Sitting Firm works with some of the best designers in the business to reinvent a classic chair
‘If we were still doing the traditional Windsor chairs I don’t think we’d be here. Probably 80 per cent of our work is modern,’ says Dave Green of Sitting Firm Chairmakers. Touring the company’s workshop, set in three acres of genuinely bucolic countryside just outside Coventry, is like a mini A-Z of (largely) British designers.
As we talk, we walk past the jig for Katie Walker’s Windsor Rocker, a chair that is in danger of being described as iconic, while pieces by William Warren, Gareth Neal, Alex Hellum and Samuel Wilkinson sit in various stages of production. I notice a label on another chair saying ‘David Irwin for Another Country’. There’s a prototype for a new design from Simon Pengelly, which Green is hoping to get into John Lewis next autumn: ‘I have high hopes for that, it should sell very well,’ he tells me.
Elsewhere, a prototype from Mark Gabbertas is hanging from the ceiling. At the moment it’s made in MDF so designer and manufacturer can get the shape right. And then there are Green’s own pieces. ‘I’m more of a craftsman than a designer,’ he says unassumingly. ‘I’ve been taught by other designers.’
It all begs the question: where does this fascination with the Windsor come from? ‘At Rycotewood College, I did a project where I made a scale model of a Windsor. I think that’s what set me off,’ says Green. He started Sitting Firm in 1989, after working for companies such as Minty Furniture and setting up Fauld Town and Country Furniture. ‘I just got fed up of working for someone else, really.’
The hardest part initially, it transpires, was finding suitable workshop space. ‘We struggled to find anything we could afford,’ Green remembers. ‘Sitting Firm nearly didn’t get off the ground because of that. But once we started, we got orders easily and quickly.’ By the end of year one the company was employing six people, and soon afterwards landed its first order from John Lewis – today, the retailer accounts for around eight per cent of the company’s turnover. The firm also has work stocked at Heal’s and exports to Europe, the USA, Japan and, more recently, China. ‘We’ve just got our first Chinese customer,’ says Green. ‘They’ve always copied and ripped us off – now they have money.’
At its peak the firm was employing 42 people, which was too many for Green, a man whose heart, you suspect, resides in the workshop. ‘I was just a personal manager. I didn’t like that. I’m a craftsman,’ he confirms. Currently he employs 15 staff, the vast majority of whom have been with him for well over a decade, producing between 200-250 chairs a week, including specials for clients such as 10 Downing Street, the V&A and even the Queen.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing. The company was hit hard by the recession, briefly going into administration. ‘It was a horrible time,’ says Green. ‘I thought we’d had it.’ By his own admission Green owes a debt to artist and designer Chris Eckersley, who has worked almost as the company’s unofficial creative director since the pair first met in 2008. ‘He modernised Sitting Firm,’ says Green succinctly. Eckersley created the company’s first contemporary chair and introduced Green to a slew of designers, initially through the Bodging Milano project in 2010 (see Crafts no. 224, May/June 2010).
Eckersley, for his part, is modest about his influence. ‘Sitting Firm was a discovery for me, and I knew a lot of people who I thought would like to have a look at what it was doing. I’m a Midlands person and it’s Midlands-based – really, I should have known about them. I’d seen their van driving around for a long time. It looked quite traditional, with a graphic of an old man mending a chair. I didn’t really get what they were doing. But from the minute I went in and was shown around by Dave I fell in love with the place. It’s an amazing set up. One of the great things about Sitting Firm from a designer’s point of view is that Dave really is a “yes” person as opposed to the all-too-familiar British manufacturer’s intake of breath and “you want to do what?” sort of attitude. Dave really does want to take the Windsor chair tradition and move it forward, rather than just sticking rigidly to the same-old-same-old that they’ve always done.’
‘The idea of the whole place is that everything looks hand-made, but machines do the donkey work,’ Green tells me as we start our tour. He purchased the old sawmill 21 years ago and purpose-built his workshop. ‘I designed a lot of the machines myself. That’s like a giant pencil sharpener,’ he says, pointing to one. ‘You push a piece of wood in there and a lovely tapered tenon comes out. It’s very quick and easy. Simple is best.’ In one corner is his pride and joy: the adze machine, which cost £30,000 18 years ago and roughs out a chair seat. ‘It’s the only one in the world that can do them that quickly, especially made for us.’
Adjacent to this is the steam-bending area with an adjoining drying room, where the wood will sit for two to three days. As Green points out, there’s no production line as such: ‘In a way, each person is their own individual boss.’
From here we move outside to see where his supply of timber is stored – the company uses ash predominantly, but works with oak, elm and cherry as well as American black walnut – and Green visits yards across the nation, picking out suitable wood before it goes through the assembly areas, the prototyping space and ends up, appropriately enough, in the finishing room, where the company paints, oils, waxes and even distresses if necessary. As Green points out: ‘You can make a beautiful chair and ruin it with the finish.’ From there, the chairs are packaged up before leaving the factory.
Has working with contemporary designers changed the company’s processes, I wonder? ‘We’ve had to up the standards,’ replies Green. ‘When we used to make traditional chairs we would antique them, bash them with a brick and a chain, we’d get away with a lot more. Now every imperfection shows.’
It has recently acquired a new piece of kit, which will be arriving next month: a five-axis CNC machine. ‘It’s quite scary, but I feel it’s the right thing to do. It was now or never because I can get a 30 per cent European grant to purchase it,’ he explains. To house it, the company has had to make its ceiling 500cm higher. At the time of my visit the young designer-maker Mark Laban (our recent Talent Spot, see Crafts November/December 2016) was due to come in for a conversation with Green about how best to use it. ‘It will help us take chairs to the next level,’ says the owner. ‘I think in three to four year’s time we’ll have several of these CNCs, as well as our conventional machinery.’ It seems Sitting Firm’s future is about to be delivered.