In pursuit of the perfect chair

Brian Boggs made what some people called the perfect chair. A ladder-back with a woven hickory bark seat, it was beautiful, durable, lightweight, and, most important, comfortable no matter your body type. He named it the Berea Chair, after Berea, Kentucky, where he briefly went to college, had a family, honed his craft.

He’d innovated the backs and the legs, taking a 200-year-old design that farmers had made in barns and Shakers had made in simple wood shops and “he did something to the seat and a lot of something to the back and performed a simple trick that rotated the back legs,” says Gary Rogowski, who runs the Northwest Woodworking Studio, a furniture-making school in Portland, Oregon. Boggs tinkered with this chair until it was as beautiful and sturdy and comfortable as it could be, until it was the kind of chair that other chair makers, including Rogowski, bought for their own homes. When it was done, Boggs loved it. “It’s the best chair you can make!” he’d tell people at craft fairs. And plenty of others agreed.

(Brian Boggs Chairmakers/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

“In my judgment Brian developed a chair that is in some overall way the finest chair I’ve come upon,” says Peter Korn, director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine, and a habitually tough critic. “It’s comfortable, durable, beautiful, light weight. From a woodworker’s point of view, it makes incredibly good use of wood as a material to get the most out of it in terms of natural properties of strength.”

Over time, Boggs’ muscle memory could turn out one of these chairs in 10 hours flat. To accomplish this, he’d even created a collection of his own tools. He modified a curved spokeshave to weigh just right in the hand, which sped the shaping of the chair’s legs and spindles. He’d also redesigned a shave horse — a common tool whose design has remained basically the same for centuries — so that it adapted to any artisan’s body, thereby alleviating his own aching back. For his first 300 chairs he hadn’t plugged in a power tool. When he finally got an electric router, he turned it on, then promptly put it back in the box. “It seemed like someone screaming at me,” he says.

But because he’s Brian Boggs, he took the router out again, curious about what he could do with it — what designs and efficiencies he could create, and what chairs he could make if he could accept a newer technology. He also redesigned the router over and over until it could create the locking tapered joints that opened up the household chair to a world of revolutionary possibilities. “It’s prestidigitation, almost like magic,” says Rogowski, a discriminating critic in his own right. “You’re going ‘What the hell is that? Who comes up with that?,’ because that’s crazy stuff. He just blows me away, and he just continues to do it.”

But then Boggs was done. In the spring of 2018, he quit making the Berea chair. “I knew in my gut that I was overdue for the next step,” he says. “It’s an ancient idea of a chair design. And they’re so good. But I can’t fix that form, so I learned how to make a much, much better chair.”

The rewards of risk

At this point, Boggs hadn’t made any improvements in his Berea chair since he splayed the legs back in 2000. He was tired of being restricted by a small set of tools, a log of wood, and some hickory bark. “Each addition of a tool,” he says, “added a color to my palate or a degree to my bandwidth in thinking.” Now he wanted to combine his skills, his knowledge of wood, and his new techniques to create something even better.

Besides, the Berea chair was bugging him. The seat had no specific shape. The rationales behind the time-honored way of making it had less to do with function and durability and more with the technological limitations of the time. “Those chairs evolved out of a very primitive barn, a lathe, a chisel, and very little else,” he says. “And access to trees. That’s beautiful and I love that, but it’s very limiting. I had to leave it. It seems in some ways less genuine every year to continue making this chair. It was who I was, not who I am.”

There was also a limit on how much money Boggs could make on a peasant chair, and he wanted to expand from vow-of-poverty chair-making to building a business. By this time, Boggs had moved back to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, and married his second wife — Melanie Boggs, his now-business partner. They soon opened a 10,000-square-foot shop, called Brian Boggs Chairmakers, on the edge of Asheville’s River Arts District. Here, looking out over the Blue Ridge Mountains, 11 employees (including the Boggses) turn out approximately 200 pieces a year.

In 2018, Boggs took a risk. He told the 30 customers on his waiting list that he was going to create a new chair, a better chair, and they trusted him. They waited. He thought it would take three months; it took 24. For two years, Boggs moved lines and shapes and made scale models and tried options and wasted materials, his business struggling. He could see the curves he wanted, the back. Those answers were straightforward, he says, but they weren’t easy to create. And the perfect seat remained a challenge.

The power of a pencil

Boggs is intense. He’ll admit it, and his former employees will, too. The level of precision he demands is such that if a human hair can slide into a joint, it’s too loose. He talks in fully thought-out paragraphs that describe, in detail, how a tree’s growth rings and rays and pores work in concert to make the strongest leg, the sturdiest joint. The classic system of mortis and tenon — the hole-and-peg method that allows woodworkers to attach furniture parts without nails or screws, and that has survived longer than this nation — was not good enough for Boggs. Among other things, it squishes all the glue to the bottom of the hole. So Boggs tried out a tapered tenon, and found that the taper allows the tenon to slide almost all the way in before it tightens into the mortis. This keeps all of the joint’s surfaces coated with glue; it also helped Boggs rethink how a chair can be made.

Unlike most furniture designers, who use CAD (computer-assisted design) programs to create their products, when Boggs set out to re-invent the chair he started with pencil and paper. “It’s like talking to myself,” he says. “It’s an invitation for ideas to come in.” Plus, Boggs feared that a CAD program would drown him in a learning a process — without taking into account his intimate knowledge of wood. He wanted to tinker with the wood itself; make actual 3D models that he could hold in his hands, turn this way and that, examine from every direction. It’s in the quiet of that tinkering that he had his ah-ha! moments.

“I don’t think the ideas that are expressed in my chair designs are ones I’ve generated,” he says. “They’re ones I’ve been gifted. Really good ideas come to those who are honestly asking for them and open to receiving them. I think we’re in a bath of ideas all of the time, it’s like the water a fish is in. The fish doesn’t know it’s there. They’re not thinking about the water, they just know how to move in it. I hold a belief that in this infinite universe we swim around in, there is truly an infinite number of ideas and an infinite number of ways to do things. As soon as you think it’s all been done, you’re done. If you think there are no more ideas to play with, you’ve stopped asking them to visit you.”

In Boggs’ shop, every tool is constantly evaluated and re-jiggered to be more efficient, more comfortable to use. Most have been modified to meet Boggs’ unusually exacting standards. | (Michael Oppenheim/Courtesy Craftsmanship Quarterly)

Craftsmanship as storytelling

Boggs was in second grade in Weaverville, just north of Asheville, when his teacher gave the students a pile of triangles and circles and told them to create a picture. His so impressed her that she told his mom to enroll him in art classes. Within the first year he moved from the kids’ classes to the adults. “The kids’ classes were for entertainment, not teaching art skills,” he says, “and I was ready for skills.”

He was 8. Over the following years he toyed with pottery, then took up drawing and oil painting, but the two-dimensional format didn’t work for him. “I had only been trained to represent what I was seeing, not tell a story or conceive something that isn’t,” he says. “I couldn’t bring something into existence, and I got extremely frustrated with my ability to feel something but not paint it.”

Soon after, Boggs stumbled across “The Fine Art of Cabinet Making,” by James Krenov, the mid-20th-century woodworker credited with helping to revive the art of handmade furniture, and the clean, natural aesthetic he championed. The book cracked him open. He’d never seen furniture as art. A chair was a place to sit, a cabinet a place to store socks. He started playing with some simple hand-planes, trying to feel what it was like to create art using wood. Then he found “Make a Chair from a Tree,” by John Alexander (who later transitioned to become Jennie Alexander). Where Krenov used a full woodworking shop, Alexander had a sledgehammer and a small box of hand tools; Alexander would hike out into the woods, cut down an oak or a maple, and turn it into a chair.

By the time Boggs was in his early 20s he had followed a girlfriend to Berea College in Kentucky, where he dropped out after a year. Boggs knew what he wanted to do and he didn’t need a college degree to do it. He talked with woodworkers, read what he could find, made a lot of mistakes. At first, he didn’t have a chisel, let alone a spokeshave; he carved with a sharpened screwdriver and made holes with an old hand-drill. Boggs’ experimentation, along with the books and his conversations, shaped how he viewed wood: as a bundle of fibers that can be pulled apart and put back together in a different shape. “If you’ll look at any of my chairs, and let your eye take a drive down the curve,” he says, “you’ll see that the grain follows that curve almost exactly, in a very specific orientation.”

For the complete version of this story, please go to Craftsmanship Quarterly.

Craftsmanship Quarterly is published by The Craftsmanship Initiative, which highlights artisans and innovators who are working to create a world built to last. Subscriptions and updates via email are free to anyone who signs up for the magazine’s newsletters.

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