Chair Making Journey

I've been making furniture for some time now, but hidden in the wooded landscape has been a challenge, silently waiting. What is it? It's chairs. Chair making has always been on my list. Now, I've decided, is the right time to take it on.

To me, the interesting thing about chairs is that people are drawn to them. Using a chair is a much more personal experience than using other types of furniture. People's expectations for chairs are higher. They appreciate a comfortable chair. But there's a lot more to a chair than just comfort. What about the appearance? Even without sitting on it, a chair can appear comfortable... or perhaps not. Why is that so? And then there's the overall aesthetic built into a chair. What about style? You could read a thousand books about that. Then, we can't forget strength. Do I dare sit on that chair? Is it strong enough? Will it stand the test of time? Well, let's hope so!

If you're at all like me, you understand that a fine chair, a unique chair, a chair made just for you, regardless of its apparent simplicity, can be a complex beast. That's for sure. If I want to make chairs, and I do, I need to find a way to tame this beast. So, today, in that spirit, I'd like to introduce you to my latest project to learn as much about chair making as I can, do it in a reasonable period of time, and when I'm done with the project have two chairs to show you.

The following project description is a bit formal, even for me! It's a condensed version of what I presented to the Minnesota State Arts Board in my application for an Artist Initiative grant. I'm pleased to report that I did receive a grant that will cover nearly half of the project costs, so I'd especially like to thank my fellow Minnesotans and let them all know that without their support of the arts, projects like this one might never get off the ground. I'm deeply honored to receive the grant, and I'll do my level best to ensure that my study and my work will be deserving of everyone's trust. Thank you for your support!

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I'm interested in uncovering a new realm of design possibilities where the methods to achieve light yet strong joinery, learned through this chair making project, give rise to increased design latitude for the structural and aesthetic aspects of my future work. The challenge is to be able to design and make a chair having thin, clean lines without sacrificing the strength necessary for the chair's intended use.


I've been invited to enroll in the seven week long Journeyman Program at the Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking in Roberts Creek, BC, Canada, beginning May 28, 2012. The school is owned and operated by Robert and Yvonne Van Norman, who have put together an amazing enviroment for learning this craft. During the program, I'll be making a careful reproduction of a piece called "Vidar's Chair" while Robert guides me through the process.

"Vidar's Chair" was designed over 40 years ago by the Swedish furniture maker Vidar Malmsten. Click here to read more about the Journeyman Program as well as a bit of the story of Vidar and his chair, as told by James Krenov. I expect the learning process at Inside Passage to provide clues to my own future design possibilities. Both the uniqueness of every plank of wood and the way this craftsman chooses to shape them will have an effect on the look and feel of each completed piece. I look forward to learning more about this natural vs. manmade relationship that exists in the shaping and assembly of chair parts that are more demanding in their execution than any parts I have used in my previous furniture pieces.


After completing the chair making program and returning home, I'll apply what I learned by independently designing and making an original chair. The main influences on this piece will, of course, be "Vidar's Chair", as well as other chairs created primarily by Scandinavian designers of the modern era. I am particularly attracted to the light, clean lines of Scandinavian design. While the aesthetic of these chairs points to simplicity, the making of chairs such as these is not. It will require an especially fine eye in the shaping of the parts, and the best fitting joinery possible to ensure that their physical strength properly supports their delicately refined aesthetic.

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I'll be blogging fairly regularly, chronicling the ups and downs of the learning and the making. After the two chairs are completed, I'll keep you informed as to where the chairs will be exhibited. If you use an RSS feed reader, you can subscribe to feeds from this blog by clicking here. If not, be sure to check back often for more chair making fun. I hope you don't miss a single post! All of my posts will be open for comments, so I hope to hear from each and every one of you as we take this journey together...

In the meantime, hej då, and happy shavings!



Craig Johnson is a fiscal year 2012 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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