My mother, Suzanne Manierre Delahunt, purchased a chair as a gift for me in 1996. She'd recognized it as a "Morris chair" — a style first devised by the firm of the great English designer, William Morris. Her father, George Manierre IV, had had a Morris chair in his rooms at Harvard College in the 1890s, and it had been his favorite chair.
My chair is made of solid oak with a reclinable back — adjustible to four angles: a bar placed into one of four pairs of metal notches behind the rear legs. Its hinged back has back-contouring curves, and seven horizontal cross-pieces. Altogether, it's 42 x 30 x 33 inches when upright, 36 x 30 x 45 fully reclined.
Here's what it looked like at the estate auction from which it was sold in 1996, in excellent condition despite its modern coat of green paint, both with cushions and without them.
While many Morris Chairs have been manufactured, and continue to be popular, the vast majority are in the Stickley or Mission style. Two aspects of my chair make it a rather eccentric variant. First, there are some carved/impressed arabesques on the outer sides of the front legs, with an animal paw form given to their feet; and second, the six turned spindles supporting the middle of each arm rest are helical.
William Morris (1834 - 1896) was an English writer, painter, designer, printer, and one of the great Victorian social reformers. Looking to medieval traditions to restore art as an integral part of human well-being and progress, he believed beauty could be found in utility. In 1861, William Morris founded Morris & Co. to make furniture, carvings, fabric, tapestries, stained glass, and wallpaper. The first Morris Chair, though not actually designed by William Morris himself, was made by Morris & Company about 1866. It can be seen in period photos of Morris's home — in ebonized oak with cushioned armrests, its spindles turned as though they were strings of beads. Morris Chairs are the royal ancestors of all "recliners" such as those made by LaZboy. Click here to see a site on the Web devoted to William Morris, and another to the English Arts and Crafts Movement he led. Also, consider visiting the William Morris Society.
There are many variants on this design made by many manufacturers since then. In Europe, a version was designed by a leader of the Vienna Secession:
Josef Hoffmann (Austrian, 1870-1956), designer, at the studio of Wiener Werkstätte, for J. & J. Kohn, Austrian manufacturer, Sitzmaschine Chair with Adjustable Back, c. 1905, bent beechwood and sycamore panels, 43 1/2 x 28 1/4 x 32 inches (110.5 x 71.8 x 81.3 cm), Museum of Modern Art, NY. "Sitzmashine" is a word Hoffmann coined in German, literally meaning "machine for sitting," an apparent bow to the mechanical aspects of modernism. Much like my chair, the angle of the back of the chair can be adjusted by moving a supporting bar to any of several positions, although in this case, the adjustible rod sits on pairs of turned wooden knobs. Notably, in the several references I've seen in which this chair is discussed, none include references to its relatedness to Morris chairs.
My Morris Chair came from the estate of Jean Lindsay Johnson, who was a granddaughter of Edmond J. Lindsay Sr. — a wealthy fellow who built a large home in the 1880s on Oconomowoc Lake, Wisconsin. Jean was the author of When Midwest Millionaires Lived Like Kings, which she published herself in Milwaukee, 1981. It's about wealthy residents of the Oconomowoc area of the period 1880-1920. I estimate the Lindsay chair was produced 1880-1900, most likely manufactured by an American company. Tacked to one of three boards added later to support new springs was a tag with the imprint: "Clement-Williams Furniture Company, Furniture, Drapery and Rugs, 426, 428 and 430 Broadway, Milwaukee", and following "TO:" is written: "E [Edmond] J Lindsay / Lindsay Bros Warehouse." This seems likely to have been the senior E. J. Lindsey, Jean Lindsay Johnson's grandfather.
After shipping the chair to my home in Phoenix, Arizona, I stripped off its green paint, and finished it with a soft-brown Danish oil-stain.
The two cast-iron brackets, which make the angle of its reclining back adjustable, had lost all but a trace of brass plating. As you see in the picture to the right, I had them copper plated by a company nearby.
The old cushions didn't fit the chair well, and were covered in the sort of plasticized fabric common to kitchen chairs of the 1960s. Researching William Morris, I learned that he designed numerous patterns for wallpapers and fabrics. The pattern I enjoy most is one of acanthus leaves. It has some of the feeling of the Art Nouveau style, and it reminds me of some of the ways acanthus was used as a motif in ancient Greece — in the Corinthian and composite capitals, for instance. From the English firm Sanderson & Co., which owns the rights to most of Morris's fabric designs, I received ten varied swatches of "Acanthus". In each of ten different colorways it's woven (not printed) with two colors of cotton thread. Here are four of the most interesting of these colorways:
I chose to upholster two new cushions in the red and tan version above. To get a sense of the scale of this pattern, note that the coin in the red version's lower-left corner is a quarter dollar.
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Here's a sweet girl standing beside the refinished chair. The chair has now been reupholstered, this photo shows it just before that was done. On its back cushion is a swatch of the Morris designed pattern with which new cushions were covered.
Since I posted this page in 1997, I've received dozens of email messages from others who have old non-Mission-style Morris chairs. I enjoy hearing from them, and reading their stories. These often involve inheriting the chair, and wondering about its history. I especially like seeing pictures of such chairs, because they are often variations on the design of my own. The woodwork of every one has been unlike that of any other.
Every correspondent has asked me what I think their chair is worth. I don't know. I have absolutely no knowledge of the market in old Morris chairs. I only know that I treasure mine!
People commonly want to know who manufactured their chair and when. After much searching, I have found no source of such information. Finding answers to these kinds of questions will require that someone does real historical spade-work: gain access to furniture advertisements and catalogues — to learn about the original production and about contemporary market values.
But don't stop there. Lary Shaffer of Scarborough Maine makes and sells new Morris-style chairs, and collects information about old Morris-style chairs. As of June of 2010 he had photos of over 600 chairs in his archive. He enjoys helping people identify the makers of their chairs. This can lead to learning much more about a chair's history, even about its original owner. Consider consulting Lary about your chair. He has put a little guide to a few of them on his website. Take a bunch of photos of your chair, including good shots of any labels you find, record what you know about the chair's history (include note of what's original, and what changes have been made) and send this to Lary with specific questions about your chair.