EYE ON DESIGN |CHAIRS|A Chair in the Family

Giuseppe Gaetano Descalzi was a visionary when it came to chairs. Chiavari, Italy had been known for the production of heavy, elaborately carved furniture since the year 1200.

In 1807, this young craftsman, Giuseppe, came up with a chair that was “so lightweight that even a child could lift it with a single finger.”

There’s only one factory in Chiavari that still makes these chairs by hand, and a few years ago, I paid a visit.

Ettore and Italo Levaggi are two of the four brothers who founded the Fratelli Levaggi chair factory fifty years ago, replicating the craftsmanship of the famous Chiavarina chair in the place where it was first made.

The two older brothers, Rinaldo and Alessio, have retired, but Rinaldo still comes around, as he did on the day I was there. He told me about how they still make the chairs in the way they were made in the 1800’s.

Before I continue on about the factory, a word about the famous chair. If you’ve never heard of a Chiavari chair, you’ve probably seen one…it’s the classic banquet chair used at every special event, including White House dinners, and John and Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding.

Giuseppe would be amazed at how far his Chiavarina has come.

Look familiar?

White House photo

The original Chiavarina chair was hand-carved of cherry wood, with elegant arches, spindles, and tapered dowels that give the chair its distinctive look.

Photo credit, Chairs: A History, Florence de Dampierre

At Levaggi, the delicate spindles are still hand-carved, so that no two are exactly alike.

The Levaggi brothers continue to make the intricate style of the original, but have also simplified the design, and created new styles, to better suit contemporary tastes.

When I stepped into the Levaggi factory, the first thing I saw, leaning against a wall, were tall, rough-edged planks of wood that will be cut into parts of the chair.

Across the lofty room hung hundreds of varieties of patterns and shapes.

Once the shapes are cut out, Italo sands them on a large belt sander.

In the room at the back where the chairs are assembled, there are shelves upon shelves of dowels and spindles, and stacks of partially assembled chairs.

The pieces are glued together with a concoction made from an ancient recipe of animal bones. The glue is kept hot on a burner for use in assembly, and dries to a hard finish. It’s one of few adhesives that can be “reversed.” It will become pliable again when re-heated, so chairs can be taken apart for repair.

The seat is made of thin strips of reed tightly woven together. A local woman weaves them in her home and delivers them to the factory.

One of the most surprising things about this light-as-a-feather chair is how strong it is. It is assembled without nails, and uses angled joints for maximum support. At the time it was first made, local craftsmen in Chiavari would boast, “they weigh less than two pounds but can hold up to a ton.”

I’m not so sure about a ton, but here’s Rinaldo and Ettore Levaggi proving that their Chiavari chair can hold more than 450 pounds.

Ettore’s son, Paolo, will continue to run the factory, carrying on the family tradition. His brother should be joining him…when they can find him. (At the time I was there, he was missing in action. They were laughing about it, so I don’t think they were worried.)

Leaving Fratelli Levaggi, I smiled as I passed Rinaldo’s hat sitting on the stacks of chair backs.

I wasn’t sure why, but I loved being inside the chair factory – the scent of timber, the flecks of sawdust floating in the morning light, the wobbly stacks of chair frames, and the years of history surrounding me.

Then I remembered.

My own great-grandfather, Oscar Kaeppler, had worked in a chair factory.

There’s chairs in my family, too.

[See Oscar Kaeppler, standing center back, with black bow tie and right elbow on chair), Crocker Chair Factory, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 1900]

www.levaggisedie.it; White House photos: whitehouse.gov; Pete Souza; Kennedy wedding photo: Lisa Larsen, TimeLife images / Getty Images

10 responses to “EYE ON DESIGN |CHAIRS|A Chair in the Family”

  1. […] in a home renovation television show I was art directing. I’d heard from a recent visit to a chair factory there was a damask factory in Lorsica. This region of Italy is historically known for its damask […]

  2. I just saw these chairs on Brian Boitano’s TV show where he renovated his family’s house in Italy. I guess I am slow because they have been around for a very long time and I am just now becoming acquainted with them. They are truly beautiful, functional and love the seat. Wish I could afford one and glad that others can so the company stays open and working.

  3. Very interesting. Loved it! You have changed chairs for me forever. Thanks again Pam for your blog.

  4. karen schmidt

    What a wonderful blog ,I too remember stories about your great gandfather

  5. Cindy Peterson

    Loved your blog – I felt like I was there!  To top it off – I have chairs from the Crocker Chair Company in my dining room!  They are currently painted white to go with my round, white Ikea table.  I love knowing that my great grandfather might have made them.

  6. Annie

    Brava! wonderful story… Need to share this in my period styles class!
    Lovely snaps as usual.

  7. Evelyn Thomas

    What a fun ending to a wonderful blog.  I paused after noting the photo with the piles of shavings, and remembered how much I love the aroma of a woodworking shop, and how long it’s been since I stepped through one of those doors.

  8. Susan

    And, again, you remind me of my childhood’s immersion in sawdust and rabbitskin glue and the smell of sawn wood wafting up from our basement where my dad, Russ, spent long hours producing cabinetry and clocks…but seldom chairs..for our family and friends.  Thanks, Pam.

  9. Edy

    This was so well done!!  Thank you for taking us to that chair factory!  I loved all the pictures.

  10. Roz Cohn

    Fabulous article.  As you were writing I smelled the chairs and I loved that you brought up that point at the end.  Way too cool about your great grand dad. xo