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.
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