About 65 years ago, my father bought six Made in USA, modern, Paul McCobb dining chairs and a glass-topped table to go with them. The table ended up with my cousin many years ago, and I've had the chairs for over twenty years. The chairs are light and strong, but mass produced. The legs aren't attached as well as they should be, and 65 years of use have taken their toll. I love the chairs' devoted service to my family and their utilitarian but elegant lines. (This photo is a little deceptive: The dining chair doesn't usually hang out on my balcony, but—as in the old joke— the light was better here.)
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What are their contemporary equivalents? On a family walk this weekend, I ducked into a store to check my email without the sun's glare. The shop was West Elm. West Elm is a furniture chain that caters to stylish young people who would be insulted if you thought they shopped at Ikea, with "modern" styles and better built quality. A dining table and chairs were right in the front of the store, tempting shoppers with primo product placement and a 20% off sale. What caught my eye was the chairs' obvious resemblance to my own chairs, albeit in a clunkier version. I had some questions for the very nice salesman, and he seemed surprised by my questions. What wood? I asked. He said the sales staff wouldn't know, but he thought the chairs were made Mango wood. Where were the chairs made? He said probably India or Vietnam. I thought Mango wood was improbable—more likely, the chairs were made of whatever tropical hardwood that was available to manufacturer. The salesman turned the chair over, revealing a "Made in China" label. Screwed to the bottom of the seat was a steel strap held on with four big screws. There was no allowance for wood movement. My guess is there is no real expectation that these chairs be built to last. I think that no strap would be needed at all if the wood were properly dried, but the salesman said there were issues with drying and shrinkage.
The chairs were priced at $249 each—a fifth or so of the price of the chairs that I wrote about in my blog entry about US maker Thomas Moser last summer, but they won't last. Needless to say, I had no interest in them.
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When I thought about my experience at West Elm, I realized that what's being sold isn't a well made chair that's less expensive because it came from China, but a poorly made chair that is designed to look stronger than it is—it's made out of a random rain forest wood that the company can't even identify, sold by a multinational company. I bet it is far more profitable to sell this chair than the Moser chair. I assume, however, that West Elm employees earn less than the Moser counterparts, just because the commission on a sale of a more expensive item would be higher.
________________________________________________________This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.