The 'It' Chair, a Postscript
February 3, 2009 | If we needed more proof that the "loop" chair (featured in the January issue) is having another moment in the sun, then the cover of the March 2009 issue of Traditional Home, which features three contemporary reproductions around a dining table, certainly helped drive our point home. While we can't quite claim credit for that, our "biography" of the eighteenth-century design did spark a great deal of interest and managed to flush out some other interesting tidbits we'd like to share.
First, Anthony Victoria, owner of Frederick P. Victoria & Son, the legendary antiques and high-quality reproductions business founded by his father in 1933, wrote to inform us that his father had decorated Ronald and Marietta Tree's townhouse on 79th Street when they moved to New York after World War II. As was documented in the article, Tree brought a number of things from Ditchley Park, his famous country house, including the original eighteenth-century loop chairs. Victoria's workshop copied several pieces, including a few chairs, for the Tree's American homes. At the time, the shop's draftsman made precise, full-scale drawings of the chairs which are still in the Victoria Design Library, a treasure trove containing more than a thousand working sketches of pieces that passed through the workshop from 1940 to 1960.
Too young at the time of the Tree commission, Tony Victoria never saw the originals, but he is very familiar with the drawings. "Even as a child, I remember my father calling them one of the most complicated designs ever made," he recalls. "There is no inventory of the commission, but the fact that we have these drawings certainly implies that we made some to fill out the set."
Victoria agrees with the assessment of Lanto Synge that lamination is the best way to go in producing chairs that could be both elegant and strong. "Of course, the laminating process adds a great deal more cost and time to the project. The estimate of $12,000 doesn't strike me as way out of line," he says. "They are incredible and impossible, a tour de force of the chairmaker's imagination - and courage!"
This was certainly interesting. Then, Peter Lang at Sotheby's let us know that the article had flushed out the four chairs made by Frances Elkins in 1934 for the Leslie Wheeler house in Lake Forest, Illinois. Sotheby's plans to offer the set at auction this April.
Lang put us in touch with Mrs. Charles H. Gedge, the consignor, who now lives in Minneapolis. Reached on the telephone, Mrs. Gedge recalls a day "sometime in the late 1960s, or perhaps 1970 or '71" when she noticed an unusual amount of traffic on Mayflower Road. "Lake Forest was just a quiet town then and I wondered why there were so many cars, so I took a walk," she said. "The old Wheeler house was just a few doors down, and that was where all the activity was. It was the Prentice estate sale. Mrs. Wheeler had been remarried to Clarence Prentice years before and had still owned that wonderful David Adler house."
Mrs. Gedge had a look around and ended up taking home the Elkins chairs and a few other pieces that day. "The room looked exactly the same as it does in that black and white photo from the thirties," she recalled. "The chairs were painted a horrible dirty cream-beige color. Mrs. Elkins and all the decorators used it and it was the color in all our mothers' houses... that and blue. I just hated it. But I took them home for the bridge table in our garden room. I had them painted bright yellow."
A few years later, when the Gedges moved a few blocks away, the chairs traveled with them. At that point, Mrs. Gedge had them lacquered black, the color they are today. "Other than that, they've never been repaired except to have the arms tightened," Mrs. Gedge says. "They're surprisingly big, comfortable chairs. Men really liked sitting in them and, you know, men can be hard on furniture."
The chairs traveled with Mr. and Mrs. Gedge to a house in Naples, Florida, where they resided until three years ago when Mrs. Gedge moved back north to be near one of her children. "They're not really scaled for apartment living," she says.
"They're so well made," she reports. "When I was building the house in Naples, I thought they'd be nice in the dining room and ordered four additional ones from a reproduction company in New York. They were terrible, a different scale, very stiff. I just hated them and ended up giving them to the church for a rummage sale."
"We loved using them all those years," she says of the Elkins originals. "And I can just see someone else continuing to use them. I've asked all my kids if they wanted them, but they've said no, so the article made me think it might be a good time to let them go."
We'll report back when the chairs are scheduled for a particular auction.