How the Teak Chair Got the Adirondack Treatment

      The teak Adirondack chair is a recognizable staple in the culture of Americana and craftsmanship, but it comes to us through a circuitous route and an unlikely partnership between the exotic teak wood and the American designed chair.

       First seen growing in the Southeast Asian monsoon forests, today teak is also grown in Central and South America, whose climates emulate the warm temperature and humidity of their native habitat. In the 7th century teak was used in structural building, but it was not thought to build a teak chair or any other type of furniture until the 19th century. The first teak plantation appeared in Burma in 1856, where the hardwood gained popularity as a furniture material. From there it spread to other parts of Asia, especially colonial India. There, the British presence fell in love with teak, and it migrated to Victorian England. Since then, the teak chair has become a symbol of charming British country gardens. Around the same time, teak was also used predominantly in shipbuilding for its beneficial and damage-resistant qualities. Eventually, teak wood made it to the Americas, where colonists began using it for housing and other structures. Today, teak is one of best-known woods used in patio sets and outdoor furniture.

       On the other hand, the Adirondack chair did not come such a far way as the teak chair did, but its history is no less fascinating and embedded in American nostalgia. Around the turn of the 20th century in Blue Mountain Lake, NY, a local man by the name of Thomas Lee was faced with a conundrum. How would he find enough seats his 22 family members? This began Lee's quest into designing a wooden chair appropriate for both outdoor and indoor use that would at the same time be comfortable. He completed the first Adirondack chair prototype in 1903, though at that time he called it the Westport chair, named after a small town in the Adirondack Mountains. As unlikely a model as it looked, the chair proved quite comfortable indeed, and it wasn't long until the news spread through the town. Eventually, it fell upon the ears of one Harry Bunnell, an acquaintance of Lee's, and local carpenter. As much as Lee had originally intended the chair for personal use, Bunnell saw the vast profit potential, and in 1904, without the knowledge of Thomas Lee, Bunnell patented the Adirondack chair. Over the next couple of decades, Bunnell played around with some variations on the original chair, but the classic design retained popularity. People loved the natural wood and implied nautical look of the affordable chair, and it became an instant icon around beach towns and swimming pools. Today, one can still visit the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, where some of the first models are on display, along with other exhibits about outdoorsmanship and New England culture. One can still also find original Bunnell chairs for sale, but rather than the $4.00 they once sold for, now just one chair will run collectors $1,200.

       By the time the Adirondack chair was just in its nascent stages of invention, the teak chair was already enjoying a Renaissance in American craftsmanship, so it was only a matter of time before the two crossed paths. Once they did, the serendipity that is the teak Adirondack chair became as American as apple pie, but few people realize how two such different things with opposite backgrounds came own a spot in the hearts of America.

About the Author

Tonya Kerniva is an experienced research and free lance writing professional.