By Christopher Schwarz
Furniture historians tend to paint the Arts & Crafts movement as a turning point for modern furniture design – where style turned its back on the ornate excesses of the Victorians to embrace the simple lines of what was to become the more utilitarian furniture of the 20th century.
I won’t dispute that assessment, but it neglects a long-overlooked piece of furniture: the Roorkhee chair. Named after the British headquarters of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers in India, the Roorkhee chair was developed in the final years of the 19th century as the British military become more mobile following humiliations it suffered in South Africa during the Boer Wars (1880-81 and 1899-1902).
Weighing less than 13 pounds, the Roorkhee chair breaks down quickly, takes up little space and is shockingly comfortable. Because it has no fixed joinery, the legs and stretchers move to accommodate uneven terrain and any sitter.
It was a mainstay of the British army and navy up until World War II, according to Nicholas A. Brawer’s book “British Campaign Furniture” (Abrams). And it also appears as a popular item for campers, adventurers and those on safari.
While all that is quite interesting, what is more fascinating is how the work-a-day Roorkhee chair directly influenced generations of modern furniture designers. Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” chair (1925), Le Corbusier’s “Basculant” chair (1928), Wilhelm Bofinger’s “Farmer Chair” (1966) and Vico Magistretti’s “Armchair 905” (1964) all owe a tremendous debt to the Roorkhee chair.
This summer I built a run of these chairs for customers and for a book I’m writing about campaign-style furniture, and I selected one of the simpler forms of the Roorkhee to reproduce. To build it you need only 10 sticks of wood, a handful of tools and some upholstery. You can easily get the upholstery made in canvas by anyone with a sewing machine, or you can take the route I did and use cowhide, which is surprisingly simple work. Either material is historically correct.
Begin with the Legs
The 13⁄4″-square legs are beefier than modern examples of Roorkhee chairs, so resist the urge to skimp on material. The historical examples I’ve examined are made using mahogany or oak, so you can take the high road or the low one, depending on your budget.
Begin by shaping the legs. The cylinder at the top of each leg and the ankle at the floor are both 11⁄4″ in diameter. So if you aren’t confident in your lathe skills, you can waste away some of the material by using a dado stack in your table saw before chucking the work up between centers in your lathe.
Turn the round sections of the leg down to shape using a roughing gouge. Get the cylinder and ankle to size using a parting tool and skew. Use a skew to finish up the taper on the legs and the transitions, and a spindle gouge to create the 3⁄4″-tall astragal that makes the foot. (Just FYI, I turned these legs with one tool from Easy Wood Tools. The full-size Easy Rougher will do all the operations on these legs with ease.)
Blog: See how the tapered tenons and conical mortises are cut.
Blog: Learn how to age the steel hardware for this piece.
On the Web: Read all of the author’s articles about campaign-style furniture.
In Our Store: “Chairmaking Simplified,” by Kerry Pierce.
From the October 2012 issue #199
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