Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A vintage folding plywood chair

Look what I found at a local antique mall yesterday!

I was drawn to this wonderful folding chair by the transitional nature of its design, which combines moulded plywood with quarter-sawn oak and sturdy industrial metal hinges. The tag said it was a steamship deck-chair, but I knew that wasn't the case at a glance.
It folds beautifully and compactly, with an unusual and elegant mechanism.  Here it is mid-fold. 
Completely folded and flipped over to show the underside of the seat with the maker's stamp.

The stamp tells me it was made by American Seating Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan,
who are still in business (in the same location even!) today.
Is that the ghost of an ink-stamped S that I see under the stamp?
The version of the mark on my chair was in use from 1931-1956. In the PDF history of the company, a photo of a similar chair is labelled as a World War Two folding chair circa 1941; they were simultaneously making millions of steel folding chairs for the military. Many of the similar wood folding chairs from American Seating that have ended up for sale on the internet seem to have come from schools and churches rather than the military.

Here is a sibling wartime wooden folding chair on Etsy, with an identical shape and hinges, and a giant U.S. stamp on the back instead of the round stamp (and remnants of inked identification) mine has:
Via Etsy listing for a chair almost identical to mine, which must date to 1943-1945.
The patent number on that chair's stamp leads me to this patent, applied for in 1941 and granted in 1943, and the name of the chair's designer, Walter E Nordmark (who must have worked at American Seating as an industrial designer because there are several other American Seating design patents with his name on them). My folding chair, with no patent number, might be a wartime chair that predates the patent being granted (1941-1943), but could also be a postwar chair (1945-1956) if the round stamp was applied without the patent number stamp to chairs sold to schools and churches.

From 1939-1941, Charles Eames taught at Cranbrook Academy of Art outside of Detroit, Michigan. I can't help but wonder whether Nordmark was a student or colleague of Eames, and whether this elegant folding design was part of a larger conversation in the design community about plywood use that culminated in the creation of the Charles & Ray Eames' famous LCW.

The finish on this chair is really dinged up, with signs of water damage on the seat, which is why it was only $68. Now that I've determined that it isn't a rare item, I feel okay about refinishing (in a way that doesn't erase its history) and sealing the surface so I can use it beside the tub in the ensuite without damaging it further.

1 comment:

  1. I just bought the same chair at a yard sale for $5