At Soane Britain’s chair making workshop in Dorset, craftsman Paul talks enthusiastically about his work. When he took up chair making, after more conventional joinery work, he wasn’t sure he would like it. Chairs are not straightforward – each style has very different components with specific shapes that must unite perfectly – but he soon came to love the challenge of chairs and the sense of satisfaction in problem solving. “It’s not just about boxes, it’s about making curves,’ he says, “We take planks of wood and turn them into something three-dimensional. It’s more creative.” As he talks through each step of making The Klismos Chair, one of Soane’s more complex designs, it’s clear the process must be approached thoughtfully and with finesse. Paul explains that there’s a certain touch required when making chairs, “You have to be gentle and not just fire things off.”
There are a remarkable number of designs in the Soane seating collection – currently just over 100 – inspired by the best styles, both aesthetically and ergonomically, from centuries of furniture design. One of the first chairs made by Soane, when Lulu and antique dealer Christopher Hodsall first started the business 20 years ago, was the Klismos Chair. Still in production today, it is based on one of the oldest known chairs in history. Ancient Greek paintings and sculpture from the 4thand 5th centuries BC depict figures seated on klismos chairs, their sweeping legs and tilted, curved backs creating a superbly elegant form. This captivating chair has been recreated numerous times during neoclassical design revivals across Europe and America, notably in the late 1700s and early 1800s, during the Art Deco era in the 1920s and the Mid-Century Modern period. Lulu especially likes the 1960s designs of British born architect and furniture designer T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, for their exceptional quality and craftsmanship.
Soane’s Klismos Chair is a faithful copy of an antique Swedish chair that Christopher bought at auction and that Lulu describes as “a miracle of eighteenth century chair making.” A particularly wonderful example of a klismos, its boldly faceted legs twist upwards to join an extravagantly curvaceous back. Numerous craftsmen were defeated in the challenge to recreate it, but Lulu eventually discovered a small Dorset workshop – now owned by Soane – that succeeded. Today, Paul is talking through the making of this incredible piece. He takes down The Klismos Chair ‘string’ from the rack (each design’s jigs and patterns are hung together on a loop of string) and explains the component parts, referring also to the workshop model, against which all measurements are checked. Paul highlights the angles in elements such as the legs and how these different planes must meet perfectly at the joints. The more closely the chair is considered, the more apparent the sophistication and detail of the design becomes.
The first step in production is to select the timber (usually oak for The Klismos Chair, though the last one he made was in ebonised beech), make a cutting list and then machine the correct lengths, widths and thicknesses of wood from which to shape all the parts. Paul makes the front legs and rail first, using a linisher – a sanding machine – to form shapes which are then trimmed in with a chisel. On the back legs the exaggerated ‘twist’ requires the use of a further hand tool, a spoke shave. This tool is known in the trade as ‘the devil’s bow tie,’ such is its reputation for being difficult to use. Paul says the key is to keep it very sharp and regularly tests it – on his arm hair! The tools are only part of the craftsmanship story: when working with natural materials a chair maker is always responding and adapting his movements to suit variations in the wood. Paul explains how he “battles with the grain,” finding its direction and working with it, rather than against it, for the best results.
The Quiver Klismos Chair draws inspiration from The Klismos Chair – it is more generously upholstered, yet still reveals parts of its beautifully crafted frame. The tapered Quiver Klismos legs are turned on a lathe using chisels and then sanded for a perfect finish. It’s fascinating to watch the shape emerge on the lathe. The addition of elegant brass sock castors presents a further challenge for Paul who explains that because traditionally cast products are never precisely the same, each leg must be be sanded repeatedly so it fits snugly inside the brass sock yet is perfectly flush at the join.
The Soane Klismos family has grown from the original Klismos Chair of 1997 to include: The Simplified Klismos Dining Chair, Bar Stool and Counter Height Stool; The Quiver Klismos Chair, The Swivel Quiver Klismos Chair, Simplified Quiver Klismos Chair and Quiver Klismos Stool and the klismos-influenced Shield Chair. It’s a wonderful collection of classic designs that are outstandingly well made using the combined skills of British chair makers and upholsterers. We delight in spotting Soane’s Klismos designs in some exceptional restaurant and retail spaces – interior designers value their strong looks, immense comfort and resilient build. Particularly striking are the emerald green leather Simplified Klismos Dining Chairs and Bar Stools at Cecconi’s in London and the brightly coloured Klismos Chairs at a shoe shop in New York.
The Heritage Crafts Association – an organisation that supports and promotes traditional crafts as part of the United Kingdom’s living heritage and of which HRH The Price of Wales is President – estimates that there are around 30 highly skilled chair makers at work in the country. At Soane, we are immensely proud to employ makers continuing this highly skilled craft. It takes Paul approximately 40 man hours simply to make the frame for a Klismos Chair (that is before time spent by other craftsmen finishing and upholstering it), but we believe the cost is an investment that is amply repaid in chairs that bring enduring pleasure. The Klismos Chair at Lulu’s home desk is one of the first Soane made – a 20-year-old chair made to a 200-year-old design based on a 2,000-year-old piece of furniture…a superb example of longevity.
See Soane’s Pinterest board ‘Klismos Designs’ here.
Top gallery: Soane Britain’s Simplified Klismos Dining Chairs and Simplified Klismos Bar Stools at Cecconi’s, London; Detail of Ancient Greek painting depicting a klismos chair; Soane Britain’s Simplified Klismos Dining Chairs at The Rosewood Hotel, London; Workshop models of Soane Britain’s Quiver Klismos Chair and Klismos Chair; Soane Britain’s Quiver Klismos Chairs at The Rosewood Hotel, London.