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Fully Elastic Armchair

Samuel Gragg (American, October 25, 1772–c. 1855)

c. 1810

Medium painted wood (probably white oak, soft maple, and hickory) Measurements H: 33 3/4 x W: 19 7/8 x D: 25 1/8 in. (85.72 x 50.48 x 63.82 cm) Credit Berdan Memorial Trust Fund Accession Number 2006.72 Location Gallery 18, Bruce Galleries


This imaginative neoclassical armchair, made by the Boston chairmaker Samuel Gragg, is an icon of bentwood furniture and a successful synthesis of form and function. The strikingly advanced ergonomic design was achieved by bending wood both vertically and horizontally to conform to the human body. Each arm is composed of a single piece of bent wood that seamlessly swoops down from the crest rail to the seat rail, with a pronounced curve to support a human hand. The bottom front stretcher is curved back to accommodate the sitter's legs. The outermost slats are one continuous S-shaped piece of wood from the crest of the back to the front feet. Different types of wood were chosen for the various parts of the chair according to their flexibility and strength, the contrasting wood grains disguised by the same ochre-colored surface. The modish decorations of bound reeds and acanthus leaves follow the "fancy" or "fantasy" designs popular during the early 19th century, when paint was commonly used to create realistic, tromp l'oeil designs. Samuel Gragg patented his bentwood technique in 1808, and to date, only a handful of his innovative chairs are known. Gragg's patent indirectly influenced designs by 20th-century designers Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, and Frank Gehry, all of whom have contributed to the continuum of bentwood design in America and Europe. —From gallery label, by Jason Busch, 2007