by Christopher Schwarz
Of all the unusual twists and turns in the life of Jennie (formerly John) Alexander, surely the most incredible has been to be pronounced dead in the media while being very much alive.
When her second woodworking book was released, “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” (Lost Art Press), some reviewers said she was deceased; others assumed “Jennie” was John’s widow.
So let’s set that fact aside – John is now Jennie – because it has nothing to do with Alexander’s incredible woodworking career, the iconic chair she designed or her profound influence on woodworking during the last 37 years.
Alexander’s first book, “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Taunton Press and later Astragal Press), was the 1978 lightning bolt that ignited the woodworking passions of thousands of woodworkers and brought “green woodworking” out of the forest and into the modern workshop. Even after the book went out of print, the chair continued to inspire through a DVD of the same name published by ALP Productions.
The chair that is featured in the book and DVD is both old and new. While it is based on traditional ladderbacks and deep-lignin science, Alexander’s chair is not tied to a particular period or style. Its parts are shaved instead of turned. It looks at home in a log cabin or an urban loft. It weighs almost nothing but is as strong as a suspension bridge. And it is definitely the most comfortable all-wood chair I have ever sat in.
There is something about the back that is simply incredible. The two slats hit you in the right place, and the back legs are curved in a way that pleases your eye and your muscular system.
As soon as I sat in one of her chairs, I knew I had to make one.
I’m not alone. Thousands of chairmakers have been smitten with the design. And many of them, such as chairmaker Brian Boggs, went on to become professionals. So if you are one of the tens of thousands of people who now build chairs from green wood or carve spoons or bowls, you are almost certainly part of the lineage that began – in part – with a Baltimore boy who was handy around the house.
From the April 2015 issue, #217