Contemporary Orkney chair by Kevin GauldLast 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.  Well, Ron’s family is from Orkney, and both his mother and sister have beautifully crafted Orkney chairs in their homes.

Brodgar Chair by Gareth Neal and Kevin Gauld for The New CraftsmenCoincidentally, a couple of days after my museum visit I came across the Brodgar chair, above, a modern reworking of the traditional Orkney chair commissioned by The New Craftsmen.  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.  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 history of the Orkney chair

Sepia photograph of couple making straw-backed chairsThe origins of the Orkney chair lie in the shortage of raw materials for both building and furnishing houses.  Before improved transport links in the mid-1800’s brought manufactured goods to the islands, 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 oat 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, mainly from Scotland but even from as far away as America.

Once mass-produced household goods were available on Orkney, there was no longer a practical need for the islanders to make their own furniture. Home-made furniture was increasingly regarded as old-fashioned and undesirable and the art of straw-backed chair making was in danger of dying out.

Luckily, two things intervened to save this ancient art.  The first was the popularity of 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.  The second (and which still remains an important factor today) was the growth of tourism.  Improved methods of transport encouraged rich city dwellers to venture further afield in search of fresh air and the idyllic country life.  On top of which famous figures such as Queen Victoria made Scotland very fashionable indeed as a holiday destination.

B&W photo of David Kirkness, from the V&A archivesBut it was a local carpenter, David Munro Kirkness, who is credited with fully realising the commercial potential of the Orkney chair.  And, by doing so, introduced it to a much wider audience. He was able to refine the design of the chair without sacrificing its original character, and also improved and standardised its construction into one of the four styles of chair still made today.  Kevin told me:

“it was Kirkness who took it from being a poorly made chair to something people would want to have in their homes.”

Hooded Orkney Straw-backed chair by Kevin Gauld of The Orkney Furniture MakerPictured above 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, and the drawer 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.  The women, apparently, 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.”

David Kirkness Orkney Chair price list, courtesty of the V&A museum
The Kirkness Price List, about 1910, showing the four standard models.  Quotes and image above via V&A.  Document source: Orkney Library & Archive

The Orkney Chair today

No longer needing to rely on wood washed up on the beach, Kevin uses timber from America and Africa to make his furniture.  Where possible he also encourages the use of sustainable Scottish hardwoods such as elm, oak and ash.  Ironically, this relatively local material is more expensive than wood imported from overseas.

Oat straw drying in Kevin Gauld's workshop in OrkneyThe oat straw, though, is still a thoroughly local product and Kevin grows his supply on his uncle’s farm, just next door to his workshop.   It’s harvested carefully to ensure the stalks don’t get damaged and then left to ripen to develop it’s distinctive golden colour.   Before being used, 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.

Kevin builds the wooden frames of the chairs himself, and employs two other people to help with putting the straw backs in. Bundles of oat straw are carefully stitched and tied into rows using sisal string, a process that can take up to 20 hours.

Sewing the straw back of the Brodgar chair for The New Craftsmen collaboration Above: making the back for the Brodgar chair.  It’s hard work on the fingers!

Orkney Chair - detail showing flush joints and carved scroll arms A handful of professional chair makers still work in Orkney today, each with their own individual style of building the wooden frame and constructing the straw back.  Kevin uses flush joints and round headed screws (see above) as in the old chairs.  However, in a break from tradition he carves a scroll on the ends of the arms – his own personal signature.

Two seater Orkney Chair with slate table by Kevin GauldNowadays, visitors come to Orkney from all over the world, and its capital Kirkwall is a regular port of call for cruise ships. Orkney offers a choice of fascinating sights and activities, but 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 straw-backed chair with inlaid slate table pictured above.  Visitors can sit and enjoy a wee dram at the end of their tour, and when I visited Kevin he was putting the final touches to two more of these impressive pieces for a private customer.

Many overseas visitors buy Orkney chairs 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.  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 – wedding presents in particular.

The Orkney straw-backed chair reinvented

Kevin Gauld and Gareth Neal with the finished Brodgar chair

Above: Kevin and Gareth in Orkney with the completed Brodgar chair.

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).  Unfortunately, the time restrictions of the project made this impossible – there’s just too much 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, after which Gareth made the wooden frame in London, inspired by the shape of the familiar Windsor chair.  He 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.

Kevin Gauld of The Orkney Furniture Maker in his workshopKevin’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, and spends one day a week on his own designs.  Above: 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. Below: one of Kevin’s modern pieces, a Burr Walnut table.

Contemporary Burr Walnut Side Table by Kevin GauldBrodgar Straw Back Bench, detail, with drawer openSince it was first made – almost entirely out of straw, and wholly out of necessity – the Orkney Chair has constantly evolved and survived.  In the hands of skilled craftsmen like Kevin and Gareth, and through collaborations such as the Brodgar chair project, the craft tradition of the straw backed chair looks certain 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/bench – Tif Hunter/The New Craftsmen; V&A

7 Comments

  1. I love my Orkney chair. it feels really special as it was a wedding present from my mum and dad. It feels even more special now that I know so much more about it – so thank you for your thorough research Helen. I’d better start saving now as I’d love to have a little table to match..

  2. Helen

    Hi Elinor – so glad you enjoyed discovering more about the history of your chair. As you say, a special chair and a very special gift – keep on enjoying it, and that little table will be just perfect for your mug of coffee or glass of wine! xHelen

  3. Elizabeth

    I, too, have found this very interesting. In August 2012 I was fortunate to spend a few days getting to know Orkney. Having an affinity for beautifully made and individual items I was taken with the simple beauty of the Orkney chair – I knew nothing of it until then. After a look at various craftsmen I made my decision, discussed the wood and design and so the chair was ordered. I look forward to receiving it sometime in 2014! It’s good that the manufacture is in such high demand: long may this craft continue.

  4. Helen

    Hi Elizabeth, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece – it’s such a fascinating history, a real story of needs must and using available materials to make both functional and beautiful things. I hope you had a wonderful visit to Orkney, and that you enjoy your chair just as much – I’m sure you will.
    Helen

  5. Hi Helen, I recently visited the V&A and also fell in love with this chair. In fact I have decided to make a scale model of the hooded chair for my furniture class. Unfortunately the general dimensions have been difficult to track down online and I was wondering whether you had access to any drawings or know where I can locate at least the main dimensions. Hopefully one day I will be able to visit Orkney and see their production for myself.
    Ben

  6. Helen

    Hi Ben, sorry not to reply sooner, and glad to hear the Orkney chair has another fan! I’m afraid I don’t have any drawings or dimensions, but if you get in touch with Kevin Gauld, who I wrote about in the piece he might be able to help or point you in the right direction. His website is in the article, and you can contact him via that. Good luck with your project!

  7. Mike Gartside

    Hi All, I have one of the chairs and i can note down the dimensions if you wish, give me a few days and ill post on here – After extensive house repairs i am having to reluctantly sell mine, great piece of history and the back of the chairs amaze me! If you want any additional pics for your class once i have the dimensions please let me know, Thank you, Mike