Appendix 2: Morris Chair as Woodworker's Icon

This webpage refers to several documents and reprints the images of several versions of the Morris chair -- from the 1860s to the early 2000s -- as a piece of furniture.

As you read this, keep in mind the following: at the turn of the 20th century, electrification was limited, probably the only form of electricity available being " direct current". (Only later, ca 1916, did cities begin to be wired for Alternating Current, and -- not until the 1920s -- did electrification become widespread in urban areas. For rural areas, electrification did not get under way until the 1930s)

The Design of the Modern Morris Chair

Treasured for its straightforward functionality, its name comes from the alleged father of the Arts and Crafts movement, the 19th century philosopher and designer, William Morris.

morris chair pm 1910

lamont warner's design for morris chair and settee, the craftsman, 1901

The design of Lamont Warner, Gustav Stickley's version of the Morris chair appears in America in 1901. Only sketchy details about Warner survive. Around September, 1900, then twenty-four years old, Warner went to work for Stickley.

By the end of 1901, significantly, the designs for Stickley's furniture take a radical departure -- Stickley's firm adopts a so-called "constructive style", which dates back to the neo-Gothic architect-designer, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1802-1852) -- an event flashily illustrated in the first issue of The Craftsman, October, 1901, on page 49.

Taken together, these are events which argue that Warner's first assignment is to create designs in the rectilinear structural mode -- replete with the revealed construction elements, exposed tenons and corbels, and wide, flat spindles -- that to this day continue as a hallmark of Stickley's Arts and Crafts styling. But what is vexing today about these events is that the "smoking gun evidence" that ties Warner to these designs is sketchy, at best, leaving some of the details in a sort of netherland of specualtion. Strangely, Warner's name is not attached to the design, nor is his authorship disclosed later, a situation that is perplexing, because only by a process of elimination can we attach his name to these designs

About 1906 Warner left the employ of Stickley's for an appointment in the Art Department at Columbia University. For the short-lived magazine, Style 1900, the biographer of Gustav Stickley, David Cathers, wrote two short articles on "The Craftsman Designs of Lamont Warner", and includes a brief section on Warner, pages 215-216, in the major 2003 Phaidon Press bio of Stickley, Gustav Stickley.

(For additional info on Stickely , check this entry on Wickipedia .; the best Web-based bibliography of Arts and Crafts literature that I have encountered is this one, on the London-based Victoria and Albert Musuem website. Parenthetically, the V and A mounted in 2005 what the musuem claimed was the world's largest exhibit of Arts and Crafts artifacts ever assembled in one location. I saw the exhibit in May 2005, and was impressed, although the fact that I couldn't photograph any exhibit was a disappointment.

As Barbara Mayer notes in her In the Arts and Crafts Style (1993), p. 86,

Owning a Morris chair came as close as many Americans ever got to participating in this aesthetic movement.

About the project, the Morris -- or, sometimes, Stickley -- chair, evidence suggests that by the very early 1900s, this design has captured the imagination of many of the American middle class.

Evolution of the Design of the Morris Chair

label for source code

The first "Morris" chair is marketed in Britain, from about 1866, by Morris' own company. Evidently this design is widely copied on the European continent and in America. As the picture shows, it is quite different than its later, American cousin, Warner's 1901 design for Stickley. This "Morris chair" is the design an old carpenter at Hurstmonceaux, Sussex by name Ephraim Colman. Morris & Co Armchair, 1885-90. See story about this by Elizbeth Aslin, below.

From Elizabeth Aslin -- writing in 1962:--


It is strange that while two of the most popular Victorian chairs bear his name and so much furniture is attributed to him, it is almost certain that William Morris never designed any furniture. His own interest and skill was in the design of flat pattern and the famous Morris chair is basically a rural type found in Sussex and later manufactured and popularized by Morris and Company, as was the equally popular upholstered adjustable chair The exact date of the discovery of the Sussex chair is not certain though it was before 1865, but a sketch of the adjustable chair is known, dated 1866.

1866 drawing of original 'morris chair'

The sketch, by Warrington Taylor the manager of the firm, was sent to Philip Webb, annotated as a

"back and seat made with bars across to put cushions on, moving on a hinge, a chair model of which I saw with an old carpenter at Hurstmonceaux, Sussex by name Ephraim Colman...".

The concept of the design was "in the air" though, as these 1830s images of "easy chairs" designed in Berlin by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) show lines that suggest a style that, with variations in designs by others, morph into the "Morris chair", and around 1900, the Stickley Morris chair, designed by Lamont Warner.
By following much of the Movement's worldview in Britain, Stickley, in his personal view, is reacting to the material excesses of the Victorian age. For Stickley, as quoted by John Crosby Freeman, in The Forgotten Rebel: Gustav Stickley and His Craftsman Mission Furniture (Watkins Glen, New York: Century House, 1966), p. 18
schinkel_easy_chair_1830.jpg schinkel_easy_chair_1830b.jpg godwin easy chair 1869 godwin easy chair 1876 label for source code label for source code
The colored images are chairs designed by Edwward William Godwin in the late 1860s and 1870s. The "black-and-white" images are chairs in the catalog of the London-based furniture outlet, Liberty Furnishing and Decoration Studio, in the early 1900s.

In 1882, Morris declares

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

This phrase is often repeated, in the late 19th-century, the early 20th-century, eventoday.

In 1903, as an indicator of the chair's popularity, the New York Times features an article (May 17, 1903. pg. SM10) entitled, "Mr Homebody's Morris Chair," with the subtitle, "It was a beautiful Morris chair and a most agreeable birthday surprise to Mr. Homebody."

In other words, at its introduction to America, the chair is judged a masculine chair, to be much cherished by a man as a gift that is considered beautiful.

At the beginning of the 20th-century America, Stickley builds and promotes an industry comprising simple, sturdily-built homes --"the Craftsman Home" -- homes that he visualizes being furnished with his Arts and Crafts furniture, furniture he adapts for America from the designs generated by the aesthetic philosophy of Ruskin and Morris.

The age of leisure and daintiness, with its slight and delicate belongings, has passed; this is a generation of straightforward utilitarianism, which is well represented by the strong-fibered and sturdy oak.

As Debra Hegstrom argues in an online article,

Stickley's words carry masculine/feminine associations; Stickley considered Victorian houses and interiors to be "feminine", while his Craftsman (also called Mission , or Arts and Crafts) homes and furnishings were "masculine" in nature. In effect, Stickley's philosophy articulates cultural implications, implications with "an impact upon social modes of interaction"; moreover, Stickley's target audience was "the middle class..., as the definers and keepers of moral rectitude."

The vehicles for Stickley's program of defining this shift in lifestyle for America 's family and community life was his The Craftsman magazine and catalogs.

From "Those Were the Days" web-based archive:

1905 - Editor William Bok of the Ladies' Home Journal called the Morris chair, which sold for $31.00, "a hideous piece of furniture." The (very popular) Morris chair was named after William Morris, whose Morris & Company produced home furnishings. The chair had an adjustable back and loose, removable cushions. Editor Bok probably wouldn't have been so critical had he known that the Morris chair (and others of similar design) would evolve into the big, soft, cushy, recliners we enjoy today.

In 1908, headlined, "BIG CHAIR MADE FOR TAFT", a New York Times (Jun 21, 1908. pg. 2) article announces that, in a Philadelphia vocational school, students made the heavy-set President Taft an oversized Morris chair: "Pupils of a Phailedelphia School Gaurantee It Will Hold Him,"

As noted above, shop drawings for this chair appeared in the pages of Gustav Stickley's monthly, The Craftsman. The Craftsman began publication in 1901, and featured photographs and drawing of Arts and Crafts furniture.

The Craftsman ceased publication in 1916, when Stickley went bankrupt, and signalled that the public's interest in Arts and Crafts was waning.

In May 1902, an issue of the Boston-based monthly, Amateur Work, featured the article, "A Reclining Chair," by a regular contributor for AW, John F Adams. This chair is definitely in the Morris style, although not named as such, with instructions for building this icon of the Arts and Crafts tradition, yesterday, in its first era, roughly 1900-1915-20, as well as today, in its second -- much lengthier -- era, reviving in about 1966, and still going strong.

In 1914, the craftsman, Paul D Otter, presents another design for the Morris chair. He also argues that the Arts and Crafts (or "Mission" ) "fad" is declining.

The Revival of Arts and Crafts

(Different accounts are given about just "who" is responsible and "when" the current revival in Arts and Crafts emerged.

Was it a 1966 book by the eccentric critic John Freeman Crosby? The Forgotten Rebel: Gustav Stickley and his Craftsman Mission Furniture. Freeman, M. A., was Director Yankee Village Museum, Century House.

Did the revival of the Arts and Crafts Movement began in 1966, with a book by John Crosby Freeman, entitled The Forgotten Rebel: Gustav Stickley and his Craftsman Mission Furniture, one of the first historical studies of the movement. Freeman recognized Arts and Crafts furniture as a distinctively American style.

Or, did the revival begin in 1972, at a Princeton University museum, curated by professor Robert Judson Clark? Clark organized the exhibit and published a catalog for "American Arts and Crafts, 1876-1916," the first major exhibition on the movement....

See Edward S. Cooke, "Arts and Crafts Furniture: Process or Product?", in Janet Kardon , ed., The Ideal Home, 1900-1920, The History of 20th Century American Craft, Abrams, 1994, p 64 . )

Truth is, according to scholars, such as Janet Kardon (The Ideal Home, 1900-1920: The History of 20th Century Craft), 1993, between 1920 and the 1970s, the spirit of Arts and Crafts prevailed, but below the surface, "underground". And , from the perspective of amateur woodworking, evidence that it prevailed during that period comes from many woodworker's manuals published in the era between WW I and post-WW II.

Which, for me, means that touching off a revival in the Arts and Crafts tradition is more related to an event poised to happen, regardless, rather than being a movement that needed a strong nudge.

Handcraft vs Machine-made

Moreover, a tension exists between "true believers" who followed Morris' strictures about the proper methods for producing Arts and Crafts products -- by hand, not by machine. But in America, something happened that changed this iron-clad rule.

In 1906 -- Morris had died ten years earlier -- Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, published The Arts and Crafts Movement (Hammersmith, 1905),

(Cobden Sanderson, 1840-1922, a bookbinder, founded the famous Doves Press , which published many works of the Arts & Craft Movement. )

In the following passage, pages 25-31, from that history, Cobden-Sanderson pulls the rug out from two of Morris' most basic ideas:

As a condition of life,' Mr. Morris says, 'production by machinery is wholly an evil.' . . . I find it necessary to differ from Mr. Morris . . . machinery may be redeemed by imagination, and made to enter into his restored world, adding to the potency of good, and to its power of evil., which itself, in my view, it is not: and ... the age upon which mankind entered, at the close of the fifteenth century, was one of decay of an old world indeed, but at the same time was an age in which a new and a greater world came to the birth, as in this age it is coming to maturity, and that it is with this new world, and not with the old world, that the movement and ourselves have now to do.

In chapter 5, page 44, of The Forgetten Rebel: Gustave Stickley and his Craftsman Mission Furniture, is a reference to his embrace of machines for woodworking and the "square lines of Arts and Crafts" design.

America 's "Craftsman Mission" was something quite different from British Arts and Crafts furniture. Craftsman Mission , unlike the furniture of the English producers, Heal, Henry, Voysey , Maclntosh , etc., [link] "was democratic furniture, and, in that sense, truly American." Further, "[ i ]t was modern because it was machine-produced, a fact made evident by its angularity announcing the work of the circular saw"; i.e., makes "straight" lines, definitely integral features of Arts and Crafts design. See illustrations of Morris chair below.)

With this refinement by Americans, "structural craftsmanship was not sacrificed, even though most of the production operations were performed by machines." Stickley's own "The Structural Style in Cabinet-Making" (House Beautiful 15, December, 1903, pages 78-93), makes this notion implicitly. [I will post this soon.]

Influence of Woodworkers' Manuals?

Evidence from an examination of woodworking manuals, over the period 1890 to 2000, among other things, demonstrates sufficiently for me that the recommended Arts and Crafts design motif was carried through the medium of woodworking manuals. Later I discovered that, Crosby , in his 1966 book, claims that the connection between the manual training movement and Arts and Crafts is intimate.

Nonetheless , the paragraph above helps make the case that, for amateur woodworkers, the urge to personally create an object like the Morris chair, which you yourself can admire in your home for the rest of your life, is a strong motivator to engage in woodworking.

If any proof of my claim is needed , consider that today, the Morris chair is still an icon -- as a personal woodworking project -- and as such has been featured as a lead article in virtually all woodworking journals published today. Here's one from Woodsmith , one by Norm Abram, of the PBS TV program, The New Yankee Workshop, one from Popular Woodworking.

Taunton Press, for example, the parent of Fine Woodworking, has published at least two volumes dedicated to Arts and Crafts designs. Not strictly a woodworker's manual -- in the sense of containing measured drawings translatable into shop-floor diagrams -- Kevin P. Rodel and Jonathon Binzen's lush, heavily illlustrated Arts and Crafts Furniture: From Classic to Contemporary, with a 2003 imprint, rises considerably above the "run of the mill" of the "how-to-do-it woodworking book" genre. The book's pages are suffused with color photos and brief annotations of the numerous examples of Morris chair designs, within the context of the tension of anti-mass machine production ideals contributed to the Arts and Crafts movement since its mid-19th century beginnings vs mass production ideals, invoked by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright..

More in keeping with typical manuals published for woodworkers, Taunton Press's 2001 In the Craftsman Style reprints 24 articles on constructing Arts and Crafts furniture projects from issues of Fine Woodworking, but also commissions several articles, by scholars, on aspects of Arts and Crafts design, such as revisions design that reflect innovations possible by new techniques and/or processes for finishing, variations in woods used, power tool techniques, etc.

Other similar publications are Robert W Lang's series of nearly 60 "shop drawings" of classic Arts and Crafts furniture pieces (the Morris chair is in the first volume). Other woodworking manuals with Morris chairs are: Paul Kemner and Peggy Zdila , Building Arts and Crafts Furniture, 1997; and Andy Schultz, Classic Arts and Crafts Furniture That You Can Build, 1999.

Kemner features this same "Reclining Chair" on pp. 116-117, of his Building Arts and Crafts Furniture, but in a slightly more elaborate design. See also the project of A L Hall, in 1908, another primary source on the history of woodworking, posted on my website. According to Kemner's taxonomy of Morris chairs, the Hall chair is in the "Open Frame Flat-Arm" design.

(I'll be dealing with leisure, chapter by chapter, in the historical narrative section of this online history.) In the first decade of the 20th century, hours of work for most people was around per 56 hours per week. (This figure comes from Robert Whaples , a Wake Forest University professor of economics.) For most people, in other words, leisure time was still a luxury.

(Not until post-World War II, is leisure time available widely, for virtually everybody.)

Space, too, for a workshop, in or around the typical home, even for an affluent person like Hall, was scarce. Hall, you'll notice below, needed to dedicate his den, on the second floor of home, as a workshop space.

Even the family garage, at that time detached from the main house, was not a potential space for a home workshop .( Like electrification, automobile ownership is a phenomenon of the 1920s.)

Below are links to four samples of Morris chair projects (including pictures) for amateur craftsman, published between 1902 and 1914:

First, from the May, 1902 issue of Amateur Work, are instructions and diagrams for constructing a Morris chair. This article appeared one year after this chair came into the commercial market. By John F. Adams, the article is entitled "A Reclining Chair", but nowhere is the info needed to identify this chair as a design by Gustav Stickley, and marketed by his Syracuse-based firm. ( Adams contributed numerous articles to AW.)

Read More

Besides Gustav Stickley's The Craftsman,

First the periodical, Amateur Work (Boston) contains subject content directed toward amateur woodworkers.

1901-1907: Amateur Work Boston : F.A. Draper, Publisher Vol. 1, no. 1 (Nov. 1901)-v. 6, no. 6 (Apr. 1907) 6 v.

Amateur Work now online -- here's a link -- is

    A Monthly Magazine Of The Useful Arts And Sciences, containing illustrated articles descriptive of electrical and mechanical apparatus, furniture and other useful articles, games, photography, astronomy, book binding, mechanical drawing, etc.

Click here for an article that originally was published in the remarkable magazine, Amateur Work. Published in Boston early in the 20th century, AW, unfortunately didn't have a long life, and today obtaining information on it is difficult.

Second , A L Hall 1908 Notice (highlighted) that even for Mr. Hall, the luxury of direct current electricity was not available. His saw, for example, like his lathe and "grinder," is "foot-powered", which creates astonishment, for me at least, when you see the picture of the Morris chair (below) that he constructed out of White Oak.

cross-section for four-sided post

From my reading of the article posted below, Hall was a fairly affluent "businessman", evidently only able to be at home during the weekend. The article does not indicate the location of his home, but I imagine it is suburban New York. Above, the operative word is "affluent", because, then, leisure was indeed only available to the affluent.

Read More

Third, "How to Make a Morris Chair", from Mission Furniture: How to Make It (Parts I, II, II, Complete) Popular Mechanics Company, 1909, reprinted 1980]. As the following quote indicates -- it is the first sentence in this 1909 article -- the materials for the chair come in what, today, we call "kit" form, or, "pre-cut":

The stock necessary to make a Morris chair of craftsman design as shown in the engraving can be purchased mill-planed and sandpapered on four sides as given in the following list.

The reason for this need for precut materials, again, is that electrification had yet to invade the cities, what electrical power existed was in the form of direct current , and not widely available. (Already, we saw this in the 1908 article by A L Hall.) Likewise, no table saw, even one powered by direct current existed for purchase by amateur woodworkers with space for home shops. the commercial table saws were behemoths, too large for even such consideration.

Read More

Fourth, ..."The Morris Chair" from Paul D. Otter, Furniture for the Craftsman: A Manual for the Student and Mechanic, Covering the Design, Construction and Finishing of Practically all the Ariticles Used in the Furnishing and Equipment of the Modern Home, Porch and Grounds, with Hints on Upholstering. The date of this book is deceptive. My edition is dated 1923, but the first edition is 1914, and that material is, int turn, a re-working, virtually unchanged, of material that originially appeared in pages of The Building Age, a trade journal of the period.

The book's long title spells out the audience, definitely not your amateur woodworker, but in the book's "Preface", Otter states,

In addition to the carpenter and the manual training student there is the day-fagged business man as well as many others who are likely to find refreshment from commercial and professional pressure in the increasing skill of doing things and in the joy of their accomplishment.

Nonetheless, the book is interesting to amateur woodworkers and other aficiandos of Arts and Crafts furniture for at least two reasons.

According to the quoted sections below from various sections of Otter's text, in 1914 (the book was reprinted virtually unchanged in 1923) Arts and Crafts design is "dead" in America.

In the Preface, for example, Otter states,

..Take the "Mission" ... it is in little favor in this year 1923. Its prototype the and Italian" are much in favor, and yet structurally it is like the " Mission ," but more ornate, for the reason that the " Mission " was influenced by the Italian, or properly by the Spanish....

...There is always one or more in the family who derive comfort from the Morris chair or some other form of adjustable back chair, while with others, like the tea or coffee drinkers, there is nothing so restful as the excitable rocker. In the case of the Morris chair the luxurious softness of the cushions allows almost any form to mold itself into a comfortable position, and therefore the contents of the cushions should be of the best grade of curled hair, with a mixture of moss, tow or cotton. The bag form of cushion, previously mentioned, is shown in the illustration, although the style of the cushion with square edges like carriage cushions is most generally used...

Otter, however, in his opposition to Arts and Crafts, relents, and approves the Morris chair, although it's design has obviously gone through definite permutations

Next, approximately, two generations later, ca 1980, long after electrification, urban and rural, had become commonplace, and a revolution in the manufacture and distribution of power tools for amateur woodworkers to purchase for home use, it became possible for amateur woodworkers to seriously undertake daunting projects like Morris chairs.

Val Matthews' Morris Chair

val's morris chair

Finally, I have myself pretensions of making a Morris chair. Someday! For a friend, Val Matthews, however, "someday" is now: This is the beauty he constructed out of quarter-sawn white oak, with the upholstering done by his lovely wife, Laura.

Sources : [not complete] Elizabeth Aslin, Nineteenth Century English Furniture New York: Yoseloff, 1962.