Mark Soukup of Monroe County has been handmaking furniture in the tradition of the finest cabinetmakers for three decades.
For those of us who’ve heard of a Windsor chair but aren’t quite clear what it is, chairmaker Mark Soukup makes it plain: “It’s just something that has a solid wood seat with sticks coming out of the top and sticks coming out of the bottom.” Even a onelegged milking stool is a rudimentary Windsor chair, says this Monroe County craftsman who’s made a study of the form.
“Some of the early Welsh and British chairs were not much different from milking stools,” he says. Designs grew more elaborate over time. “This would be the culmination”—he indicates a chair with a writing surface attached to one arm, in progress. “It would compete in Philadelphia with a very expensive cabinetmaker’s chair.”
Soukup dates his interest to a book he came across in college in the 1970s about Windsor chairmaking in Britain. “The craftsmen worked in crude workshops and made fantastic work. That’s the way I started out: My workshop was really crude and I was really poor for a long time, too,” he laughs. Today, in his roomy, well-equipped workshop one sip of coffee from the farmhouse he built himself, he turns out chairs and other furnishings of the highest craftsmanship.
Special pieces require special wood, and Soukup culls the best. “I buy all of my wood at a local sawmill and I don’t buy it as boards,” he says. “They let me climb around on the log piles. It’s so important to get the species you want and to get the quality you want and to get them sawn or worked up the way they should be.” He pays particular attention to grain. Furniture connoisseurs prize the aberrations that go by names like “fiddleback” and “curly.” “It’s a rare form, usually only occurring when the trees get very old,” he says. “But some trees from day one just genetically, instead of running their vessels straight up the trunk, they run in and out, in and out, and when you cut through that you get that beautiful tiger figure. You might findthat in one out of two or three thousand logs.”
Some of his logs have to come from big, old trees because, unlike factories, he makes chair seats only from single pieces of wood. “There’s nothing glued up in there,” he says, gesturing toward a smooth-sanded expanse. “For cherry, if you take off the sapwood, that requires an enormous tree. It has to be sawed to yield those great big seat blanks and, commercially, that’s just never done. It’s really only the early chairs where they did it like this because, of course, they had gigantic trees.”
A wooden chair can look unappealing to our modern, pampered behinds. “But a good Windsor chair, you should be able to just sit at the table a long time,” Soukup says. They’re also designed to last. “They look delicate, but these are hickory spindles here, and they flex under load,” he says, grasping the back of a museum-quality chair and torquing it noticeably. “The standard for a factory-made chair today, it’s supposed to last 12 years. But a lot of traditionally made Windsors from the 18th century are still used every day.”
Early on, Soukup’s pieces found buyers in high-end antique shops in Virginia and Pennsylvania. “I make a lot of close reproductions of pieces that are almost impossible to buy,” he says. “If you found a chair like this somewhere, the price would be astronomical. So there’s a market for a good, handmade reproduction.” Later, he started showing his work himself, enjoying the customer contact.
He’s also taken on some of the most prestigious contracts imaginable, like reproduction chairs for Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. “The whole portico that faces the Potomac River, Washington had 32 Philadelphia sack-back Windsor chairs there, and just a few years ago I replaced all those,” he says. “Those chairs sit out in the weather all year long. And they get a million and a half visitors every year, and everybody wants to go out and sit on those chairs. So that was really a challenge.”
Soukup’s heirloom pieces are priced for affordability: around $700 for a basic chair. The most elaborate writing-arm chair with two drawers under the tablet, one under the seat, a hidden drawer, and two key-hides, all in cherry or walnut, goes for about $3,200. marksoukup.com