The Nymphs’ chair

It lives in the kitchen, where it has been standing for what seems like an eternity, this chair with arms, a decorated seat and six sinuously curved spindles in the backrest.

It certainly isn’t every day that I take a seat on such an elaborate pattern. Two lightly clad, nymph-like female forms amid festoons of acanthus leaf with a beautifully proportioned urn as the jewel in the crown. And, immediately below, a rather sad-looking male face. What is the reason for so crestfallen an expression? Might it have something to do with his flattened nose? Or does he simply feel he has far too heavy a burden to bear?

The seat is made of plywood: several layers of veneer laid this way and that, and then glued one on top of the other – hence plywood’s other name, “cross veneer”. The decorative design has been stamped in the seat from the underside.

An ordinary chair with a motif that is frequently encountered – and yet a chair that is also altogether rather pleasant to behold. A cushion might have been a good idea, as the seat is rather less than comfortable, but then, of course, the two nymphs would be hidden and the chair would be sadly bereft of its unique appearance.

Maybe the wiser course of action is simply not to sit here drinking tea for hours on end.

The chair was made some time around 1900. It has turned legs and a H-stretcher and is finished in a brown stain. The wood may well be birch, a fairly common choice for chairs of this kind, so it’s a safe guess that the seat is made of birch plywood.

Plywood has been in use since the 1700s although some experts believe the technique is even older.

The dining chairs with plywood at Osterley Park, England, were designed by the renowned English architect Robert Adam and are said to date from around 1773.

Plywood is also often associated with the world famous furniture designer and chairmaker Michael Thonet, who used it for his iconic bentwood café chairs that he first came into production in the mid-1800s.

Seats of veneer, or rather, plywood, embellished with some kind of decorative element that was either perforated or with imprinted patterns, were imported from Estonia, Russia and elsewhere. I’ve recently come across the epithet ‘Russian seat’, although this particular seat may just as well have originated in Estonia. Much depends on when the chair was made. Estonia was an independent nation between 1918 and 1940. The Luterma factory was founded there in 1883, and in 1908 Luterma established a sister company (Venesta) in London.

Stick-back chairs like these with their Art Nouveau curves, shell patterns and nymphs were frequently the result of collaborations between chairmakers in Sweden and abroad. The chair itself could easily be Swedish, with a seat imported from Estonia.

Sometimes you can be fortunate enough to find a factory mark on the underside of the plywood seat that says ‘Luterma Made in Estonia’. Occasionally a double-headed eagle is stamped in black above the Luterma mark, showing that the seat was made at a time when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire.

In its heyday the Luterma factory was a leading name in the manufacture of plywood and furniture with a range that extended to hat boxes, suitcases, handbags, boxes, shoulder bags and so on – all in plywood.

This delightful “kitchen chair” has no factory stamp on the underside, but the decorative pattern is typical of Luterma chairs, so I think we can claim with confidence that this unmarked example did, indeed, originally come from Estonia.

As an aside, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the lounger that Marcel Breuer designed in 1936, his so called Short Chair, used plywood from Luterma.

The Luterma factory derives its name from that of the company’s founder, A.M. Luther.

The name Venesta derives from the word ‘veneer’ and ‘esta’, which stands for Estonia.

Veneer is a thin layer of hardwood that is typically glued onto some kind of core material made of various types of less prized wood.

Veneers have been used since the days of Classical Antiquity.

Plywood is made up of multiple layers (or ‘plies’) of wood veneer that are glued together so that adjacent layers are cross-grained to produce a strong, durable panel.

Gun Bjerkander Handberg

Notes from the editor:

Summer time is still very much with us in Sweden, with long hot days of sunshine… possibly a good opportunity to sit in the shade and enjoy a charming book perhaps?

The Please Be Seated – Historic Chairs and the Tales They Tell book series is available online at Waterstones and all good book outlets and is filled to the brim with interesting chairs and historic tales.

Enjoy ☀️