Exploring the Roorkhee Chair
I’m gearing up to build a run of Roorkhee Chairs for some customers and (fingers crossed) this magazine. But before I can even order the wood I had to do something I thought I’d never do again: Buy a piece of commercial furniture.
The Roorkhee Chair is a seminal piece of British campaign furniture and was popular with British officers from 1898 to World War I, according to Nicholas Brawer’s book on campaign furniture. Named in honor of the headquarters of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers in Roorkhee, India, the chair is lightweight at about 10 lbs., breaks down quickly and is allegedly quite comfortable.
The Roorkhee Chair influenced several modernists’ designs, including Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier and Kaare Klint.
I’m attracted to the chair’s simplicity of construction – it can be made with a lathe and a drill press – and its good looks. I’ve never been on a safari, but I think this is the chair I’d bring along.
After looking at photographs of several dozen chairs I discovered a lot of variability in the way the seat sloped and the height of the arms. After building a fair number of chairs, I can also tell you that building a chair from a photograph is asking for a black eye – or a sore bottom.
So I decided to purchase a commercial chair as a starting point for my design. I also wanted to get a close look at the way the upholstery was sewn and strung because I need to get my head wrapped around that system as well.
So I ordered an inexpensive Roorkhee copy and it arrived in the mail today. When I saw it in the catalog there were lots of things I didn’t like about it. The turnings weren’t crisp or in the same shape as historical examples and the upholstery is black leather (I plan to do canvas). But the seat angles looked right to me compared to some other commercial versions.
The chair arrived in a lightweight box this morning and I spent several hours assembling it and taking notes.
The assembly part was amusing. The original chair breaks down into four legs, four stretchers and a back piece. And all the joinery is through-tenons. Not so with this chair. Though it looks like it knocks down like the old chairs, it doesn’t. The stretchers on the side of the chair are glued into the front and back legs. Strike 1.
The wood is some nameless tropical that is dyed to look like mahogany. Plus they have added a bunch of fake worm holes and glazed or toned the feet to make it look aged. They didn’t do a terrible job, but the end effect makes it look fake to anyone who has seen real worm holes and dirty legs. Strike 2.
After lacing and unlacing the corset that controls the seat about five times, I concluded that I never want to be a dominatrix. I eventually got the seat so it was tight on the chair, yet yielding. A simple slip knot (glad I’m not a sailor, too) held the lacing in place.
Then came time to sit in it; I wasn’t expecting much.
It was shockingly comfortable. It might even be more comfortable than my Morris chair – I’ll need to do some side-by-side buttock comparison testing. So I spent the next hour or so measuring the chair and picking apart the elements that make the chair so sitable.
First detail: The front rail of the seat is low at 15”. Most chairs I make, even for lounging, are slightly taller than that. Second detail: The back rail is only 12” off the ground. That means the seat drops 3” from front to back, which is quite a lot.
Add to that a deep seat at 18”, the fact that the arms are a perfect 9” above the seat (and slanted as well), and the clever tilting back and I now understand what makes this chair tick.
I am now ready to draw my own version of the chair, which will be based closely on historical examples, unlike this commercial chair. But I do begrudgingly acknowledge that the designer of this commercial chair really got the numbers right.
— Christopher Schwarz