History of the Morris Chair

In the mid-1860s a carpenter in Sussex, England named Ephraim Colman had a brilliant idea, to make a chair with an adjustable back. The idea was sketched by Warrington Taylor, and adapted by Phillip Webb for a chair to be produced by William Morris and Company. Chairs have had a slow evolution, and the best chairs are important symbols as well as places to sit and relax. Think of a cross between a throne and a Barcalounger and the image of a good Morris chair should appear.

The chairs produced by Morris and Co. have a Victorian appearance, and don’t look so inviting to our modern eyes. The idea was there, but the execution was far too frilly and fancy; way too delicate to serve as the resting place for a king in his castle.

In the early 1900s, Gustav Stickley began producing his versions of Morris chairs, and I maintain that he perfected the form. Stickley was an admirer of Morris, and the first issue of Stickley’s magazine The Craftsman was an homage to Morris. Gustav Stickley manufactured several variations, the best known being the bow arm, the flat arm and the bent arm. These designs were widely imitated in the day, with varying degrees of success. Gustav’s brother Leopold produced a good chair that contained elements of two of Gus’s designs. One important difference between Gustav and his imitators is that the derivative chairs took visual clues, but made the chairs in a form that was easier to manufacture. In the Gus designs there are subtle angles that make the form more refined and appealing. This of course raises the degree of difficulty in building.

For today’s woodworker, building a Morris Chair is a “bucket list” project, one the kid’s and grandkids will likely fight over after you’re gone. While you’re still around, you’ll have a great place to sit that’s a testament to your skills. In the April issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, my story of building a reproduction of a Gustav Stickley No. 369 Morris chair is the cover project. We took the cover photos last week, and the issue will be available in a few weeks. I did my best to come as close to the original as I could. It won’t be a “Morris Chair Made Easy” article, or a “One of the Stickley’s Morris Chairs, It Must Have Been Gus” article. It’s a challenging project, but if you build one you’ll see that it’s worth the effort to do it right. It will become a piece of your history as well.

–Robert W. Lang

Click Here to read a blog entry about sizing mortises

Click Here to read a blog entry about laying out mortises on curved parts

Click Here to read a blog entry where I show off the through mortise in the bent arm

2 thoughts on “History of the Morris Chair

  1. John

    Nice little piece. It is amazing how sometimes I get blindsided by something I never thought I would learn about when I log into our blog. If you would have told me this morning that I would have learned about the Morris chair, I would have thought you were crazy. I’m glad you’re hear to teach us new things!

  2. Chris C

    Bob,

    I for one love the fact the Morris chair project
    is not watered down. I can’t tell you how many
    articles I have read that always tout simplified
    joinery, etc as a way to build a high boy in
    one afternoon.

    What happens is that after you start to get a little
    bit better, the simplified articles hold your
    development back.

    So I am looking forward to the more challenging version
    of the Morris chair. Besides, there is a whole section
    devoted to simpler projects. It is called "I Can Do That".

    Chris

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