If you’ve stopped by Level 6 of the Denver Art Museum’s North Building this summer, you might have noticed some chairs sitting unusually high. Using special mounts made by our conservators, we raised six chairs spanning two centuries to showcase their legs.
While other Arrangements (on view through October 11) throughout the museum focus on blooms, Check Out These Stems! pays special attention to what’s underneath the flower—the stem. Bright upholstery or elaborately carved back rests are quick to grab attention, but it’s the often overlooked legs of a chair that carry some of the most important clues about its origin. Here are three things we can learn about a chair from its legs:
1. When it was made.
Before chair-making became its own profession in the 1800s, chairs were made by joiners, craftsmen who also crafted doors, tables, and stairs. Joiners used a specific kind of joint–a mortise-and-tenon joint (see diagram at the link). Based on the type of joint, the type of wood, and other clues, we can tell this chair was made between 1675 and 1700 in England.
This Jacobean armchair has blind mortise-and-tenon joints, which means that the tenon does not go through the mortise member, in this case, the leg. Even though it’s hidden, we can tell this chair uses a mortise-and-tenon joint by the presence of two wooden pegs on each side. The joiner drove the wooden pegs through the leg and the hidden tenon to hold the joint together, and they have held this particular chair together for over 200 years!
2. Where it was made.
Sometimes, aspects of chair legs and feet can help us determine where they were made. Legs are particularly telling in American chairs made during the Rococo period (mid- to late-1700s). A popular style for chair feet during this period was the ball-and-claw motif. Craftsman in different cities along the East Coast used characteristic motifs in their ball-and-claw feet.
Chairs with ball-and-claw feet made in New York typically have their toes evenly spaced (at the 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions) around a spherical ball, like this example from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ball-and-claw chairs made in Boston usually have their side toes raked back, as seen on this example from the collection of Winterthur Museum.
Craftsman in Philadelphia, the epicenter of American Rococo style, carved slightly flattened, squat balls into their ball-and-claw feet. The shape of the ball on this armchair at DAM is closer to a tomato than a sphere.
3. How it was used.
Think about the chairs in your home or office. Most probably have four straight legs, but some might have wheels or a swivel mechanism. The base of the chair is designed for its intended use. Thomas Warren’s Centripetal Spring chair is an early example of an ergonomic chair, which means it is intended to provide comfort by responding to the body of the person sitting in the chair. This might seem obvious now, but in the nineteenth century it was a relatively new concept.
The eight springs under the seat allow it to rock slightly in response to the weight and position of the sitter. Thanks to the central bolt underneath, the seat rotates and is springy in all directions. The chair also can roll across the room on its four casters. This was one of the first American chairs designed with a cast iron frame and one of the first designs to take the comfort and movements of the sitter into consideration. As a precursor to the modern office chair, this chair allows the user to swivel, roll, and move freely while seated.
Be sure to visit Check Out These Stems! before it closes on October 11 and learn more about chairs from the ground up.