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The Patented Elastic Chairs of Samuel Gragg

The American Folk gallery has long been a favorite of mine here at the Art Institute. I find there’s plenty of room for the imagination to roam, as many of the objects and their creators remain obscure. Recently, I became intrigued by the mention of an “elastic chair” patent in the wall text to the deceptively simple Side Chair by Samuel Gragg. After contacting our American Art department, I learned that the furniture maker was based in Boston at the turn of the 19th century, and received his “elastic chair” patent on August 31, 1808. The document was signed by none other than Thomas Jefferson and James Madison! Though the exact technological process has not been fully identified, Gragg definitely used steam to bend the wood, and then cured it in an oven. In this way, he could make the structural components of his chairs out of single strips of wood, sometimes crafting the back, stile, and leg of a chair out of just one piece. Gragg must have been aware of the imported European trends of the day, as evidenced by the painted peacock feathers gracing the crest rail and back splat. Neoclassical style was all the rage in those days. Gragg derived the design of Side Chair from the ancient klismos chairs often depicted in Greek pottery. For all their contemporary chic, however, Gragg’s elastic chairs still bear the hand of a true innovator in American furniture design. Few extant examples of his work remain today, but the few that exist can be found in the permanent collections of museums across the country.