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Scottish Design Icons: Orkney chair

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. This month have a seat and read Chris Lewis’s reflections on the Orkney chair.

“Today we’re thinking about the chair.” As a 14-year-old sat in Art & Design, those words were painful to hear.

I was many things as a teenager, but a chair enthusiast wasn’t one of them. The thought of spending the afternoon thinking about the design of a seat really didn’t excite me. Fast forward more than twenty years and here I am, a teacher working in a design museum writing about how much I love the design of a chair. How things have changed!

A high-backed, woven Orkney Chair.
The Orkney Chair you can see in our Scottish Design Galleries. (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The Orkney chair might not be the most impressive object we have in the Scottish Design Galleries. Nor is it particularly glamorous or eye-catching, but it’s something I find myself drawn to again and again. For some reason, I find this comparatively unremarkable chair to be quite remarkable.

Orkney chairs have been made on the archipelago since the 1700s but the tradition of working with straw goes back as far as the bronze age. Given Orkney’s location and rich cultural history, it’s no surprise that similar items can be found across the Northern Isles, as well as in parts of Scandinavia.

The chair saw a revival in the late nineteenth century thanks to Kirkwall joiner David Kirkness. His new designs included the addition of a hood to some chairs and gained popularity during the Arts and Crafts movement and became heavily sought after.

Black and white photo of a man working in a studio.
Black and white photo of two high-backed Orkney Chairs next to each other.
A high-backed, woven Orkney Chair.
  • David Kirkness in his workshop. (© Orkney Library & Archive)

  • Two freshly made Orkney chairs. (© Orkney Library & Archive)

  • The Orkney Chair you can see in our Scottish Design Galleries. (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Orkney is a special place. The combination of unspoilt scenery, jaw-dropping history and warm, friendly people have made my visits there memorable in their own right. But add to that the opportunity to catch up with friends and revisit the site where I proposed to my husband a few years back (the stunning cliffs at Deerness) and my love of the islands begins to make even more sense.

Cliffs looking over the sea on a blue, sunny day.
The cliffs at Deerness in Orkney. (Image courtesy Chris Lewis)

So apart from Orkney itself, why my fascination with this chair? It’s possible, I think, for an object to be emotionally satisfying; to collectively sum up your thoughts, feelings and memories. To some, the Orkney chair is just a chair. And rightly so since that’s its purpose. For me, though, the design of the chair, from the materials used to its structure and inspiration, tells a much bigger story.

At first sight, the traditional origins of the chair are immediately obvious. Its construction from woven straw and the high back to protect sitters from wild Orcadian winds instantly conjure up images of crofters and fishermen sitting in their chairs around a roaring fire on a cold night. Perhaps it’s this expression of kinship and community that I see in the Orkney chair which I find so appealing. I’d happily sit on one next to a fire, legs crossed, and blether with friends and loved ones while the wind howls outside.

A beautiful beach in Orkney on a nice day. The water and sky are blue.
Scapa Flow in Orkney. (Image courtesy Chris Lewis)

The materials used to construct it evoke fond memories too. Originally built using driftwood gathered from Orkney’s many beaches, the chair could be considered ahead of its time in using and recycling found objects. Or are we today just recapturing the ideas of past generations? Either way, to look upon the chair is to look upon the blue waters at Glimps Holm or take a walk along the sand at Scapa Flow. It’s not just a chair I see; I smell the fresh air. I can feel bitter wind on my face and the wet sand under my feet.

Maybe then that’s the strength of any object in a museum, even a humble chair. It’s not just the written facts, the history and what you see in front of you, but also the memories and feelings that are stirred up because of it. And that’s an experience that’s entirely unique. From now on, whenever I think of Orkney, I’ll be thinking about the chair.

Chris Lewis is the Schools Development Officer at V&A Dundee.