortunate fashions of the past–like the time you decided to paint them lime green during that one really long, hot summer.
And finally–usually when somebody you don’t know very well is visiting–he sits down heavily and the chair starts to drift sideways and your guest says, “Uh-oh!”
And then the whole chair deconstructs and becomes a pile of boards. Then you cart it off to the dump or burn it in the next bonfire.
And that’s okay. Because here’s the thing about the Goldilocks Project: There’s never an end to it. Looking for “just right” becomes a calling. When the last chair goes, there’s always a new one waiting to be discovered. And that keeps me going.