Seats of Power: How Chairs Help Define Our History and Leadership – The Washington Post | Salisbury Pipes

It’s hard to talk about Washington without mentioning chairs. The city is the seat of government. The most influential people in Congress chair committees. Politicians dethrone each other in elections and in Congress. But few pay attention to the actual objects on which our guides sit.

A forthcoming book, The Art of Seating, recommends taking chairs seriously both as sculptures and as political statements. “Through the chair’s unique lens alone one can see the progress of the young nation through to the present day,” its author, Brian J. Lang, chief curator of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, told me. His book tells the stories of 57 leaders, including some from early American government.

Chairs, notes James Zemaitis, curator and director of museum relations at New York design gallery R & Company, have radiated power from the very beginning, when stools raised chiefs on the battlefields. As for the iconic interior design choices at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. As Matthew Costello, senior historian at the White House Historical Association puts it, “It’s a much more complicated story than ‘I’ll just pick a chair’ or ‘I need a sofa.’ ”

US government chairs of the 19th century stylistically quoted ancient Greece and Rome in order to connect the young democracy with the historical one. But there were problems: if it went across the ocean, furniture made for European cafes — where people leaned forward to talk — required suspenders to accommodate American backrests. “Reclining in a chair is an American trait,” Zemaitis told me. Sitters found this out the hard way when three Executive Mansion chairs broke within four months of being installed in 1810 – which designer Benjamin Latrobe blamed on men reclining too far. “Maybe he was so fixated on creating the Greek-inspired design that he didn’t really think about what the average person is going to do when they’re sitting in those chairs,” Costello told me.

In 1857, oak chairs designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, architect of the Capitol expansion under President Millard Fillmore, made their debut in the House of Representatives chamber. Their “sturdy, hard wood” symbolized “the resilience of the nation and the government that would be tested less than a decade later by the Civil War,” Lang told me.

Hunter and trapper Seth Kinman, who liked to give presidents chairs made from animal bones, offered Andrew Johnson one made from grizzly bear parts. (He claimed to have killed 800.) The chair, which looks very uncomfortable, appears in a 19th-century illustration of the White House.

A century later when she found out about a site table of the Parisian furniture manufacturer Pierre-Antoine Bellangé in the White House warehouse, Jacqueline Kennedy, a well-known Francophile, retrieved as many of the original 53 parts as possible. These included chairs, sofas, and tables, all of which were acquired by the administration of President James Monroe in 1817. The originals featured red upholstery, but lacked the eagle detailing Monroe had hoped for. “It just goes to show that even the President of the United States can’t get what he wants,” Costello says.

The White House collection eventually acquired nine of the original Bellangé pieces that had been sold at auction. Today, the chairs and sofas look far more upscale: they were reupholstered during the Obama and Trump administrations and wrapped in horsehair to original specifications — including £86 per sofa.

Inspired by Lang’s book, I went into the bowels of the Rayburn House Office Building, where the business of making and repairing congressional chairs goes on with little fanfare (and where I got to see lots of horse hair up close). There I visited Carol Swan, manager of the upholstery and drapery businesses, which come under the home office of the Chief Administrative Officer.

Swan gets angry when she sees people leaning back in chairs in congressional offices. “I would hit them on the head, believe me, to protect the chair,” she says. “People don’t rearrange chairs nicely or think about the age of the chairs. Chairs get pretty abused here.”

I also met Corey Gates, the lead upholsterer who, along with Swan, prepared the annual restoration of the lectern chair made in 1941 for Sam Rayburn, the formidable Texas Democrat who gave the building its name. Testing swivel joints, the two have the opportunity to sit in chairs they fix, and they report that some are less comfortable than one would assume. According to Swan, everyone in the Cannon House Office Building wants one of the “Turkish” motif armchairs, which start out very firm but get cozier and mold perfectly to a member’s body after five years. “I’ll tell him,” she says, “‘in five years you’ll be comfortable, sir.’ ‘Oh, do you think I’ll be there then?’ ‘Yes. You could be.’ ”

Swan and Gates passed on some interesting tidbits: that there’s Kevlar in the seats on the floor of the House of Representatives so lawmakers can hide behind it to protect themselves from gunfire if necessary. That bomb-sniffing dogs bit the upholstery. That members of Congress poached their office furniture from other members when they put items in the hallways for repairs.

Darren Dahlstrom, manager of Rayburn’s cabinet shop, which repairs furniture, told me he often thinks about the prestige of his work, especially when he’s tending a speaker’s or other executive’s chair. “Not that often with the staff,” he said dryly.

In the finishing shop, manager John Garcia has been working on many plays from the Cannon Caucus Room, where the January 6 hearings are held. “We see that on TV and we’re like, ‘This is our job. We did. We touched that,’” he says. “It’s humbling to realize that you’re really making history.”

Menachem Wecker is a writer based in Silver Spring.

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