Document 4: Paul D Otter, "The Morris Chair" 1923

The text below comes from Paul D. Otter, Furniture for the Craftsman: A Manual for the Student and Mechanic, 1914, 1923.

According to the Preface, the drawings and the text originally appeared in issues of the trade journal, The Building Age, before 1914, a fact that I confirmed by obtaining photocopies of these articles.

The book's full title speaks "volumes" about Otter himself, and the era in which/about which he writes



The date of this book is deceptive. My personal edition is dated 1923, but the first edition is 1914, and that material is, in turn, a re-working, virtually unchanged, of material that originally appeared in pages of The Building Age, a trade journal of the period. (The Building Age -- according to the Worldcat bibliographic database -- was published between 1879 and 1930.)

Why would the publisher reissue a book in the 1920s with designs from a bygone era? The public's interest in Arts and Crafts design was in decline. (I will try to cover Arts and Crafts between 1916 and 1960 here -- Under the title "Part 3:-- The Arts and Crafts Movement Under the Radar, 1915-1970 ", but since it's complicated, this page is still very much under construction.)

Regretfully, bio info on Otter is scarce -- but I intend to keep looking, because his voice seems to predict the decline of the popularity enjoyed by Arts and Crafts (or, "Mission") design in furniture.

Confirming this decline comes from some of the following evidence (in the 1923 edition) reprinted below.

One further comment: None of the contemporary furniture designers -- James Krenov, Sam Maloof, and other who design the so-called "studio furniture" -- are particularly appealing to me. Some modern stuff, I like, as you'll see in my memoir" as it progresses. Instead, I am inclined toward some period furniture, much of the American Colonial, for example, also Shaker, but especially Arts and Crafts.

In that light, I have great respect and appreciation for such authorities on woodworking as Paul D. Otter, but especially Franklin H Gottshall, who, as well as teaching design, teach aesthetics. Gottshall's classic is How to Design Period Furniture, 1937, and for me, Otter's Furniture for the Craftsman, 1914, anticipates what Gottshall achieved in the 1930s.

The influence of Gottshall on some of my thinking about woodworking is also covered in my memoir" .

I anticipate that by letting these personal biases "hang out," that I am inviting contentiousness from other woodworkers. But differences of this sort, for me, is OK. In the end, it all boils down to taste.

Document 4: "The Morris Chair" from Paul D. Otter, Furniture for the Craftsman: A Manual for the Student and Mechanic, 1914, 1923

(According to the Preface, the drawings and the text originally appeared in issues of The Building Age before 1914.)

This section is from pages 60-61:

Before considering other forms of cabinet work for the carpenter, it is in place to study the subject of ornament as applied to furniture, and under the term, ornament, is included any embellishment not essential to the construction. It seems a fitting time to write along these lines, for at no period in the history of furniture, since primitive construction, has there been such a reaction against vitiated or excessive ornament, and it is a significant fact that a fad taken up by Americans represented in the "Mission Style," and also the strong influence of European crafts and guild workers in working along plain lines, has brought about this happy trend of taste.

The architect, designer or craftsman today is a free subject. No kingly patronage holds him to follow repeatedly the "period styles, " which in this country are quite out of place in the homes of our democratic people. We may therefore be thankful it is the style to be plain and be surrounded by furniture of a plain substantial construction and outline. This state of affairs does not dictate absolute avoidance of ornament, for we as a people are extremists in some things, and already an easing-up of the straight line, and rounding-off of the sharp corner incident to the first "Mission" patterns is in evidence, and we have now with us the "Arts and Crafts," or "Modern," which possesses features refreshing and entitling it to be classed as a "style." Happily the "Arts and Crafts" being the vogue, it is one to which the carpenter can apply himself without the bench experience of a French cabinet maker, and to this end sketchy de-tails are here given to guide him in the general requirements of brightening case work with ornament, relief or open work.

Supposing, then, we follow this thought in its bearing on relieving furniture from absolute severity of case. Going back to the "Mission Style," the old ecclesiastic carpenter in making the few pieces of furniture for the simple needs of his brother monks held to a rigid purpose of making a table from which to eat, a chair to sit upon -- not a table or a chair of a particular design. Then, too, the lumber was hewn from the log and few tools were at hand to continue the work. These were deterrent influences for good design -- that is utility first. However, he was not altogether clumsy or lacking in grace of line, for in the few examples from which the style is derived we see how he has tapered the lower part of a heavy table leg or given a square bulblike effect to a post, and in more elaborate pieces treated a back rail to easy curves with corresponding hollows, mindful, no doubt, of things seen in his early days in Spain.

This section is from pages 182-183:

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. When extreme comfort is sought for one may have to make a personal test before being thoroughly satisfied. 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 con-tents 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.

While dealing with cushions it may be said here that the seat cushion is supported either by a three-ply veneer panel tacked to the inner strip, shown on the seat frame, Fig. 193, or the same open space is bridged over by heavy upholstery burlap inter-woven and tacked to strips and corner blocks. In tacking al-ways start with and turn down a double thickness of the ends of bands to avoid stripping through the tacks.

The back cushion is supported by an open frame rack made of 7/8 x 1 1/8 inch material, the frame 18 x 30 1/2 inches outside, with four 5/8 x 7/8 inch cross slats evenly spaced. The bottom rail is hinged to the back rail of the Morris chair seat frame, and the inclination of the rack is made by resting it against a 3/8-inch steel or brass rod, placed in any notch on the bracket support shown on the rear of the chair.

The lower end of the back cushion rests on the rear end of the seat cushion.

As to the chair frame there is a field of change of style from Fig. 193. Using the same seat plan create a different treatment under the arms either by square spindles or three or four slats or flat balusters under the arms.

Following the illustration, the front and back posts and arm pillars are made of stock dressed 13/1. inches square, the back posts being finally cut from the bottom 1 1/2 inches to give the chair proper angle. The side rails may be dressed 13-16 inch thick, and with the upholstery cleat on the inside of the same thickness they will when glued be very substantial. This is a matter of some consideration if more than one chair is to be made, as stock costs much more if required over 1 inch in thickness. After the chair has been tried by setting up, knock off all the sharp edges before the final gluing.