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Centripetal Spring Chair

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Centripetal Spring Chair

Design attributed to: Thomas E. Warren (born 1808; active 1849-1853)

Manufacture Attributed to: American Chair Company (active Troy, New York, 1829-1858)

Date: 1849-1858
Medium: Cast iron, steel, hard maple, birch, yellow-poplar, basswood, brass, paint, reproduction upholstery
Overall: 32 × 23 1/2 × 23 1/2in. (81.3 × 59.7 × 59.7cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 86.33
Label Text
Centripetal chairs combine seemingly contradictory design elements. C-shaped, steel springs and cast iron components are unlikely partners with the decorative painting and rich upholstery. The curved metal back (painted to simulate rosewood on this example) and foliate details emulated more expensive Rococo-style parlor furniture such as that produced in the New York City shop of John Henry Belter. The luxuriant fabric and Rococo Revival details resulted in a chair that was suitable for use in the formal rooms of a house. Thomas Warren's centripetal spring chairs, which tilt and swivel, were among the earliest examples of experimental seating forms to be commercially produced.


Text Entries

Few examples of furniture better epitomize the design tensions of mid-nineteenth-century America than centripetal spring chairs. These objects combine two competing and contradictory approaches to design in a highly original way. On the one hand, the unadorned steel C-shaped springs, the use of cast iron for structural elements, and the new postures enabled by these tilt- and-swivel chairs represent what John Kouwenhoven half a century ago called America’s vernacular design tradition.(1) On the other hand, the cast-iron neo-rococo ornament, the rosewood graining on the metal back, and the extensive use of fabric upholstery, evocative of both culture and comfort, are evidence of the influence of Europe’s cultivated tradition.(2) While the vernacular tradition encouraged direct, functional, and often inexpensive solutions to design problems, goods made in accordance with the cultivated tradition typically emphasized costly materials, painstaking workmanship, elaborate decoration, and reverence for the past. Most people who have written about Warren’s chairs find their Vernacular features the more noteworthy.(3)

The most distinctive feature of this chair is the spring mechanism, which Warren patented in this country on September 25, 1849, and in Britain on November 21, 1850.(4) That same year Warren’s chairs won a prize at the Franklin 1nstitute’s twentieth annual exhibition in Philadelphia.(5) A year later they achieved international acclaim when they were described and illustrated in accounts of London’s Crystal Palace exhibition. That event took place in Joseph Paxton’s memorable cast-iron and glass exhibition hall, a building as technologically innovative as Warren’s chairs. One of the most authoritative accounts of the fair, the Art Journal’s Industry of All Nations, commended Warren’s products, pointing out that America had “long been noted for the luxurious easiness of its chairs.(6)

In Mechanization Takes Command, his classic study of the role of technology in modern life, Siegfried Giedion linked Americans’ midcentury propensity to experiment with new seating forms to their earlier development of the rocking chair. The lively minds of American inventors hit on the idea of combining “the oscillating motion of the rocking chair” with “the rotary motion of the revolving chair.”(7) Warren’s centripetal spring rockers were among the earliest examples of this experimentation to go into extensive production. Of the descendants of these rockers, tilt-and-swivel desk chairs, in their seemingly endless variations, have become the most enduring.(8)

Today Warren’s chairs are familiar icons of Victorian America, but Warren himself remains obscure, as do the details of his relationship to the American Chair Company. Warren is listed in Troy directories between 1849 and 1852 as a broker and appears three times in the records of the United States Patent Office, first in 1849 for chair springs, again on July 30, 1850, for railroad car seats incorporating springs, and finally on October 18, 1853, when he patented a sheet-iron railroad car. The American Chair Company, which manufactured reclining seats for railroad cars, appears in Troy directories from 1829 to 1858.(9) Along with nearby Albany, Troy was a major center of iron production, specializing in stoves and architectural iron work. Although little is known about Warren, he seems to have been typical of many inventors of the time who worked at the intersection of emerging industries and transferred ideas from one medium to another.

The MWPI chair, like those in other collections, is attributed to Warren on the basis of its similarity to period images, particularly those published in conjunction with London’s Crystal Palace exhibition. In fact, however, few surviving chairs exactly duplicate those images. The most obvious difference is the pitch of the cast-iron legs. Period images show the legs joining the central post at a forty-five degree angle. The legs on the MWPI example and most others are horizontal and parallel to the floor. It is possible that the horizontal arrangement is a later adjustment made by Warren for aesthetic or practical reasons—greater stability, for example. A similar horizontal arrangement appears on rocking and rotating chairs advertised by M. W. King & Son of New York in 1855.(10) Another possibility is that not all centripetal spring chairs were made by the American Chair Company or even authorized by Warren, for one of the truisms about patents is that they are often infringed upon.

Essay by Kenneth L. Ames

1.  John A. Kouwenhoven, The Arts in Modern American Civilization (1948; reprint, New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), pp. 13-74.

2. The phrase is from the title used by Katherine C. Grier, Culture and Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930 (Rochester, N.Y.: Strong Museum, 1988).

3. Joseph T. Butler, American Antiques, 1800-1900 (New York: Odyssey Press, 1965), discusses centripetal chairs under the heading of “Innovative Furniture” and comments only on their springs. The most extensive discussion of centripetal spring chairs, David A. Hanks, Innovative Furniture in America from 1800 to the Present (New York: Horizon, 1981), pp. 126-29, argues that the chairs are significant for their use of springs and cast iron but does not comment on their more conventional features. In Culture and Comfort Grier has noted the elements that made these chairs examples of technological advancement but also called attention to those that signified refinement. These include the intricate cast-iron ornament and the original, red, stamped plush upholstery in a lush floral pattern, which survives on an example owned by the Strong Museum, Rochester, N.Y. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ever the advocate of the cultivated tradition, did not include centripetal spring chairs in its landmark 1970 exhibition “19th-Century America."

4. Trade catalogue of Chase Bros. & Co. (Boston, ca. 1855), Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Del. The illustration on p. 36 of the catalogue identifies the MWPI chair as a piano stool and also shows the fringe that may have originally ringed is seat.

5. Hanks, Innovative Furniture, p. 126.

6. The Art Journal, The Industry of All Nations (London: George Virtue, 1851), p. 152.

7. Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command (1948; reprint, New York: W‘. W. Norton, 1969), p. 401. On rocking chairs, see Ellen Denker and Bert Denker, The Rocking Chair Book (New York: Mayflower Books, 1979); on American attitudes toward posture, see Kenneth L. Ames, Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), pp. 185-232.

8. “In hindsight we can recognize it as the prototype for the pedestal office chair-—a form duplicated by the millions in the twentieth century.” R. Craig Miller in Neil Harris et al., The Denver Art Museum: The First Hundred Years (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1996), p. 236.

9. Hanks, Innovative Furniture, p. 126.

10. Illustrated in Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command, p. 404. Like the chair in fig. 101 of Hanks, Innovative Furniture, these have wooden, rather than cast-iron, bases.