American Made Wood Furniture, Top Posts

The Legacy of the Adirondack Chair and the Rebirth in Local Family Business

June 27, 2016

The Adirondack region is a vast unique wilderness that people visit to experience the centuries-old tradition of outdoor exploration and adventure. Whether you come to hike and breathe the clean mountain air, explore the lakes region or take in the many small villages each with their own unique flare you may notice a common distinctly identifiable item… Distinct Adirondack Furniture.

The story of how this iconic centuries old design came about is true Americana.

The first Adirondack chair was designed by Thomas Lee in 1903 at the large summer retreat he and his family frequented each summer, a large camp located in Westport, New York, on the banks of Lake Champlain. Lee was a tinkerer. He sought to create outdoor furniture for him and his family for their retreat that was rugged yet comfortable.

All summer long he worked on the design, adjusting the angles, using his family members as his test until he was satisfied. Lee arrived at a design known as the “Westport plank chair”. It doesn’t appear that he had any intention to manufacture the design. At this point they were nothing more than homemade family chairs.

Enter Harry Bunnell a carpenter friend and hunting companion to Lee. As the legend goes, while hunting together in the Autumn of 1903 Bunnell mention that he was in need of winter income. Lee’s (condensed) reply – “Why don’t you make and sell some of those big chairs?” So Lee offered up his design to Bunnell probably thinking he had helped solve his friends’ winter income dilemma. Bunnell began building his version of Lee’s chairs out of hemlock or basswood and staining them in green or medium dark brown. The residents and visitors of Westport fell in love with the design so much that Bunnell was challenged to keep pace with the demand.  In early 1904 (minus Lee’s permission) Bunnell filed for a patent (No. 794,777) on “his” chair design naming it the Westport Plank Chair.

Cliff Pierce - Manchester Wood

Cliff Pierce poses at his wrought iron factory in the 80’s in Upstate New York.

Flash forward sixty years to another tinkerer, a fast-rising businessman Cliff Pierce from Walden, New York.

Pierce had made his way into the Lake George area, through a unique opportunity to purchase a portion of an unkempt lakefront neighborhood for a bargain price.

“There was a few summers where we’d go to the bathroom in one, cook in another, and relax in a third,” he’d quip. And after fixing a few up and selling them, Pierce laid more permanent roots in Lake George; a weekend gathering place of family and friends for the next forty years.

Cliff found success building a metalworking business from the basement of his home eventually growing into a fledgling enterprise with 300 employees. A decorated veteran as well as an entrepreneur – after his success in wrought iron, he founded his woodworking company, Manchester Wood: American Made Furniture.

As “the boys,” comprised of Cliff Jr. and his two son-in-laws, took boat rides on the lake, Cliff would pass by various old family estates. Adirondack chairs were on nearly every property. Some arranged around campfire pits, others on sprawling front yards and the iconic placement of these chairs on the lakes many boat docks. There were many styles and most appeared aged and worn, falling apart over just a couple seasons. Cliff reckoned it was because they were made out of pine and scrap crates, which were the common material used for Adirondack chairs at the time.

After learning of Cliff’s interest in the chairs, a friend and neighbor at the lake happily gave Cliff one of his Adirondack chairs to study and reference dimensions. Thus began his company’s development of the folding Adirondack chair.

The initial design by Cliff, much like Thomas Lee’s, took several iterations. The slats at first were all the same width, including the seat legs. The chair featured narrower arms in an effort to keep the price competitive with similar wood furniture pieces imported by foreign manufacturers. When all was said and done, Cliff had reviewed over 10 different styles of Adirondack Chairs from the Lake George area. He wanted to see the Adirondack chair flourish across America. He felt that the piece manifests the simple yet artistic style of the region.

1984 Folding Adirondack Chair

Adirondack chair from the 1984 Chicago Housewares Trade Show.

Cliff’s version of the Adirondack Chair produced in his Manchester Wood facility, was introduced at the Chicago Housewares Trade Show in 1984. Company Reps from L.L.Bean became interested in the new Adirondack Chair. They asked for the design to be made a bit more traditional, with wider arms and seat legs, and a tapered back. “But,” they told Cliff, “Keep the folding idea!”

From this collaboration, L.L.Bean’s Folding Wooden Adirondack Chair was born, debuting in their catalog during the spring of 1985.

Over the years Manchester Wood has become famous for its quality solid wood construction, durability and ease of storage. It remains the perfect finishing touch for beach and lake houses, porches, decks, patios and many other outdoor spaces. Cliff’s company has continued to design and manufacture the wood version of the chairs in the USA exclusively for L.L.Bean to this day.

Shop L.L. Bean’s Wooden Adirondack Furniture from Manchester Wood. Featuring an assortment of Folding and Reclining Wooden Adirondack Chairs, End Tables, and Foot Rests.

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Leave a Reply