New England’s Most Beloved Chair – An Introduction to The Windsor Style
New England interior design, like its culture, is a distinctive mix of stylistic elements. Shaker, rustic, farmhouse, nautical, colonial, and coastal cottage influences blend into an inimitable and warm antique charm that defines the region’s style. So, what are some foundational pieces that encapsulate this unique look? While there’s a wide variety of fascinating furniture and decor tied to New England, today, we’re going to be focusing on the Windsor Chair.
When we think about iconic pieces in New England’s history, the Windsor chair is among the first that comes to mind. Easily recognized by a row of spindles anchored into tapered sockets on a solid wood plank seat, the Windsor chair has a variety of different forms and types that have evolved significantly over time. A staple of colonial style with unmatched intrinsic versatility, the Windsor chair has cemented itself into modern design, appearing in a multitude of styles and somehow still managing to epitomize the New England feel.
Despite the ubiquity of the Windsor chair, little is actually known as to its exact origins. While we can state with certainty that the Windsor Chair was first produced in England during the early 18th Century, taking its name from the English town Windsor, the exact date, inventor, and motivation for its genesis is left up to speculation and legend.
The first English Windsor chairs were typically used outdoors in the gardens and grounds of country estates. At the time, the popular finish was a green paint to camouflage the chair in the landscape. Shortly after their creation, Windsor Chairs were introduced to America, and started being widely produced in the colonies in the 1740s. However, by the time the Windsor chair reached America, it had already evolved into a primarily indoor chair.
While Windsor chairs originated in England, it’s often said that they were “perfected in America”. There are a few key aesthetic changes (some might say improvements) that American craftsmen made to the English style Windsors. For starters, the American chairs replaced the typical English back splats with hand-drawn spindles, creating a more airy, uniform appeal. Similarly, instead of featuring curved cabriole legs, American Windsor chairs have tapered, turned legs, streamlining, and simplifying the look.
The chair’s popularity grew exponentially in the colonies, likely due to two main reasons: Windsors were both comfortable and affordable. The seats of Windsor chairs are often carved into a saddle shape, and combined with cradling back spindles, the result is a light, elegant, durable, and supportive chair that appealed to both the masses and the wealthy alike. In fact, the continental congress sat on Windsor chairs in 1774, and George Washington had about thirty on the piazza of his personal estate at Mount Vernon. It’s even rumored that Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the constitution while sitting on a Comb-Back Windsor Chair. From Washington’s personal love of the style to its ties to the continental congress, as well as its overall popularity in the colonies, the Windsor Chair is associated with the birth of America, and thus intimately connected to its birthplace: New England.
Still, the Windsor’s connection to New England runs deeper than historical association. The American Windsor Chair is no monolith. Even in the colonies, the chair evolved over time. Regional shifts in style can be traced all throughout eighteenth century America. For instance, the now prevalent Fan Back Windsor was introduced in New England in the 1780s. Identified by its high, curved crest, it’s become one of the styles most closely associated with coastal New England. Many unique Windsor leg profiles, base stretchers, and back styles were exclusive to New England, but with so many different nuances and design intricacies, listing them here would result in rather tedious reading material.
What’s truly important about the Windsor chair is its enduring nature. In our current design climate of fast furniture and ever-changing trends, a piece as lasting and well-loved as the Windsor Chair deserves more than a moment in the spotlight. Its ability to subtly adapt over the years and consistently permeate modern interior design while remaining relatively unchanged is a testament to thoughtful craftsmanship, and an embrace of traditional design and innovation.
If you’re looking to incorporate a Windsor Chair into your home but aren’t willing to fully embrace New England centered style (whatever that may mean to you), fear not! The versatile and simple sophistication that the Windsor Chair is celebrated for ensures it blends well in a variety of looks. Creating a sense of harmony in the home, it delicately bridges the gap between the old and the new, adding balance, character, and comfort alike.
If you’d like to learn more about chair styles or just style in general, find your nearest showroom and come in for a free design consultation.
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