Trending Now: The Adirondack Chair

Synonymous with relaxation in the great outdoors, the Adirondack chair has invited us to lean back and fill our lungs with fresh air for more than a century. Is its origin story one of friendship and generosity or a dramatic theft? Grab a seat and read on.

Like all good campfire tales, the story of what we now know as the Adirondack chair combines history, mystery and a dash of “well, it depends on where you’re sitting.”

Fire Pit with Surrounding Adirondack Chairs

Fire Pit with Surrounding Adirondack Chairs

A fire pit with adirondack chairs surrounding it gives the family a perfect space to enjoy a cool, peaceful evening outdoors.

Photo by: Scenic Landscaping

Scenic Landscaping

Furniture buffs agree upon the details of the first chair’s creation: In the summer of 1903, a man named Thomas Lee was vacationing with his family at a cottage in Westport, a picturesque town on the shore of upstate New York’s Lake Champlain (in — yep — the Adirondack Mountains). Unsatisfied with the uncomfortable Victorian furniture available to him, he began tinkering with knot-free slabs of eastern hemlock, a sturdy, low-resin wood sourced from evergreens that were plentiful in the area. After encouraging innumerable test-lounging sessions from his extended clan, he hit upon an unpretentious design that combined eleven pieces of lumber from a single plank to create a chair with a deeply pitched seat, a slanted back, and generous armrests. So far, so good.

Bessboro Builders, a supply and furnishings company in Westport, NY, produces the “Westport Thomas Lee Chair,” an exact dimensional replica of Lee’s original chair. They sell assembled versions “but can be left unassembled at the customer’s request,” if you prefer to follow in Lee’s footsteps. (Price upon request.)

Photo by: Bessboro Builders

Bessboro Builders

Bessboro Builders, a supply and furnishings company in Westport, NY, produces the “Westport Thomas Lee Chair,” an exact dimensional replica of Lee’s original chair. They sell assembled versions “but can be left unassembled at the customer’s request,” if you prefer to follow in Lee’s footsteps. (Price upon request.)

At this point, the tale gets a bit murkier. Lee was something of a Renaissance man, and he divided his time and energies among business ventures and hobbies in multiple communities. Westport was a beloved summer retreat, but he had no plans to put down roots as a local furniture tycoon. His friend Henry Bunnell, on the other hand, was a local carpenter with a shop near the Westport Fairgrounds — and he was keen to develop a revenue stream that would carry him through the winter months. As Lee’s great-great-grandson told a reporter from The Sun (an upstate community paper) a few years ago, his inventive ancestor “had no interest in manufacturing,” and he gave Bunnell a copy of his plans and encouragement to produce the chair.

Green Adirondack Chairs on Patio

Green Adirondack Chairs on Patio

Green Adirondack chairs blend seamlessly with their leafy surrounding.

Photo by: Rich Cording

Rich Cording

Bunnell wasted no time: In 1904, he applied to patent “a chair of the bungalow type adapted for use on porches, lawns, at camps, and also adapted to be converted into an invalids [sic] chair. A further object of the invention is to produce as strong durable chair adapted to withstand rough usage and exposure to the weather.” The chair pictured in his application featured cushions and a footrest, but it was, in essence, Lee’s design.

Small Patio With White Adirondack Chairs

Small Patio With White Adirondack Chairs

In addition to a spacious deck, the designers added small patios tucked in amongst the flower beds. Add twin adirondack chairs plus a favorite book for a sweet afternoon retreat.

Photo by: Victoria Martel

Victoria Martel

Lee’s great-great-nephew concedes that his “Uncle Tommy”’s generous gesture was less than thrilling to some of his descendants, since a “patent meant money” (and Lee might have enjoyed the distinction of the patent itself), but if the inventor had regrets, he seems to have kept them to himself — and it’s certainly pleasant to think that a backyard classic might owe its omnipresence to an act of friendship.

Small Patio With Black Adirondack Chairs

Small Patio With Black Adirondack Chairs

All it takes to create an outdoor getaway is a comfortable chair or two. Here, designer Erin Benedict chose a pair of Adirondack chairs softened by large cushy pillows. And, note the pulled-back curtain to one side: If you have a place to hang a curtain rod or wire, an outdoor curtain adds softness and privacy. “Elegant black and gold striped drapes perfectly frame the Adirondack chairs, adding a contemporary element while complementing the timeless architectural details of the early 1920s structure,” Benedict says.

Photo by: Shelley Gardea; Design By: Erin Benedict, Benedict August

Shelley Gardea; Design By: Erin Benedict, Benedict August

Bunnell wasn’t the only entrepreneur to receive a patent related to what we now know as the Adirondack chair: in 1938, a New Jersey inventor named Irving Wolpin successfully patented his variation on the piece, a “lawn chair or similar article” featuring the thinner slats and contours we associate with the style today.

POLYWOOD processes about 400,000 milk jugs per day to create its ultra-durable upcycled outdoor furniture. Its Classic Adirondack Chairs start at $219.

Photo by: Polywood

Polywood

POLYWOOD processes about 400,000 milk jugs per day to create its ultra-durable upcycled outdoor furniture. Its Classic Adirondack Chairs start at $219.

Another pair of friends added to the chair’s story in 1990, when high school buddies Doug Rassi and Mark Philabaum co-founded POLYWOOD in a garage. Their bright idea: To use recycled materials to create high-density polyethylene plastic outdoor furniture. Their very first weather-resistant piece: The Adirondack chair, of course. (They now produce 16 different styles.)

The Loll Designs Adirondack (2008) bears a resemblance to Thomas Lee’s original Westport Chair… and includes a hidden bottle opener beneath one arm. (Design Within Reach, $495 and up)

Photo by: DWR

DWR

The Loll Designs Adirondack (2008) bears a resemblance to Thomas Lee’s original Westport Chair… and includes a hidden bottle opener beneath one arm. (Design Within Reach, $495 and up)

The team at Loll Designs, in turn, began making their retro-futuristic Adirondack pieces as a side project. The company was founded as a way for a custom skate park manufacturer to reprocess the excess material used for ramps — and more than a decade later, Loll has turned more than 100 million milk jugs into sleek, sturdy outdoor furniture.

Patio Sitting Area With Adirondack Chairs

Patio Sitting Area With Adirondack Chairs

To encourage conversation among both friends and acquaintances, position lounge chairs around a fire pit with s'mores and cocktail essentials. Encouraging guests to face one another helps facilitate easy conversation.

Bunnell’s original Westport Chairs are identifiable by the patent number (US79477A) stamped on the back, and they’re a hot collector’s item: the real deal will set you back more than a thousand dollars. Modern resin Adirondack chairs, in turn, can ring in for less than $20. If the spirit of Thomas Lee inspires you, of course, you can gather up some old lumber (and family and friends to serve as your test-loungers) and get to work on your own addition to the tradition. A word to the wise: you might want to get your patent application ready before you settle in with a glass of iced tea and a paperback — just to avoid confusion.

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