Monday, December 26, 2011

Museums features iconic William Morris chair

NOTE:  Since this article was first posted in December 2011, there has been considerable discussion as to whether this chair was, in fact, produced by Morris & Co.  Although a reputable appraiser in Chicago did identify it as such, it appears that the chair may have been made by A. H. Davenport & Co., the Boston-based company which produced numerous pieces of furniture for the Glessners when they moved into their new home on Prairie Avenue in 1887.  Several key features of our chair including the shape of the spindles and arms, the shape and splay of the front legs, and the cut, color, and finish of the quarter-sawn oak have been identified as iconic trademarks of Davenport work, and not at all typical of the similar chairs being made by Morris & Co.  (January 2, 2014)

The museum is proud to have an example of one of the most admired furniture designs of Morris & Company: the adjustable-back Morris chair. Big, roomy, and incredibly comfortable, it is a chair in which one of the Glessners could easily spend an evening reading by the fire. The chair has wide arms to accommodate books, a loose cushioned seat, and a reclining back that is adjustable by a hinge at the base and held secure with a brass rod across the back (see detail photo below). In a sense, this was the first Lazy-boy (albeit the former is arguably a more striking composition).  The original Morris chair - as it is simply referred to today - was designed by Philip Webb in 1866 for Morris & Co. At the time, the company’s business manager, Warington Taylor, recommended that Webb create a chair based on one he had seen belonging to an old Sussex carpenter.

Eventually many variations of the design were being produced in different styles (Flemish, Spanish, Mission), materials (oak, mahogany), and price points ($4.25- $100).  By 1905, nearly every manufacturer at the New York Furniture Exchange displayed some form of the chair and it went on to become a must-have for every household in America.

Webb’s design is the most common; however it is not the style that the Glessners chose. William Watt, another designer for Morris & Co., designed our Morris chair in 1883. The two styles, though not far apart in age, are quite different. Webb’s design is more formal with beaded scrolling and a slightly curved frame - more reminiscent of the Queen Anne style, while Watt’s simplistic form is a nice example of arts and crafts design.

Our Morris chair, located in the library, has an oak frame and is upholstered in green velvet.  An historic photograph of the library taken in 1888 shows that the Morris chair was originally upholstered in a patterned fabric. It seems highly probable that a William Morris designed upholstery was used to match or compliment the adjacent sofa which also shows a richly patterned fabric. 

Contributed by Jessica Blemker-Ferree (Intern, 2010)


  1. This fine chair is actually American in origin. It was designed and manufactured by A. H. Davenport of Boston who referred to it as "The Tip Chair".

  2. Without wishing to offend the nationalistic tendencies of people, the chair design was a fairly common type of chair made in England before the existence of the United States. The article, correctly, refers to the style been commonly found in Sussex, which was adopted by the Arts and Crafts Movement as a good, simple design which would carry the fabrics designed by Morris well. Simple, unfussy and English, were the main points of the chair design.

  3. The comment about “nationalistic tendencies of people” seems to challenge the fact that this chair is “American in origin.” While the prototype for such adjustable chairs may have been “made in England before the existence of the United States” and this specific example may have a generic connection to the Morris & Co. versions, William Watt did not design this chair nor did Morris & Co. manufacture it as Ms Blemker-Ferree states.

    Even if the Glessner House did not hold one of the largest collections of A. H. Davenport furnishings in existence, the attribution of this chair to Davenport cannot be credibly refuted. The shape of the spindles, the shape of the arms, and the shape and splay of the front legs as well as the cut, color, and finish of the quartered oak are tantamount to Davenport signatures and are never seen on Morris & Co. productions. A drawing of a virtually identical chair is in the Smithsonian’s Davenport archives and examples were used in Davenport’s own house and at McKim, Mead, and White’s Naumkeag. On-going research may confirm that Frances Bacon—who designed the Glessner piano--supplied Davenport’s company with designs for such “tip chairs” as well as myriad variations that fall well outside the Arts and Crafts style as we now recognize it.


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