Orkney chairs, the inspiration.

While visiting the newly established furniture gallery at the V&A museum in 2012 I saw an Orkney Chair designed and made by David Kirkness c 1890, the first time I'd come across a chair of this kind and quite unlike anything I'd seen before.

I was transfixed and on leaving could not stop thinking about the chairs so I started to research their history to establish the reasons for combining straw and wood, an unusual and highly evocative pairing.

Originally made by the islanders to furnish their drafty croft houses, Orkney chairs came about because of the need to protect themselves from the extremes of the winter weather. Using locally sourced natural materials, oat straw from their crops and driftwood washed up on beaches, islanders made their chairs to be positioned around the hearth. The shape of the back designed to enclose the user, creating an alcove that faced the fire, high enough to protect their heads and bodies from the ravaging winter winds blowing through even the best built stone house. The frames were designed with either a wooden or woven seat and sometimes with storage beneath the chair but the emphasis that influenced the design of the frame was to provide means of supporting the woven back, made using traditional basket making techniques and tied using sea grass.

Highly insulative, straw also captures and retains the heat from the hearth and left empty in front of the fire the chair backs heat up and provide a very welcoming respite. Shaped for comfort, the woven straw is an extremely strong and durable structure in its own right, yet it flexes very slightly as the user shifts within the chair adding to the overall level of comfort.

Scapa chair

In creating the Scapa chair (named after Scapa Flow, a body of water between Orkney and its neighbouring islands and one of the largest natural harbours in the world, as well as a nod to Scapa Crafts, the company who weave the chair backs) I wanted to explore a relationship between contemporary frame making techniques and the traditional method of straw weaving, a technique unchanged for many centuries.

I also wanted to make more of the straw element of the chair to really celebrate the technique and its combination with a wooden frame and this meant understanding the process of attaching it. Weaving straw onto the frames is a technique requiring a high degree of skill and long practice as well as a good eye for line and proportion. Upon visiting Jackie and Marlene Miller of Scapa Crafts (one of only a couple of producers still making traditional Orkney chairs) it very quickly became apparent that to create the required shape would mean approaching the weaving process in a different way.

The first prototype was a terrific learning experience and it enabled us to establish the best way to incorporate Jackie's technique and by using specially made jigs to guide each layer, of which there are 91 in total, it made subsequent chairs easier to weave accurately.

The frame is purposefully contemporary but it references some key features of traditional Orkney chairs, one of which is the vertical spars that extend from the foot of the chair right up to the top and to which the straw layers are attached. On the Scapa chair, these spars are designed to be longer and thinner than is usual, enabling them to flex more in use and therefore allow the woven element to give more as the user relaxes into the chair. The seat is unusual for an Orkney chair and combines reference to an adzed and pull shaved Windsor chair seat.

The process is highly sustainable as the Oat straw is grown on Orkney and when cleaned for the weaving process all of the waste material is recycled back to the farm from where it came. The frames are made using European ash or oak using a combination of the latest wood machining processes and hand craft.

The other day a friend asked me how long it had taken to design and develop the chair...I sat there and started to count the days of design, prototyping and travel and was about to give him an answer and he said, “it's taken you 35 years"! I'd never really thought about it that way but the Scapa chair represents a personal expression of that knowledge and experience, starting from a boy of 8 being taught how to make his first dovetailed box for his butterfly collection in his father's workshop.

  • Orkney Chair by David Kirkness
Simon Pengelly

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