World-class Seats

By Susan Morse

Hampton Union, Friday, June 11, 2004

Chair maker Mike Dunbar constructed some of the Windsor "Sack Back" style chairs that workd leaders are using during the G8 summit at Sea Island, Ga. Dunbar co-owns the Windsor Institute in Hampton, which is a school for Windsor chair making.
[Photo by Sarah Zenewicz]

HAMPTON - Mike Dunbar may not have the honor of knowing the president of the United States sat at his table, but he may be able to boast the president sat in one of his chairs.

Dunbar's Windsor chairs, made in his Hampton woodworking classroom, The Windsor Institute, are part of the furnishings at the G8 conference in Sea Island, Ga., this week.

President George Bush and dignitaries from around the world are attending the conference. Dunbar hopes some heads of state find their way into one of his seats.

Dunbar learned of the honor two months ago, when a former student, a fine-woodworker named Carl Dohn Jr., called Dunbar to ask for the chairs for the conference.

Dohn, of Georgia, had been commissioned to make the oval table for the conference leaders. In each place setting, Dohn made an inlaid flag of each country being represented, said Dunbar.

Dohn had been a student at The Windsor Institute in the mid-1980s. When he was asked to make the table, Dohn suggested the wooden American Windsor chairs be placed around the table. Dohn argued that the signers of the Declaration of Independence and those at the Constitutional Convention sat in Windsor chairs, said Dunbar.

Organizers rejected the idea, saying the leaders needed desk chairs, but asked for 10 sack-back Windsor chairs to go with the smaller tables around the larger conference table. Secretaries and staff typically sit at these tables, said Dunbar. Sometimes the smaller seating areas are used when the world leaders want to discuss issues one-on-one.

Dohn supplied five Windsor chairs, bought three from Dunbar and asked Dunbar and his staff to make two more. They quickly did and painted both in black milk paint. The chairs were shipped to Dohn the first week in May.

Dunbar, who is from Worcester, Mass., came to Portsmouth in the mid-1970s as a woodworker for the Strawbery Banke Museum.

He and his wife Susanna founded The Windsor Institute, first in Portsmouth and now on Timber Swamp Road. Susanna Dunbar runs the business while Mike instructs students in 30 classes a year on the long-vanished craft of Windsor chair-making. The institute is the only one of its kind in the world, he said.

Alastair Boell of Australia, who is going to the North Bennett Street School

in Boston for fine furniture-making, said it was a must for him to attend.

Father and son Charles Kline and John, 14, of Chestnut Hill, Mass., took the class together this week.

After 33 years, Dunbar still looks forward to going to work each day.

"There's something about Windsor chairs that gets under people's skin," Dunbar said. "I expect I'll die making Windsor chairs."

The chairs are comfortable; engineered to last; and are perfect in design, said Dunbar. The pieces are not nailed, but are fitted using the skills of geometry.

They have legs of maple, a seat of pure pine and a back of oak.

Originally made in England, the chairs were introduced to Philadelphia in the 1730s. There's no evidence they're associated with Windsor Castle or royalty, said Dunbar. More likely, they were first made in the town of Windsor.

A 250-year-old Windsor chair, said Dunbar, recently sold for $125,000.

Dunbar expects the two chairs he loaned to the G8 conference to be returned to him, where they'll be put on display in the shop. He also hopes to know who used them.

He and instructors Dan Faia and Kevin Ainsworth, along with staffer Jimmy Delia, all had a hand in making the chairs. Delia, who is from Albania, runs the catalogue business, selling the parts to build the quintessential American chair.

"Where else in America can an immigrant, within a matter of years, make a chair for the president to sit on?" asked Dunbar.