Modern Magazine recently featured chairmaker Brian Boggs' classic Appalachian furniture. From self-taught artist to Asheville NC based proprietor of Brian Boggs Chairmakers, here is his story.
The classic shaker side chair, with its simple lines and honest use of materials, is revered as a forerunner of modern furniture design, even though the discomfort of sitting in one serves as an old world restraint to impure thoughts. Not so for its lesser-known contemporary, the Appalachian "settin" chair. Its contoured and bent woods are modeled to the human body in repose. The chair as a model of form follows function and of simplicity and integrity. You can daydream the live-long day away in one. Yet to find a finely crafted Appalachian slat-back side chair, one must either resort to high-end folk art auction houses- or to the studio of Brian Boggs.
Boggs first garnered attention as a master furniture maker for updating the design and construction of traditional Appalachian rockers and chairs. Since moving his studio-- officially Brian Boggs Chairmakers --to Asheville, North Carolina in 2008 he has branched out with a number of original designs rooted in a modern aesthetic. His newest, the Lily dining chair, combines the rusticity of the wood slab with a sharp-edged geometry reminiscent of French art deco. What Boggs brings to all his chairs is the marriage of a sensibility for the inherent properties of fine woods with advanced techniques in joinery and wood bending. The level of comfort he can mold from wood will make you think twice about the need for upholstery.
To become an accomplished chairmaker is no mean feat. Many master cabinetmakers decline to take on chairs because of the difficulty of producing a comfortable, elegant chair strong enough to endure generations of human fidgeting. Boggs has been making chairs for thirty-two years. Working as a tobacco picker in eastern Kentucky and yearning to be an artist in his youth, he taught himself to make chairs from the books of cabinetmakers James Krenov and John (now Jennie) Alexander. He was drawn to the tradition of 'green-wood' furniture-making, a construction technique employing fresh-cut woods that allows joints to tighten as they dry. The trick is getting all the components to shrink and tighten in the right directions. Boggs still makes the classic greenwood settin' chair, although he now also employs other techniques. No matter the technique, everything produced by Brian Boggs Chairmakers follows the principles of comfort, simplicity, and master craftsmanship.
Brian Boggs himself is a whirlwind of ideas and enterprise. He has designed and fabricated his own woodworking tools, some of which are now sold through Lie-Nielson Toolworks. He has taught classes in furniture making from London to Honduras. Boggs is also a cofounder of GreenWood, a nonprofit that works with indigenous artisans in Central and South America to introduce new tools and methods in the production of wood crafts. They also consult with foresters, loggers, and local organizations to promote methods of sustainable harvesting, place rain forest under land management programs, and identify sustainable sources of wood for woodcrafters in the U.S. Boggs emphasizes, though, that "as much as possible I try and find sustainably harvested woods locally."
If all these far-flung endeavors sound as if Boggs may be stretching himself too thin, just the opposite is true. Brian Boggs Chairmakers is neither the typical craft workshop nor a small furniture factory. It's what Boggs and his partner and wife, Melanie Moeller Boggs call 'an eco-system of furniture making"-- a hybrid of old world crafts guild, twentieth century businesses efficiency systemization, and socially conscious globalism. These are the components of what the Boggs intend as a new model for American studio furniture making in an era in which fine craft as a business is almost impossible to sustain with any consistency of production, quality, and financial stability.
In the end it's all about the chairs though. The best indication of the quality of Boggs chairs may be in the quality of their collectors. Sam Maloof, an icon of California modern furniture design and master woodworker- whose work was the subject of a Smithsonian retrospective in 2001- was a Boggs collector. Jim Rawitsch, executive director of the Maloof foundation, established on Maloof's death in 2009 with the mission of perpetuating and inspiring excellence in craftsmanship, says, "Brian's work is held in high esteem around here." He adds, "like Sam, Brian understands that his art has function, so he builds for comfort as well as aesthetics…it's the kind of work you can imagine passing on to your kids and grandkids for generations."