The origin of a style
The story of the chairs goes back 20 years when I got an entry level job at a rustic furniture shop in Estes Park. We were making a lot of Aspen and Pine log beds, and so we'd go out and spend a weekend harvesting wood and then bring it back to the shop and build things out of it. The process of taking natural wood and transforming it into a beautiful piece of furniture captivated me.
I remember the first time I applied an oil-based finish to an Aspen log bed rail; the oils from my rag brought out the natural colors of the wood as they awakened a sense of wonder in me. I had cut this piece from it's natural setting and now it would beautify someone's home.
I advanced in my skills and learned the techniques for building traditional rustic furniture, even broadening out the repertoire with dressers, armoires, and other cabinet styles. I developed a fascination for chair-building, as it presented me with the challenge of creating a piece that would use the natural branches but still be comfortable to sit in. So I used the techniques I learned and built table chairs, barstools, and rocking chairs, sort of the pinnacle in fine woodworking.
But I was frustrated. The rustic techniques I learned, heavily using the tenon-mortise joint, created a lot of right angles and “choppiness” in the design. I had fallen in love with the idea of using natural beauty to create chairs, but I found that I had to manufacture the pieces too much and take away the grace and style of what I loved about trees. I began to have an idea, a vision, that I would use natural branches but maintain their shape, giving the tree a voice in the style of the chair.
I searched all different style of rustic chairs, but could never find what I was looking for. Everything I saw used the tenon-mortise joint, or simply nailed pieces together. So I broadened my search to different styles of woodworking, and when I discovered the work of Sam Maloof, I knew that I had found a style that was more organic and natural than anything I had seen in the rustic world. He uses lumber to build with, but with a mastery of technique and design that gives his chairs an organic flow. What I wanted was to take his basic style and still use natural branches. But I was utterly without direction on how to do it, as none of the joinery techniques for working with branches would allow it.
My early chairs used notch-style joinery, which I had learned doing staircases; it gave me more flexibility with angles. And having moved out of the mountains, I now began to harvest and use trees found on the front range, mostly Russian Olive. I built chair after chair, piling them up in my garage, unsatisfied with all of them.
One problem I was having was how to make the back. I didn't want to use vertical slats the way Maloof did, as it would create a “sticky” design when done with branches. I had a bigger vision, but I didn't know what it was yet.
One big innovation was to incorporate leather upholstery in the backs, and then also the seats. My first attempt was the chair I now call, “Celtic Cross with Snakeskin.” What I wanted was to create patterns with the branches and then fill them in with upholstery. I learned some leather stitching and applied the upholstery to plywood with stuffing for comfort.
The “Blue Flower” Chair followed, and with this chair, I opened myself up to a new style of joinery that would change the whole nature of my chairs. There's a swooping branch that goes way off to one side, and I couldn't find a branch that would match that shape. So, using splicing techniques I picked up in interior carpentry work, I joined two branches end to end that would take the top of the chair far enough to one side. I had enough woodworking experience to trust that the amount of edge grain glue surface would be strong.
With this new splicing technique, anything became possible. I could use shorter pieces to guarantee the proper angles for the back, which is essential in the comfort of the chair. The splice joint evolved into a more visually appealing pointed design. But the design of the chairs was still not what I wanted.
The backs were interesting, but still limited in the shapes I could create, since comfort is non-negotiable in a chair and that means having the proper lumbar support. My next chair, “Golden Flower”, had no lower back support, and that was a big wake-up call. I built the “Tulip” chair after that and fixed the problem, but I still had the bigger problem of being limited in the design.
I decided to create a back that would be all upholstery, padded with webbing and using leather. This also took me into new areas of leather-tooling. I learned the basics of carving and stamping designs into leather.
The next chair is the “Celtic swoop.” It was comfortable and I saw a lot of new potential in creating visuals into the leather that would complement the branches. But I didn't like it. The area where the back comes down to meet the seat was awkward and left me wanting more.
Then I had perhaps my biggest breakthrough, design-wise. I wanted to create space at the bottom of the back, to create a “circle” of branches joined end to end and give more definition to the shape of the back. But I couldn't come up with a technique to bring the bottom of the circuit together.
In a flash of inspiration, I saw a picture in my mind of using a forked branch. I didn't have to join the pieces if they already grew that way! The first chair to use this technique is “Celtic Cross.” But I still used mitered joints at the top and bottom of the circuit. My next chair, “Juniper Bonsai” took the next step of using only the pointed finger splice in the circuit of branches that make the back.
I now could keep even more of the natural shape of the branches, allowing a very twisty tree like the Rocky Mountain Juniper to showcase its growth patterns. And I was taking further steps in the leather tooling and dyeing. The only place now I had to focus on was the arms. I still used a notch joint to bring the arms into the back.
My next chair, “Celtic Vine” took the next step. The arms come off the back in a naturally forked branch. Now the entire design of the chair used only pointed finger splice joints, creating the organic flow that I had been searching for. It took five years of experimenting, but I knew that I had the branchwork style I wanted, and that each tree, and each type of tree, would create a shape that was utterly unique to each chair. I still wanted to advance the upholstery work, but my search was over for a woodworking technique that would maintain the grace and unique growth pattern of the tree. I could use many different types of trees and create an infinite variety of shapes and styles. But of course, I needed access to branches. Denver, CO is not the most botanically diverse city around, and getting permission to harvest can be tricky.
One interesting facet to the process of developing the chairs was that I was living in a studio apartment in the middle of Downtown Denver. I had a garage out back in the alley, but it was unheated, so I built all these chairs inside my apartment. Save for a little cot, I had no furniture and my walls were lined with piles of branches. In order to do this without alarming my neighbors and landlady, all of my work was done with hand tools: saws, files, planes, chisels, rasps, etc.
I would go out and harvest branches and carry them through the Denver streets into my apartment. One day, I had the thought that I could do all this work in the middle of a field somewhere, since I had no need for electricity. So I loaded all my tools up and went camping in a Juniper forest near Gypsum, CO. I stayed there for a few days, harvesting branches and working on the “Juniper Bonsai” chair. I completed about half of the chair, which I then brought back to my apartment along with harvested branches to finish.
Now I had a new vision: traveling to different areas and camping and building with different types of trees. The benefits were enormous: access to different species, ability to harvest exactly the piece of branch I needed, soft environmental impact since I took only the branches that make the chair and even leave all my scraps for natural decomposition. There was even a spiritual benefit, since I left the city and technology behind I could connect with the forest in a way that is simply not possible in a few hours of harvesting.
Two weeks. That's how long I spent building my first “wilderness chair.” I was in the middle of the forest, far from people and electronics. I had brought all the leather and upholstery material I would need. I came to the forest, camped out for two weeks, and left with a finished chair, one that had never seen the inside of a building. So far, I've repeated that with Gambel Oak in Summit County, Manzanita on the coast of Oregon, Mesquite in the New Mexico desert, and Acacia in Tanzania, East Africa.
My dream from twenty years ago has almost become a reality. The chairs are better than I could have imagined, and I have many many ideas on where to go next. But like any personal journey, this one needs to be shared. I hope this story is a good first step in opening up my vision of chairs that bring honor to the trees and forests that created them so others can be inspired by the marvelous wonder of the natural world. —Vance