From the April/May 2018 Issue  

Have a Seat

Writer Ren Miller
  • Thomas Lee’s Westport chair was a precursor to today’s Adirondack chair.

    Courtesy of Clarks Outdoor Chair & Furniture Shop, Lexington, Kentucky

  • This modern-day Adirondack chair is inviting, comfortable, durable and beautiful in its simplicity.

    Photo by Greg Hume

Ingenuity — and possibly a little disingenuity — mark the history of the popular Adirondack chair.

Proving there is beauty in simplicity, the Adirondack chair has unassumingly become an icon of summer.

How many movies set an outdoor scene with Adirondack chairs facing a lake or circling a fire on a chilly summer evening? And no wonder. The gracefully arched high back provides support for the head, the comfortable angle of the seat and back encourage relaxation (and napping), and the wide arms reach out to embrace passersby.

The chair is a study in contrasts. Sitting in one feels cushy even without cushions. Sizes range from merely substantial to hulking, yet the chair nearly disappears into its surroundings because the wood is typically left to weather naturally or painted dark green or brown. And though designed more than a century ago, it looks equally at home in modern and traditional settings.

It’s true the chair has changed over the decades. Today you can find Adirondack chairs in trimmer dimensions, made of resin and other materials, and offered in eye-popping colors — some that Thomas Lee wouldn’t have imagined.

Lee is credited with creating what we now call the Adirondack chair. The wealthy Massachusetts native and his family owned a vacation home in Westport, New York, a town overlooking Lake Champlain in Adirondack Park. During the 1900 vacation season, he decided his family needed something more comfortable than stone or cast iron seating outdoors. It would have to be sturdy, balanced and comfortable on everything from lakeside sand to the rugged terrain of the Adirondacks. He started to experiment. With each new version of a chair, he asked family members to have a seat and give their opinions. By 1903, he had designed what he felt was the perfect chair: wide armrests on which to sit beverages, a high back and a slanted seat and back. The shapely but simple silhouette was basically the same as today’s Adirondack chairs, but rather than slats, the seat and back were each one piece of solid, knot-free wood. He christened it not the Adirondack chair, rather the Westport chair.

As Lee’s great-great nephew once told the Champlain Valley’s Sun Community News, Lee’s friend Harry Bunnell, a carpenter, was worried about finances for the winter of 1903-1904. Lee offered Bunnell his design for the Westport chair in hopes he could make and sell enough to see him through the winter.

The surrounding community loved the chairs and, after modifying the design to make it a little narrower, Bunnell obtained a patent for his version of the Westport chair. If Lee was upset with his friend’s disingenuousness, there was no indication of it, his great-great nephew told the newspaper. He also noted Lee was already wealthy and would have had no interest in opening a chair-manufacturing operation.

Bunnell met with such success that he kept manufacturing and refining chairs for 20+ years. To tap into the popularity of the chairs, other carpenters introduced their own modifications so they could sell similar chairs without infringing on Bunnell’s patent. Eventually they began to use the more encompassing name Adirondack chair.

In 1938, Irving Wolpin of Lakewood, New Jersey, secured a patent for an Adirondack chair design with smaller slats, a rounded back and a contoured seat. Wolpin’s design is the most often replicated Adirondack chair today.

Although the chairs are available now in a wide range of price points, an original signed Bunnell chair can reach into the thousands of dollars.