By GLENN GARNETT
You’ve got your dock. An ice cold beer in your mitt. The faraway whine of an outboard engine, the cry of a loon, a cool late afternoon breeze on your face as the sun begins dipping behind the trees. And you’re sitting uncomfortably in a green plastic molded chair you bought at the supermarket for $4.99.
What’s wrong with this picture of cottage bliss? Of course - you’ve gotta have an Adirondack chair.
How can something crafted of wood be so darn comfortable hour after hour? That is the secret of the Adirondack which was invented almost exactly a century ago nears the shores of Lake Champlain in upstate New York. In fact, according to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., they were originally known as Westport chairs, named for a nearby town. A man named Thomas Lee, vacationing in the Adirondacks, designed the chair through a process of trial and error. Each one was constructed from a single pine board, with his relatives placing their posteriors on numerous prototypes before he came up with the winner.
Lee was a terrific designer but he was no entrepreneur. When his buddy Harry Bunnell, a carpenter, was badly in need of a winter project to make ends meet, Lee helpfully provided the plans for his marvelous chair. Soon Bunnell could hardly keep up with demand.
Bunnell was a terrific carpenter but he was a little short on gratitude. Without his pal’s blessing, he filed for a patent on the so-called Westport chair in 1904 and got his papers from Uncle Sam the following year. On the patent description he wrote: “The object of this invention is a chair of the bungalow type adapted for use on porches, lawns and at camps and also adapted to be converted into an invalid's chair.”
The application outlined each of the 11 pieces of wood required for the chair and he concluded, “From the above description, it is thought that the advantages of this construction wilt be obvious.”
They certainly were. Over the next two generations the chair’s popularity spread across the Adirondack region, evolving through the years with slats replacing the solid planks. The “Westport” became the “Adirondack” chair, so-called by tuberculosis patients who were sent in those days to sanatoriums in upstate New York, sitting outdoors for hours in the comfortable chairs as part of their “wilderness cure.”
Bunnell continued building chairs well into the 1920s, all individually signed and made of hemlock, and you could buy them in green or medium dark brown. Inevitably, these original chairs transcended function to become collectibles and objets d’art. Chairs that cost four bucks back in the Roaring ‘20s can today, in pristine condition, fetch up to US$1,250!
The next leap in popularity came with mass production and mail order. During World War II you could order an Adirondack chair kit, with untalented all-thumbs fathers across the country assembling their own cottage chairs.
Somewhere along the line, the chairs crossed the border into Ontario’s cottage country, the Muskokas, especially the Big Three lakes which were the playground of the very well-off, and owning one was a bit of a status symbol. Here they became known as Muskoka chairs, even though the design is a dead ringer for the Adirondack, and it’s still considered a necessity by those who insist on the traditional accoutrements of the cottage experience.
Where to get an authentic Adirondack/Muskoka? Call a craftsman.
Ian MacDonald began his successful career as a woodworker crafting cedar strip canoes in Edmonton. He and his family later moved to Oakville, Ont. where he expanded his repertoire to include the famed Adirondack chair. He purchased the original Adirondack pattern from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. and before long he was building them in his woodworking studio.
“I put the finished chairs in my driveway,” MacDonald recalls. “Wasn’t too long before you’d see cars slowing down, checking them out.”
Of course, one of the benefits of buying a chair from a woodworker like Ian is his ability to custom-build one - as sometimes happens, according to his wife Linda.
“We’ll get a call from a wife who’ll tell us her husband is a little on the ‘large side’,” she laughs. “But that’s no problem - Ian can make them a little wider or deeper.”
MacDonald has tweaked the design a little to create Adirondack love seats and in his backyard you’ll find a splendid custom-built Adirondack swing. And, naturally, he can equip those broad arm paddles with a drink holder so your beer or pop won’t go for tumble if they’re bumped. And colour?
“We’ve seen people paint each board the full spectrum of the rainbow or in pastels,” says Linda. “People are using them as a canvas for art.”
MacDonald’s company, Harbour House WoodWorks, today not only produces the legendary Adirondack chair but also armoires, harvest and Shaker tables, cabinets, trellises and authentic wood-framed mirrors, to touch on a few of a wide variety of products that roll out of his woodworking studio in Bronte Harbour. He’s also into landscaping, and we’ll be talking to Ian in upcoming issues of CottageLink magazine about ideas for improving your cottage’s outdoor appearance.
For more information on MacDonald’s Adirondack chairs or his range of wood products, check out his website at www.harbourhousewoodworks.com or call (905) 847-0120.
Many will agree that sitting in a Muskoka chair at the cottage is the ticket to bliss - but a pair of authors insist you can go all the way to nirvana while comfortably seated in one.
Susan Feathers and Carol Sherman are practitioners of the 6,000-year-old art of yoga, and came up with the unique idea of combining it with a considerably younger form of relaxing, sitting in a Muskoka chair. Sherman is a former editor of Toronto-based magazines who practices yoga at her cottage, while Feathers is a professor of law in Philadelphia. The duo recently published Yoga in a Muskoka Chair: A Guide for Everyone, (Boston Mills Press, 2001, ISBN 1-55046-368-3). In the U.S., naturally, it’s being marketed as Yoga in an Adirondack Chair.
“With its slightly sloping back and its wide Popeye-like arms, the Muskoka chair provides an ideal starting point,” the authors write. “The stillness and stability that are the essence of an effective yoga practice can be experienced perfectly in the grounded and comfortable Muskoka chair.”
Traditional yoga postures such as the Fish and Cobra are outlined here, but instead of using a mat it’s your friendly, garden-variety Muskoka. You’ll also learn The Breath of Fire, the Flower and, our favourite, Ear Massage.
But before you move on to the exotic, you’ll find the only instructions we’re aware of how to sit in a Muskoka chair for maximum comfort, and, as a jumping off point for the yoga exercises. Here they are:
This is your basic sitting posture. Assume it at the beginning and end of each exercise. It's great for the breathing exercises, many of the postures and perfect for meditation.
The book is fully illustrated and a wonderful companion gift to go along with a new Muskoka chair. Suggested Canadian retail price is $14.95.