Monday, January 9, 2012

The wonderful campaign chair.

Well known US woodworking identity Christopher Schwarz has recently been researching the Campaign Chair. Reading his recent blog post brought back warm memories of my own experiences with this interesting chair.
Way back in 1988, a customer approached me with a chair he said had been in his family for about a hundred years. He wanted another to match. It was a campaign chair, made of 10 wooden components: 4 legs, 4 rails, and 2 pivoting backrest supports. A slung canvas seat, leather straps with buckles and a couple of bolts with wing nuts completed the chair. This clever chair works on tapered mortise and tenon joints giving it amazing flexibility, and the ability to sit with four feet on the ground on any terrain. Perfect for the Empire's military officers as they expanded and enforced the Empire across the globe. Campaign Furniture was created to enable these travellers to take the comforts of their English homes with them. It was portable furniture, which could be folded or broken down - robust and readily assembled at the next camp. The quality of the furniture usually reflected the station of the officer. Practical symbols of status and of home. This furniture also became useful for hunting safaris in Africa, as wealthy people from Europe and North America took to the plains of Africa with this early version of "adventure tourism". None of the home comforts were spared, even when living under canvas. Safari outfitters did a roaring trade in campaign furniture.

When I made that first chair for my customer, I fell in love with it. So I made a few more. Over the next decade I made many more and it evolved as we went - usually driven by customer requests.

Early examples of the first campaign chairs I'd made, copying the original. Circa 1989.
I put some of these early chairs in a couple of furniture galleries in the forested South West of Western Australia near where I was living and trading, and they proved popular. Being for sale in tourist destinations, these chairs went all over Australia and the world with their new owners. I offered a range of colours in the canvas, and most of the woodwork was made from Jarrah (Eucalyptus Marginata).   With growing exposure to the public, I was soon made aware that these chairs or versions of them had an interesting Western Australian connection. The Perth based furniture manufacturing company Joyce had once made a very similar chair before WWII.

An advertisement, from around 1937, for the Trojan Roorkie chair made by Joyce in Perth.
Having seen a copy of the Joyce advert for the chair around 1937, I was now intrigued. The style of the turnings was almost identical to the chairs I had been making based on the one brought to me by my original customer. So was that chair I copied actually a Trojan Roorkie chair, or was it really 100 years old? To this day I do not know, but this unresolved question did not change my love of this wonderful chair, which continued to evolve in both design and production techniques.

In about 1989, a new customer told me that they had some campaign chairs made for them in the 1970's which were leather rather than canvas. They offered me the opportunity to have a look, which I keenly took up. The leather was just about dripping off the chairs, had moulded to the shape of the bodies which regularly sat in them - and they were sooo luxuriously comfortable. I was hooked! I had to make some...

Having been a leather worker in the mid to late 70's, the leather working side of the new design didn't phase me at all. I had dug out my old tools from storage to do the arms of the canvas chairs, so all I needed was the hides. The leather used was double shoulders of cow hide, about 3.2 - 4.0mm thick. In those days the only remaining tannery in Western Australia was WA Tanners and Fellmongers, in Russell Street Fremantle. I was soon buying lots of hides and making the leather components. The early versions of the leather campaign chairs I made were sewn. Not having a heavy duty sewing machine with a walking foot, I paid someone else to do that work. These days we call it "outsourcing". Seeking to have more control over the quality and aiming to reduce the production and freight costs, I decided to fix the leather myself using rivets rather than sewing. From that point on, and for the next 10 years, all the chairs were riveted. A very smart move. It also provided pocketmoney for 3 of my kids who, like me, all pounded thousands of rivets. All part of their rich teenage experience, eh?

The leather campaign chairs were now the ones which were selling, despite being more than twice the price of the canvas model. So I stopped making the canvas version. It was leather or nothing from here on. Meanwhile we had added another component to the chair. The conventional campaign chair has a rail between the front legs which tends to put pressure under the thighs. In order to make the leather chairs even more comfortable, we found that a wide leather strap running under the seat behind the front rail made a huge difference to the comfort. It also helped stop the user from sliding forward on the leather. It was a winner of a design modification. All the leather chairs we made had these wide under-straps as standard, as can be seen in the picture below.
A marketing brochure picture of our leather version chair, around 1990.
 It's been about 12-15 years since I last made a campaign chair.  Life had moved on. I had stepped out of the woodworking industry for a while, and we had moved from the country to the city. Although again working as a professional woodworker for the last few years, I don't play the gallery /exhibition circuit any more.
However, the chair was never forgotten. I still have the jigs and gadgetry created for making the chairs in small production runs. We also have in our lounge room one of the very first leather versions that we made, a stitched model.
I like to sit on it. The leather squeaks and talks to you. Small kids like to play with the chair when they discover that they can play aeroplanes as they lie on the backrest and try to find the balance point with their aims outstretched. It's a nice drinking chair. My drink sits nicely on the floor beside me as I lean back in the chair, with the drink in easy reach at all times. It is also a living reminder of a significant time in our lives when we had the pleasure of bringing up our kids in a country town - in a community, living in a wonderful forested coastal environment.

Stained, stretched, used, abused and very comfy. Our early model leather campaign chair.
Yes, it 's also good chair for chewing the fat and being thankful for life's journey, too - made all the richer by great pieces of furniture with a great story behind them, and the interweaving of many people along the way.


  1. Beautiful chairs Greg. I'll have to add those to my "to-it" list. Thanks much for sharing.

    Dave Brown

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