Thomas Moser is a 43 year old furniture company based out of Maine. It was started in 1972 by Tom Moser, a former Bates College professor who left the academic world to pursue woodworking, making furniture pieces out of an old Grange Hall in New Gloucester, Maine. His wife Mary managed finances while their four sons trained as apprentices. The company was successful and grew, now operating showrooms throughout the United States.
Adam Rogers, their director of design at Thomas Moser asked me if I’d be interested in designing a piece of furniture for them. The Portland Chair is the result of that collaboration.
I met Adam a little over two years ago at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. We talked about Michigan (where we both grew up) and Thomas Moser. Moser has been an inspiration to many craftspeople throughout their 40 plus year history. Tom’s spindle back chairs have always been an inspiration to me. Some of his designs are inescapable touchstones on the American handmade furniture landscape.
About a year and a half ago, Adam asked me if I’d be interested in designing a piece of furniture specifically for Thomas Moser to produce. I was honored. He invited me out to Maine to show me their shop and what the Moser team was capable of.
The Thomas Moser facility in Auburn, Maine is 100,000 square feet. To say that they have everything a woodworker has ever dreamt of would be an understatement. It’s not just about the size of their space or their impressive machinery. They employ over 70 craftspeople. About a third of them have been there for over 20 years — to a small business owner like myself, that retention rate speaks volumes. I was also very impressed that Adam’s office was on the ground floor within that workshop, that he was also a skilled woodworker, and his team communicated so effectively working through design challenges.
During that initial visit we talked a lot about design, craft, where craft is today, how the conversation is being shaped and how it’s changed over time. Adam and his team were completely open to me about how they designed (we both prefer to draw by hand), prototyped, developed processes, handled orders, and ultimately worked day to day at Thomas Moser.
Upon returning to Portland, Oregon, I decided to design them a chair. In my mind, it was always a chair. Moser has such classic chairs — I’m a huge fan of Tom’s Newport Chair. Adam’s latest (at the time) Cumberland Chair is also a great design. I settled on a simple side or cafe chair.
First thing, Dad and I made a prototype. It involved just as much blood, sweat, and sawdust as anything I’ve ever designed for Phloem. It is inspired by Shaker simplicity and Danish modernism.
It was important to me that the chair had exposed joinery, a hallmark of Thomas Moser’s designs. We sent the back legs straight through the backrest and wedged them.
When I was happy with our prototype, I sent pictures (including the two you see above) over to Adam and shipped a chair with patterns out to Maine.
I then flew out to Maine for a second time to meet with the Moser team again. We looked over our prototype and talked through the fabrication of the chair. No detail was left untouched and very little was changed from the original prototype.
The Portland Chair gets quite a bit of it’s structural integrity from an X brace under the seat that connects the front and back legs. It is taller to house larger tenons to add strength and visual weight proportionally.
Years back, dad had a happy little accident on the lathe here at Phloem. We were working on a completely different piece and he was turning a limb into a tube. He tapered a leg in such a way that he created an elongated subtle ellipse shape into one side of the tube, while leaving the outside radius straight, creating a beautifully odd taper. I knew I wanted to use it as a detail again, but it was really hard to do consistently. I remembered that little accident when I was designing this chair — that strange taper would be no problem for Moser’s tool chest. All the legs on the Portland Chair have that same detail.
The X brace tenons go all the way through the legs and are wedged on the outside. Wedged tenons are common in traditional Shaker chairs and quite a few of Tom’s early designs. They’re a functional, structural detail.
Here, you can see a chair before the seat goes on with all those wedges sticking out. The backrest is a tube of steamed wood. Consistently and accurately steam bending wood is very challenging, but it is something Moser has quite a bit of experience in.
Working with the team at Thomas Moser was a pleasure. They are committed to craft, the celebration of solid wood furniture, and the simplicity of form. I named our side chair Portland, after the town I call home and the other, older Portland I visited on my trips out to Maine. I love where I live — it’s a great, growing city so close to nature. Portland, Maine is a beautiful town as well, with it’s waterfront, brick streets and history. The name speaks to both.
The Portland Chair is available online at thosmoser.com and at each Thomas Moser showroom in New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Freeport, Maine.