Brian Boggs: The Chairmaker Evolves

From journeyman to elder, a craftsman redefines his role.

By Matthew Teague
Pages 38-44

The story of Brian Boggs’ first foray into building chairs has become almost mythical among furniture makers: Then a struggling artist in his early 20s who picked tobacco in the fall and did occasional carpentry, Brian stumbled across a copy of John D. Alexander’s “Make a Chair from a Tree.” Having little money for tools, Brian sharpened the end of a screwdriver to function as a chisel and set about building his first stool, and soon after he built his first chair – both using exactly the same processes Alexander taught.

Almost 30 years later, walking through the door of his current shop and gallery, 4,000 square feet at Biltmore Village in Asheville, N.C., those humble beginnings could seem a distant memory. It’s quite the opposite. The three-slat ladder-back, perhaps Brian’s most iconic design, is prominently placed and shows a clear but refined lineage to that first greenwood, Appalachian ladderback design. The other chairs and furniture in the room – a full line of outdoor seating, a heavily sculptural musician’s chair, a six-slat rocker, a couple of dining tables, a headboard and a few others – have veered drastically in form from Brian’s early chairs, but even at a glance something ties them all together. Perhaps it’s the consistency of the lines in the backs of Brian’s chairs, the attention to detail in the joinery or the hand-textured surfaces that adorn many of the pieces. Whatever it is, Brian’s designs long ago became his own, both structurally and aesthetically. Taking a seat in a quartersawn oak outdoor chair that has recently gone into production, I’m reminded that not only are Brian’s chairs stunning works of art, they also are arguably the most comfortable wooden chairs ever made.

Brian greets me with his big smile and a cup of coffee. He clasps his hands over his head, stretches and lets out a groan. This morning Brian is just two days back from Honduras, where he investigated a source for bark used to weave chair seats (hickory bark is becoming harder to get), and he has had little sleep. Tired or not, he’s on task and characteristically thoughtful as we take a seat in his gallery to discuss everything from how he got started in the craft to his theories on construction and design, what it means to be an artist and how that notion fits into the Boggs’ Collective, the new venture in which he and his wife and business partner, Melanie Moeller Boggs, collaborate with other makers to both promote and support their work. It is at once an active and reflective time in Brian’s career, and he’s very conscious of the ramifications of the decisions he makes. “I’m not an old man,” Brian, now 53, says, “but certainly in this arena I’m becoming more of an elder than a journeyman. So now, what’s my goal? What’s my role in this thing?”

 

Video: Find Brian Boggs’ DVDs, “Hickory Bark from Tree to Chair: Weaving Hickory Bark Seats,” and “Drawknives, Spokeshaves and Travishers: A Chairmaker’s Tool Kit.”
Blog: Read an excerpt from the interview for this article in which Brian Boggs discusses his design theory and methods.
Web Site: Read Brian Boggs’ article, “The Myth of Original Design,” from the December 2011 issue, #194.

From the November 2012 issue #200
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