The antitheses of fast furniture, the handcrafted Windsor chairs made by furniture artisan Bern Chandley are modern-day heirlooms. We meet the maker in his one-man Melbourne workshop.
When I meet Bern Chandley, softly spoken and sporting a full gingery beard and a moss-coloured tweed flat cap, the first thing I notice is how perfectly he coordinates with his furniture. One chair in particular has its legs and back painted a soft shade of emerald green. They look good together.
One of nature’s makers, Bern is passionate about Windsor chairs, an English design first used in the gardens of Windsor castle in the early 1700s. The form is characterised by a solid saddlle-shaped timber seat into which the back and legs are fixed into round holes, which make it very strong. “The thing that attracts me to them most is that the joinery is bomb-proof,” says Bern. Part of the charm of Windsor chairs he tells me is that the joints remain evident to the eye and touch, the opposite of the approach taken with modern furniture. “If you went into some places on Church Street or somewhere like that you wouldn’t find furniture where you see this sort of thing because it’s seen as a bit of a no-no,” he explains. “For me I need to tell the story of the joinery. The joinery is essential to this.”
While Bern prefers working alone, the chance to talk more about the process behind his chairs is one of the things that most excites him about the new collaboration with Hale Mercantile Co. “This sort of chair, with the price that it is being completely handmade, it has to come with a story,” says Bern. He wants to support himself and other artisan producers by highlighting the special qualities of furniture made by a sole individual, just as it would have been done 300 years ago. “For some people that’s very important, that it’s just the one pair of hands that have made the whole chair,” says Bern. “I’m not sending it off to get finished or anything, I’m just doing it by myself.” Bern likens these artisan characteristics of his products to the traditional, yarn-dyed luxury linens made by Hale Mercantile Co. A mindset of ‘buying once’ and investing in heirloom quality is one Bern is keen to promote across the board.
One of Bern’s favourite Windsors is the ‘continuous arm rocker’, a New York rocking chair so named because the arms and back are made from a single piece of timber. He has one sitting at the end of his workbench. I’m impressed when he tells me it would take him just a week to make one from scratch. ”You get quicker as you go along. Some of the processes are quite laborious, like the spindles.” In reality, even as a one-man show, Bern can’t afford the luxury of making one chair at a time. “My family is counting on me” he exclaims, laughing. Though he does quickly recall one time when he had to drop everything and focus on a single rocking chair he was making for a mother-to-be. “It was getting close to the due date so I had to drop everything and go onto that because babies don’t wait!”
While the New York rocker has become one of his bestsellers, Bern admits he didn’t initially understand the appeal of rocking chairs beyond the cliché. “It’s funny with rockers. When I started doing Windsors I didn’t think about them much at all,” he says. “Like a lot of people, I kind of just thought they belonged on an old person’s verandah in a cartoon or something, but they are incredibly comfortable chairs to sit in.” And not just for old folk or young mothers.
“One of my proudest commissions was for a young guy. He was 28 and he’d just seen one of my chairs, the continuous arm rocker, and decided that he wanted one, so he saved up his money and he commissioned me to make him one” Bern recalls. “I love that because more often than not people are going to be maybe in their 50s or older with something like that so, you know, that was pretty great, “ he says smiling. “I’d love to get more commissions like that from younger people who want it because they just love it”.
The longevity of his chairs is something Bern says he tries hard to convey to his customers. “The thing I really love about it is that it’s not something that is just going to fall apart and end up in the hard rubbish one day. It’s something that the baby who was nursed in it is going to use to sit in when they’re an old person and that means a lot to me,“ he says. Not one to oversell, Bern knows that a real point of difference between his work and the vast majority of the chairs people buy today is durability. “Sometimes it sounds like I’m a snake oil salesman or something,” he laughs. “ ‘This will last forever!’ But there’s a reality there. These are made to last for a long time. They’re not fly-by-nighters.”