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.

Maloof used his own body as a universal measure and achieved spectacular results, but Erickson gives his customers fittings, measuring various physical dimensions and observing each person's preferred "angle of repose." The depth and height of the seat, the height and width of the arms, the back shape, and the "mouth" of the chair—the angle between the seat and the back—all affect comfort. "Even half an inch," Erickson told me, "can make a real difference." His handiwork has made its way into the Smithsonian, among other museums, and into the homes of people willing to pay $5,000 for a supremely comfortable work of art.

The Shakers, a religious sect that valued asceticism and simplicity, raised furniture making to an art form of their own in the nineteenth century. In a handsome riverside studio next to a covered bridge in West Cornwall, Connecticut, Ian Ingersoll keeps their tradition alive. In the early 1970s Ingersoll was looking for inspiration to start his career and found it close to home, in the Shaker furniture of upstate New York and western New England. Thinking of the work as a form of apprenticeship, he put out word in the antiques world that he was willing to repair Shaker chairs. Over twelve years he learned firsthand how the Shakers gradually found the simplest and lightest design that would hold up under heavy use. It was Brother Robert Wagan, in the 1860s, who designed the ultimate Shaker chair—what Ingersoll calls "the best-designed rocking chair that has ever been made, in terms of comfort and ability to withstand human use." Today Ingersoll designs his own contemporary furniture but also continues to reproduce that Wagan chair, exactly. "I wanted to make a state-of-the-art rocking chair," he says, "and it doesn't seem reasonable to make any changes to something that's already been done perfectly."

When Ingersoll started out, a Shaker original could be bought for $100, cheaper than he could make a chair. But then Shaker artistry was "discovered," and during the 1980s prices shot up to the vicinity of $2,500. Suddenly Ingersoll was able to sell his replicas for far less than the cost of originals. As his reputation grew, his prices rose, and today an Ingersoll-Wagan rocker costs $800—but that's still a fraction of the price of an original. And the replication is so fine that Ingersoll has found his own chairs being auctioned off as Shaker originals.

As Edward Cooke, a professor of American decorative arts at Yale, impressed upon me, however, fashioning a fine rocking chair doesn't necessarily mean making it out of wood. In a cavernous warehouse studio on the northwest side of Philadelphia, Peter Handler makes rocking chairs and other furniture out of anodized aluminum. After working as a jeweler for a decade, Handler turned to furniture making in the early 1980s. "I knew I wanted to create work that looks like where we're going rather than where we've been," he says, "but while I had the idea, I had no image. I spent a year or two knocking my head against the wall, taking wrong turns." Then he tried machining and discovered anodizing, an electrochemical process that builds a hard, dyeable oxide coating on the surface of metal. "Suddenly," he says, "I had a vocabulary that I could speak with, and develop."

Handler built tables, sofas, armchairs, and dining-room chairs. The chairs were comfortably and colorfully upholstered, and everything bore his trademark: a brightly colored futuristic metal frame. Then, a couple of years ago, he came across a Victorian platform rocker at an antiques store. "It had a spring, an adjustable back angle, and a footrest that came out: it was essentially a Victorian Barcalounger," he told me. Handler became fascinated with platform rockers and decided to create one. "The question was, how do I take this design and make it into my own twenty-first-century platform rocker?"

The answer is here, in the form of a $4,500 extraordinarily comfortable rocker that looks like a friendly insect lit by a rainbow. The frame is bright red, purple, blue, and yellow, with soft cushioned upholstery. And the chair is simple and compact—a minimalist response to the antique piece it is based on.

The craftsmen mentioned so far typically make their chairs to order, and such care and expertise are expensive. Of course, relatively cheap mass-produced rocking chairs have long been available too. The first widely manufactured rocking chair was probably the Boston rocker, which came along in the 1820s. Later in that century the Shakers built a furniture factory in Mount Lebanon, New York, and turned out rockers in eight standardized sizes, ranging in price from $3.00 to $8.00. The chairs were even sold in a Chicago department store.

Today you can buy contemporary variations on the Boston, Shaker, and Appalachian "settin'" rockers for $200 or less at any number of furniture stores. For greater comfort but less aesthetic presence, there's the Dutailier Glider Chair ($250-$370), particularly popular with nursing mothers. And at the upper end of mass-produced ergonomic therapy, BackSaver's FlexRock platform rocker can be had for $995. There's probably nothing better for your back, but although the FlexRock's creator, Nathaniel Smith, who studied design in Denmark, hopes his chair has a pleasing look, he's the first to admit that "it's a long way from art."

Perhaps the highest nexus of art and ergonomics is the Erickson chair. Mike Richter, not only an NHL star but also a new father, says his chair "really cradles" him: "The angle and contours of the chair are such that it carries you like you'd carry an infant in your hands." The imagery is appropriate, because rockers not only reinvigorate us by promoting blood flow and keeping pressure off any one point in the back but also soothe us simply by rocking. Erickson speaks of "the magic of rocking, of rhythmic movement, like for babies," and Handler of "the almost self-hypnotic effect of the rocking chair." Bruce Chatwin wrote in The Songlines (1987) of experiments demonstrating that an automatic cradle, rocking at a rate of at least fifty cycles a minute, silences a crying baby. (Parents today carry out similar experiments for $99.99.) He went on to theorize that this reflects an atavistic yearning for humankind's nomadic beginnings on the African savannah.

This may be a bit much to claim, but perhaps as we sit in rocking chairs, comforting our children or reading, we are transporting ourselves at least back to our own pendular infancy. We require more lumbar support now, but the need to rock remains.