Back in 2010 my sister, Jessica Klebba and I decided to enter a biennial design competition here in Portland called ShowPDX, put on by Fix Studio. Jess currently works for Columbia Sportswear as a color and materials designer. Our family likes talking about how things are made and the subtleties found in certain lines. We talk about function, form, and keeping things simple. Jess and I designed a lounge chair and named it after our mom, Nadine. She taught special education for years and she’s a saint. Our mom is 100% rad. The chair won a jury prize. We were really proud.
Jess and I set out to make a strap chair from the beginning. We wanted to have a wood frame with a striking profile — something simple, but unique, with a nice stance. It obviously had to be comfortable. It sits a bit wider than some chairs, but it leaves your arms spread nicely. I’ve had many people comment on how nice it is to have that extra width. The lumbar is supported really well, with just enough give in the straps.
Chairs can be intimidating to design and build at first. They’re a different animal than most furniture. You can stare at rectangles on a piece of paper pondering the proportions that will become bookshelves or a credenza for hours, but with that piece of paper you have a really good representation of what you’re going to end up with. But chairs… well, they’ve got to be comfortable. Drawing them is maybe a third of the battle. You’ve got to build them and actually sit in them. As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, that’s not as daunting as many people make it seem. Buy some two by fours. Cut them into shapes. Put them together with screws, nails, and use some plywood here and there. Then sit in it. Is it comfortable? No? Well… that’s not surprising, nor is it the end of your career. Start over. Remember to plant as many bottoms in that prototype as possible. Does it feel comfortable for your friends? Have people young and old sit in it. Have men and women sit in it. Not everyone is going to notice the same things. Ask them questions. Did you get it right the second time? The third time? Good. NOW do it for real with glue and joinery and hardwoods. Preparation is everything. You want to have conversations sitting in this. You want to drink coffee and read a book and do all those things that everyone does in a chair. Everyone has a favorite chair.
As far as joinery goes… Spline joints are my jam. I love them. I find them highly useful in chair joinery. Not only are they functional, but they create a beautiful and refined detail. What exactly is a spline joint? A spline joint is a simple way to connect two pieces of wood — each piece has a groove routed or carved into it, then another piece of wood is glued into those slots. It creates a very strong connection, utilizing a lot of long grain surface area for the glue to bond with. On the Nadine Lounger, the back leg is connected to the back with not one, but two spline joints. Then between those spline joints, a hidden large floating tenon connects the back leg to the seat rail. This joint is the most abused joint on the chair. You get up and down, lean back, and your bottom rests on the straps putting downward tension on the joint every time you sit in it. It is absolutely critical that it must be a strong connection. The spline joints and the tenon make it solid.
The back rests are actually thin solid wood laminations glued up on a curved form. When the glue dries those laminations stay at that shape. It’s a really comfortable shape. The straps are seatbelt straps – an honest, resilient material that will withstand wear and endure quite well. They are cut with a tool that seals the ends, then attached to the backside and underside of the frame with 1/4″ crown wood staples. Years later, the straps hardly give under repeat usage.
We were really proud of the final result. I’ve since made more of them. I was recently commissioned to build a pair of them in rift sawn white oak with navy blue straps. I really like the combination.
Clamping the legs
Frames before the finish
Finishing with Osmo
There’s those splines…
Seat belt strapping
Ready for delivery