Last month I visited the recently-opened Furniture Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. They’ve organised the exhibits by materials and processes, rather than chronologically, and I was delighted to see a small section devoted to the history and making of the straw backed chair, or Orkney chair. If you’ve read our About page you’ll know that my husband Ron is the technical half of the colourful beautiful things team; his family is from Orkney, and both his mother and sister have Orkney chairs in their homes.
Coincidentally, a couple of days after my museum visit I came across the Brodgar chair, a modern reworking of the traditional Orkney chair commissioned by The New Craftsmen, and to complete the synchronicity we were booked to go on a family holiday to Orkney just a few weeks later.
This was far too good an opportunity to pass up, so I contacted Kevin Gauld, the Orkney chair maker who teamed up with London-based furniture maker Gareth Neal to make the Brodgar chair (pictured below), and he very kindly agreed to talk to me about the history of the straw backed chair, chair making in Orkney today, and his collaboration with The New Craftsmen.
The origins of the Orkney chair lie in the shortage of raw materials for both building and furnishing houses in the days before improved transport links brought manufactured goods to the islands.
Up until the mid-1800’s their remote location meant that Orcadians had to be self-sufficient; whatever was needed could only be made with materials that were locally available. With very few trees growing on Orkney, wood was extremely scarce; houses were stone-built and oats (which were grown in abundance for both human and animal food) provided straw for their thatched roofs and many other useful items besides. Ropes of various types (called “simmans” and “sookans”) were made from twisted straw; baskets of every size and description (“cubbies” and “caisies”) were woven for storage and transportation; and, of course, this abundant material was used to make the “strae backed” chair. In fact, some of the very first Orkney chairs were made entirely of straw, with wood only being used for their short, stumpy legs.
Any wood that was available was incredibly precious, and was mainly driftwood. In the days of timber boats, some of this would have been from shipwrecks, but Kevin told me that whole trees can be washed up on the beaches, coming from Scotland and even from as far away as America. These days, he uses timber from America and Africa to make his furniture, and he also tries to encourage the use of Scottish hardwoods such as elm, oak and ash. Ironically, this relatively local material is more expensive than wood imported from overseas
Kevin grows the straw for the chair backs on his uncle’s farm, just next door to his workshop, and it’s harvested carefully to ensure the stalks don’t get damaged. Each piece of straw has to be individually cleaned by hand, and it can take 15 – 20 hours to prepare enough for just one chair. He builds the wooden frames of the chairs himself, but employs two other people to help with putting the straw backs in, a process which can take up to 20 hours, with bundles of oat straw being carefully stitched and tied into rows using sisal string. Below: oat straw in Kevin’s workshop, and making the back for the Brodgar chair.
There are a handful of professional chair makers still working in Orkney today, and each has their own individual style, both of building the wooden frame, and constructing the straw back. Kevin uses flush joints and round headed screws (see left) as in the old chairs, but in a break from tradition carves a scroll on the ends of the arms – his own personal signature.
Once mass-produced household goods were available on Orkney, there was no longer a practical need for the islanders to make their own furniture, and by 1900 it would have been common to see a mix of home-made and manufactured items in their houses. Home-made furniture was increasingly regarded as being old-fashioned and undesirable, but just when the art of straw backed chair making was in danger of dying out two things happened to save it.
The first was the Arts and Crafts movement, led by William Morris, with its ethos of “truth in materials” and its interest in quality craftsmanship and folk art influences. Perhaps surprisingly, Orkney has an important link with a distinguished architect, W R Lethaby, who was closely connected to the Arts and Craft Movement. In 1898 Lethaby was commissioned to remodel Melsetter House on Hoy (one of the Orkney Islands) and May Morris, daughter of William Morris, who was a friend of the new owners of Melsetter, is known to have visited them there.
But it was a local carpenter, called David Munro Kirkness, who is credited with realising the potential of the Orkney chair and introducing it to the consumer. He refined the design of the chair without sacrificing its original character, and improved and standardised its construction into the four types of chair we’d still recognise today – the gentleman’s, lady’s and child’s version of the standard chair, as well as a hooded version with box base. Kevin added, “it was Kirkness who took it from being a poorly made chair to something people would want to have in their homes.”
Pictured left is a modern hooded chair (still known as a “Heided-Steul” in some areas) made by Kevin. The high back and hood would have provided shelter from draughts in the old stone houses, and the drawer was used to store personal and household items. For the man of the house this might have been his pipe and tobacco, fish hooks, the family bible, and bottle of whisky, whilst the women would have used the drawer for sewing and knitting materials.
The V&A’s exhibition notes say about Kirkness:
“Kirkness should not be identified as an Arts and Crafts maker. He was not reviving a ‘lost’ tradition. Instead, the Orkney chair is a ‘vernacular’ object, its design, and even some of the tools used in manufacture, passed down from generation to generation of Orcadians.”
They also describe the role he played in promoting the popularity of the chair:
“In May 1890 Kirkness was invited to submit two Orkney straw chairs to be part of the Scottish Home Industries Association display at the fifth Scottish International Exhibition in Edinburgh.
The chairs generated widespread interest as their hand-craftsmanship and vernacular design had a natural affinity with the Arts and Crafts movement. The traditional ‘straw chair’ became the fashionable ‘Orkney Chair’, gracing drawing rooms designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh among others. A pair was even sent to King Edward VII.
By 1909, retailers such as Liberty of London were ordering over 40 chairs a month. Four other Orkney workshops began making the chair, but none matched the success of David Kirkness.”
The second thing that helped to popularise the Orkney chair, and still remains an important factor today, was the growth of tourism. Improved transport led to rich city dwellers venturing further afield to escape the increasingly industrialised cities in search of fresh air and the idyllic country life, and famous figures such as Queen Victoria made Scotland fashionable as a holiday destination.
Nowadays, visitors come to Orkney from all over the world, and its capital Kirkwall is a regular port of call for cruise ships. In addition to the many other varied sights and activities that Orkney offers, for the whisky lover a tour of the famous Highland Park Distillery is a must; Kevin was commissioned by the distillery to design and build the double chair with inlaid slate table pictured below, so that visitors can sit and enjoy a wee dram at the end of their tour. When I visited Kevin he was just putting the final touches to two more of these impressive pieces for a private customer.
Many visitors buy Orkney chairs as highly practical souvenirs of their visit and I asked Kevin what was the most far-flung place to which he’d sent a chair. After some thought he decided it was probably a fairly remote island off British Columbia, Canada, and as the transport company was unable to deliver it all the way to its final destination, the the new owner had had to come and pick it up by boat himself for the final leg of its journey. That said, it’s not just visitors to Orkney who want the chairs; a good number are still also bought by local people, either for their own homes or as special gifts.
I also asked Kevin how he’d become involved in the Brodgar chair project. He explained that he’d previously been contacted by furniture designer Gareth Neal to take part in The Bodging Project, (where furniture makers go out into the woods and make furniture with the wood they find using only hand tools) but the time restrictions of the project made this impossible due to the amount of work involved in making a straw back.
However, when The New Craftsmen suggested to Gareth a collaboration to rework a piece of traditional furniture he contacted Kevin again. They worked together on the design of the chair, with Kevin advising what was, and wasn’t, possible in order for it to have a straw back fitted. Gareth made the wooden frame in London, taking inspiration from the shape of the familiar Windsor chair, and then took it to Orkney where it was assembled and the straw back put in. Kevin also travelled to London last December to take part in the pop up event staged by the New Craftsmen, where he demonstrated the traditional art of straw work. Pictured above: Kevin and Gareth in Orkney with the completed Brodgar chair.
Kevin’s business is thriving, and demand for Orkney chairs – as well as his bespoke, handmade furniture – is high. He enjoys keeping the tradition of the straw backed chair alive, but also thrives on the challenge of making and designing more contemporary pieces, spending one day a week working on his own designs. Above left: Kevin in his workshop where he tries to keep his business as low-waste as possible; the wood-burning stove uses offcuts and wood chips, with any spare going to local butchers and fishmongers for smoking. Above right: one of Kevin’s modern pieces, a Burr Walnut table.
The Orkney Chair has been constantly evolving since it was first made – almost entirely out of straw, and wholly out of necessity. In the hands of skilled craftsmen like Kevin and Gareth, and through collaborations such as the Brodgar chair project, it seems certain that the craft tradition of the straw backed chair will continue to be safe for a very long time to come.
With special thanks to Kevin Gauld of The Orkney Furniture Maker
Photo credits: The Orkney Furniture Maker; images of the Brodgar chair – Tif Hunter/The New Craftsmen; V&A