Chair Master

Chair Master

Robert Erickson Portrait

Robert Erickson polishes a Van Muyden chair in his workshop, which he built in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1971. Portrait by Mark Tuschman

Mark Tuschman

Robert Erickson’s careful approach combines craft, comfort, and timeless beauty.

An elegant woman sighed as she reclined into Robert Erickson’s South Yuba floating back rocker. She seemed to revel in it, closing her eyes and stroking the armrests, carved from California figured walnut.  

Erickson was busy showing his chairs, as he has every year since 1987, at the American Craft Council Show in St. Paul. Each April, Erickson and his wife, Liese Greensfelder, make the journey from their home on the California side of the Sierra Nevada mountains to Minnesota. They pack a dozen or so of Erickson’s handcrafted wooden chairs, greeting strangers with an invitation to sit.  

Typically, as they settle into the chairs, people find themselves in a palpable state of pleasure. It happened to Julian Fisher, a physician from the Boston area, shopping the ACC show in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1984: “I was walking up and down the hallways, and I happened to see one of Bob’s rocking chairs. So I sat in it.”

The ease he experienced, that muscle memory, stuck with him. Fisher came back to the show the following year on a mission: “The next time I saw Bob, I immediately ordered one of his rocking chairs,” Fisher says. Later, he commissioned eight chairs for his dining room. “His chairs are the most comfortable in the business.”

In the summer of 1969, fresh out of college with an English degree, Erickson hitchhiked more than 1,000 miles from his native Nebraska to California. He spent his first year in Druid Heights, a secluded countercultural enclave in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Erickson, 65, confesses to being something of a hippie in those days. “But I wasn’t seeking any spiritual advice,” he says. He was interested in woodworking, so he headed to a land famous for artists and dreamers. “I ended up in Druid Heights because of a woodworking opportunity.”

A local woodworker-cum-real estate agent named Art Carpenter (who would become an influential maker) introduced Erickson to Ed Stiles, a designer of custom furniture and wooden hot tubs, “taut and formal with fastidious craftsmanship,” recalls Erickson. Stiles became a model, proving that it was possible to be a full-time studio furniture maker. And he let the young Nebraskan camp on his property.

Erickson also studied under Roger Somers, the free-spirited builder and jazz musician who designed most of the early buildings at Druid Heights. Though today the 5-acre bohemian haven is crumbling, the community is still filled with the rounded edges and conical buildings that typify Somers’ architecture, a style Erickson describes as “amoebic and dream-inspired.”

In Druid Heights, Erickson lived next door to Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (and an inspiration for Jack Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums). In the summer of 1970, Erickson left Druid Heights to help Snyder build, by hand, a new home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Inspired by Japanese farmhouses and Native American lodges, the house was built primarily of ponderosa pine and rocks from the Yuba River.

At the end of the project, Erickson and the rest of the team of builders – mostly recent college grads – pooled their money and bought 120 acres adjacent to Snyder’s. “I built my shop on that land in 1971 and have lived there most of the time since,” Erickson explains.

In 1975 he met his wife, the daughter of one of Snyder’s close friends. Erickson and Greensfelder, a science writer, were married three years later. While pursuing her own career, she has also been by Erickson’s side at most ACC shows, spent more than a decade as a full-time business manager of Erickson Woodworking, and continues to play a critical role in the business. “She is an integral part of any success I’ve had as a woodworker,” Erickson says. 

Erickson spent the ’70s experimenting and expanding his skill set and embarked on an informal study of design in the ’80s. He had always been an intuitive fan of Danish furniture and was fascinated with Hans J. Wegner, a masterful midcentury Danish furniture designer. Erickson was also borrowing from the farmer-made chairs he encountered while traveling around Norway with Greensfelder. At the same time, clients noted similarities with Sam Maloof, the great American woodworker beloved for his rocking chairs.

Like Wegner and Maloof, Erickson has been chiefly concerned with designing and improving upon the chair. One of his earliest clients suffered from back pain, so Erickson pushed the comfort factor in his chairs. He’s been experimenting with flexible, “floating” chair backs since the mid-’70s; in 1981, he started to laminate the slats, shaping them into curves for the lumbar area, a significant design breakthrough. In 1996, he improved the slats by using traditional archer’s bow lamination techniques. Today Erickson uses bow-like swooping slats in his chairs, which cradle the tender muscles of a sore back.

Erickson creates each piece of a chair to the buyer’s specifications, something he has always done, even in his earliest work, he says. He tailors everything from the neck rest to the depth, angle, and contour of the saddle to the buyer’s body.

Erickson crafts other kinds of furniture, including dramatic iron-and-wood dining tables in collaboration with his son, Tor, and Berkeley-based blacksmith Daniel Dole. Chairs, however, are what he is most passionate about. You can find one of his rockers in the collection of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, and Yale University Art Gallery owns one of his Van Muyden desk chairs. Erickson’s client list includes Beat poet and counterculture hero Allen Ginsberg (whom Erickson met through his Druid Heights connections), Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, and economist Milton Friedman.

A soft-spoken man, Erickson chalks up his career success to his Midwestern work ethic. “I never had a feeling I was any good at this,” he says. “I felt I had a certain amount of ambition, and I was willing to work really hard.”

Erickson’s success also comes from his Zen-like patience and awareness of detail. “Innovative and comfortable chairs are difficult to come up with,” he says. He works slowly and carefully, ever vigilant for ways to improve ergonomics and aesthetics: “I wouldn’t say there were any great leaps of innovation, just a number of successful chair designs over the years. It’s taken me a lifetime to put together this stable of work.”

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.