History of the Adirondack Chair

If you thought ergonomics, built-in cup holders, aging-in-place and universal design concepts developed as a result of our highly evolved 21st-century lifestyles, you might need to take a time-out in a classic Adirondack chair.

More than 100 years ago Thomas Lee incorporated these concepts into the simple, practical lawn chairs (likely precursors of today’s Adirondack styles) that he built for guests at his summer cottage in Westport, New York. Here are a few ways in which his designs were ahead of their time:

Ergonomics – Above all else, Lee’s “plank” chair needed to be comfortable. It was designed for sitting at a downward-facing slant on a mountainside — hence the reclining seat and sloped angle of the back legs (no more wedgies for people enjoying a downhill view of the lake).

Cup holders – Another testament to Lee’s sense of practicality: The chairs’ arms were almost as wide as the seats, offering enough room to park a beverage – heck, an entire meal. (And we thought cup holders were the brainchild of the auto industry.)

Universal design – Lee’s desire to construct chairs that fit people of various sizes was an early example of universal design. He met this goal by recruiting family members to test prototypes of the chairs.

Aging-in-place — The patent application (U.S. Patent No. 794,777) for Lee’s chair discreetly described a shelf beneath the hinged seat that provided “a support for a vessel or receptacle of any desired kind.” This chamber-pot-like feature allowed the chair to be “converted into an invalid’s chair.”

Green – Because the chair was efficiently constructed out of just one plank of regionally grown wood, you could say it was an early example of eco-friendly design. Lee constructed his original chair with 11 parts, requiring only 10 cuts per chair. He also designed it to be durable (or in green-speak, sustainable).

Proving he was kind as well as innovative, Lee granted his friend Harry Bunnell permission to make and sell copies of the chairs to earn some much-needed cash during a tough winter. But before the next vacation season ended, Bunnell could see the chairs’ potential for profit, and he secretly patented the design in 1904. He set up shop and continued to manufacture the “Westport Plank Chair” for more than 20 years.

Though the friendship ended there, the story of the classic chair didn’t. The quintessential lawn furniture seated in New York’s Adirondack Mountain region is a favorite for any terrain. Modern designs still feature wide, flat armrests, a reclining back and steeply angled rear legs, and they are still incredibly comfortable to sit upon. As the design details continue to evolve, the most pronounced deviations from the original plank models are in the slatted seat and back (not to mention the absent “receptacle” support shelf).

The drawing on Bunnell’s patent application shows a cutaway view of the Westport Plank Chair, including the interior shelf support and a foldout footrest.