Published: April 1, 2003
By Karla Klein Albertson
WILMINGTON, DEL. — Fanciers of Americana have long been fascinated by Samuel Gragg (1722-1855), an innovative and inventive Boston craftsman, who received a patent in 1808 for what he dubbed his “elastic” chair. “The Incredible Elastic Chairs of Samuel Gragg,” on view at Winterthur through June 15, thoroughly explores both the variety of seating produced and the inventive techniques used by this unique chairmaker.
Although he began as an ordinary chairmaker manufacturing the Windsors popular in the early Nineteenth Century, Gragg is revered for his elastic chair patent, which involved a new method of bending continuous strips of wood with steam to form the back, seat and front legs of side chair. While the stylish product shares a profile with the classical chairs popular at the time, the result transcends its own period and looks forward to later bentwood furniture and even the streamline modern designs of the Twentieth Century.
The graceful chair form created by Gragg’s process was then completed with decorative painting by a skilled assistant, which added a unifying base color and intricate patterns that harmonized the various woods, such as ash, oak, hickory and beech, used in the piece’s composition. Unfortunately for admiring collectors, known examples of Gragg chairs number in the dozens rather than the hundreds. Examples rarely come on the market out of private hands, and many are firmly clasped in permanent museum collections. Furthermore, there has been a dearth of serious scholarship on the chairmaker’s methods and production, but the need has now been satisfied by a new traveling exhibition organized by Winterthur.
After extensive research, which uncovered important written documentation as well as further examples of this type of furniture, Senior Furniture Conservator Michael S. Podmaniczky organized the exhibition. Just as Gragg learned about wood from his wheelwright father, Podmaniczky came to the subject with hands-on experience: “I have a background in bent wood, because I was a boat builder by trade before I went into conservation 20 years ago. As I moved into the conservation profession, I took a job at the Williamstown Regional Conservation Center at the Clark Art Institute. Curiously enough, one of the projects I worked on there in 1985 was a set of Gragg elastic chairs. I had been aware of them before, but at that moment — being that close to them — I realized that they were unique in American furniture making and design. I just was entranced by them.”
When he began exploring Gragg’s work further for the coming exhibition, the conservator began with information set down by Patricia Kane of the Yale University Art Gallery in an article for the museum bulletin of that institution.
“I did research on the Gragg chairs and published information on them back in 1972,” she explains. “We have one chair here of the type with a separate front leg ending a goat hoof foot; the example has peacock feathers on the back and traces of gilding. Mike Podmaniczky has found a lot more information, many more chairs have surfaced in the intervening 30 years, and he’s actually tracked down the patent application, which is fabulous.”
Kane continues, “This is a really exciting group of American furniture by a very inventive chairmaker. He was trying to capture the sinuous profile that was appearing in French and English furniture at that period by using this bentwood technique. The elastic chair was Gragg’s entry in the painted parlor furniture category.”
From an art historical standpoint, the Winterthur exhibition discusses Gragg’s chairs within the milieu of the Classical klismos chairs and painted fancy furniture of the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century. Wendy Cooper included an elastic chair in “Classical Taste in America, 1800-1840” at the Baltimore Museum of Art ten years ago. She wrote in the catalog: “While it is unlikely that Gragg was aware of the parallel production in Brussels of chairmaker Jean-Joseph Chapuis, it is almost certain that he recognized the imminent popularity of this new taste for the antique, and this is precisely what he responded to with his ‘new, elegant and superior style’ chairs and settees.”
For this new exhibition Podmaniczky first connects Gragg’s work with period parallels such as the classically inspired saber-leg chair: “I put him in the Empire milieu in Boston at that point. He’s looking at the classical revival and the klismos chair and published English designs as well as imported examples. He’s also working at a time when color and surface decoration is really taking off. At that seminal time, all sorts of interesting things were being done. So he’s thinking klismos, he’s thinking color and decoration, and he’s thinking this wood-bending process.”
The conservator, however, is far more interested in the technical innovations that make the elastic chair so different from its contemporaries: “My thesis, if you will, is that the catalyst for his invention was the influence coming from the boatyard. Any place in Boston as it existed in the early Nineteenth Century was just around the corner from the waterfront. We do not have documentation for this, but undoubtedly he knew people that built boats. He saw boats with bent wood frames and it just clicked. He was a very practical person who pulled together these designs and processes into a unique form.”
“The great ‘Eureka!’ of research for this exhibition was when I came across his description in the patent of what he was doing and how he was doing it,” explains the conservator. “The patent office burned in 1836, so all prior patents stored in that repository were gone. There appears to have been two copies of this patent, one for the government and one for the inventor, and Gragg’s personal copy of the patent came down through his family and was given to the Carrier Library at the James Madison University in Virginia. They considered it a historical document because it was signed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.”
On loan to the exhibition, the lengthy document with its description of the process offers new insight into Gragg’s thinking. The chairmaker states: “The invention of this improvement in the common parlor sitting chair consists in the application of proper pieces, or strips of oak, ash or other suitable wood, bent by being steamed, in such a manner as to form the bottom & the back of the chair. The pieces of said wood which form the back of the chair are so bent as to form the bottom of it also, and are bent as aforesaid & arranged in such a manner, that the back of the chair is completely braced, rendered very elastic, very comfortable & and agreeable to the person sitting on it….”
What Gragg has set out in long sentences, the exhibition illustrates with examples. Visitors can view both types of his patent chairs: one with separately made and attached front legs and the “fully elastic” model that features wood bent in a continuous breathtaking sweep from the bottom of the front leg to the crest rail. Because he is so adept at woodworking himself, Podmaniczky has also created an elastic chair visitors may sit on in the “Please Be Seated” display and another “exploded” chair that he made and then took apart to let everyone see how the pieces fit together.
“I am more of a technical person, so I have chosen to focus on the objects themselves and let them speak,” he admits. “I want to get across to the public how special these chairs are and how they are made, to show them the technical connection with other similar objects and to show where there are not connections.” Gragg is often mentioned along with other cabinetmakers who experimented with bent wood and lamination, so the exhibition features a comparison with the chairs of Chapuis (1765-1864), Michael Thonet (1796-1871) of Germany and the productive American John Henry Belter (1804-1863). But the conservator stresses, “Samuel Gragg was the innovator. Gragg stands as a giant, as a unique expression of American furniture craftsmanship.”
Although there is unfortunately no catalog for this exhibition, The Magazine Antiques will publish an illustrated article on Gragg by Podmaniczky in the May issue, and the conservator is preparing a more technical article for the future. He is also putting together a database of Gragg-stamped and Gragg-attributed chairs as a resource for others, which already includes dozens of examples with various decoration schemes including peacock feathers, a eagle and a landscape scene.
Although a professional furniture painter and not Gragg himself would have executed these designs, the motifs on his chairs are finely painted and compliment rather than detract from the dramatic form. A section of the exhibition deals with precedents for the peacock feather motif — the most common design used on Gragg chairs — and the conservator continues to seek out more information on painters who might have worked with Gragg.
Podmaniczky says in conclusion, “The painted decoration is very special as well. I engaged a decorative painter from Boston named Patricia McMahon, who can replicate the peacock feather, and I have a display she has done for the exhibition.”
“The Incredible Elastic Chairs of Samuel Gragg” is on display at the institution through June 15. The show will then travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum in July and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., in November.
Winterthur is located on Route 52, six miles northwest of Wilmington. For information and hours, contact the museum and gardens at 800-448-3883 or www.winterthur.org.
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