Design April 2001

The Ergonomic Rocking Chair

In handmade rocking chairs, and in mass-produced ones as well, beauty is as beauty does

When Mike Richter, the New York Rangers' All-Star goalie, had back problems a couple of years ago, he flew to Los Angeles to see a specialist. He also started spending more time in his handcrafted rocking chair, made by Robert Erickson, a woodworker in Nevada City, California. The chair, which Richter showed me recently, is a sculpture of soft walnut curves, with swooping ash back slats and dark-oak dowels set so smoothly into the arms as to seem a part of the original wood. The chair's elegant form suits its function: the seat curves beneath one's thighs, and the back slats gently press against the lumbar region as one rocks. How many objets d'art can provide a lower-back massage? Richter's back is much better now, and though he wouldn't give all the credit to his chair, he doesn't discount its effect entirely. "The chair gives some relief for that part of your back that takes the biggest beating in hockey," he told me. "I just love the thing."

Erickson makes "studio furniture"—pieces designed to be artistic as well as functional. In 1975, when Erickson was twenty-eight, he built—and immediately sold—his first rocking chair. Ever since, rockers have been his mainstay. Like any self-respecting studio-furniture artist, he built his shop himself, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and Erickson and five assistants make about a hundred pieces of furniture there each year. Half of these are rocking chairs, most tailored to the customer. "Building rocking chairs has been a fascinating experience," Erickson told me recently. "People are very intimately engaged with their rocking chairs, so all of a sudden I'm getting intimately engaged with them."

A quintessentially American object, the rocking chair has, surprisingly, been around only about as long as this country has. Records of rocking cradles made of hollowed-out logs date back about a thousand years, but apparently no one thought to apply the idea to furniture for adults until the eighteenth century. It is unknown who first bolted curved "skates" onto the legs of a regular chair, but such primitive rocking chairs first appeared in the American Colonies in the 1740s.

The revolutionary design caught on quickly, and rocking chairs soon came to symbolize the practical and inventive spirit of the new land. To the English they also represented the déclassé nature of the upstart colonists. One nineteenth-century woman visitor wrote of a group sitting "lazily in a species of rocking-chair,—which is found wherever Americans sit down,—cradling themselves backwards and forwards, with a lazy, lounging, sleeping air, that makes me long to make them get up and walk." Another Englishwoman wrote, "How this lazy and ungraceful indulgence ever became general, I cannot imagine; but the nation seems wedded to it."

Indeed, rocking chairs had by the nineteenth century become a fixture on Appalachian porches, in western ranch parlors, and in the homes of Presidents. John Adams's house in Quincy, Massachusetts, prominently displayed two rockers. The last chair Abraham Lincoln ever sat in was a well-worn cushioned rocker from the manager's office at Ford's Theater. Chairs in this upholstered Grecian style, with curved backs and scrolled arms, are now known as Lincoln rockers.

Other Presidents, including William McKinley, both Roosevelts, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, have been associated with rocking chairs, but none more so than John F. Kennedy. A doctor suggested that Kennedy use a rocking chair to ease back pain resulting from a war injury, and duplicates of the Appalachian oak rocker he bought soon graced the White House, Camp David, and all the Kennedy estates; the President even dragged one around the world on Air Force One.

Kennedy also inspired a renewed interest in rocking-chair design, notably on the part of an artisan named Sam Maloof. Maloof, who has been called the greatest woodworker in the world, and who was one of a handful of craftspeople who sparked the studio-furniture movement, was forty-five in 1961 and already a pre-eminent furniture designer in Los Angeles when a friend suggested that he create a rocking chair for the new President. Kennedy was assassinated before Maloof finished the project, but a decade later he developed the first major innovation in rocking-chair design in a century.

In the 1800s several now classic rocking-chair forms appeared, among them the spindle-back Windsor rocker; the Boston rocker, with its curved seat and arms and decorated crest; the Shaker rocking chair, with a slatted back and woven seat; and the platform rocker, which rocks or glides on a stationary base. For much of the twentieth century, however, the rocking chair received little attention from the design world. Then, in the early 1970s, Sam Maloof began to experiment. He designed long, elegant skis that curve inward at the back like an antelope's horns. To make them strong enough he used seven laminated strips of wood for each ski: the result is both visually striking and as hard as iron.

He had sold only a few chairs before he met a potential customer with a lower-back problem, Maloof told me recently. He took a piece of wood, held it against his own back, and curved it to fit, creating what has become his trademark ergonomic spindle. He lowered the seat to relax the angle of the sitter's legs; raised the arms, which encourages deeper breathing; and completed a design that has found its way into the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the White House, the Vice President's mansion, and President Jimmy Carter's office in Atlanta.

"Maloof took the rocker to a new plateau of expression," says Jonathan Fairbanks, an art consultant who was for many years the curator of American decorative arts at Boston's MFA. Jeremy Adamson, a curator at the Smithsonian, calls the chair "among the most comfortable ever devised—and a creature of rare beauty." At eighty-five, Maloof still builds chairs in a workshop next to his house, in the foothills of California's San Gabriel Mountains. If you have $20,000 to spend and don't mind waiting years, you can own a new Maloof rocker. This is a steal compared with the early Maloof (nonrocking) chair that went for $120,000 at auction last year.

Maloof's design has been copied by countless mundane furniture makers, and it has also inspired the work of younger artists. Among these is Erickson, who has added his own innovation: the flexible, or "floating," contoured back. For years Erickson used cold-laminated slats that had some give in them, to provide lumbar support and also adjust to the shape of each sitter. In 1996, however, he met an archery-bow maker and had "an epiphany"; soon he had developed a technique much like one that has long been used in making bows. He now takes three thin strips of wood and flips the middle one over to offset the grain and "counteract the natural forces of the wood." This and a coating of Teflon enhance the strength and flexibility of his curved back slats.

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