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.