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.