The Lost History of the American Lawn Chair

Mj 618_348_tk lawn chair
Mike Kane / Getty Images

Amidst the iconic signs of summertime in the USA — the cold brew from the cooler, the grill, the sweating pitcher of lemonade, the checkered picnic blanket — one object is all too often overlooked: the lawn chair. That throne of the outdoors is an omnipresent figure in beaches and backyards, parked in driveways and alongside parade routes, and positioned under multicolored umbrellas across every state. The lawn chair comes in many shapes and materials, including the omnipresent white stacking kind popular poolside, but if you ask lawn chair historian and furniture maker Louis "Skip" Torrans, he'll tell you that there's only one true classic: The cantilevered stamped steel model.

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The metal lawn chair goes by many nicknames: the Shellback, the Tulip chair, the Clamshell, the Motel Chair, and the Bouncer. But even if none of those ring a bell, you’ve probably seen one. They're the kind that might have been in a corner of your childhood best friend’s garage or your great-aunt’s lake house. "It's just a traditional chair," Torrans says in a North Texas accent. "It's a singular item. They're like hamburgers and hot dogs. You don’t have to teach anybody what they are."

Torrans became fascinated with the history of the steel lawn chair after cobbling together his own version of it in the early 2000s. He engineered a mixture between the classic wooden Adirondack chair and an old steel chair frame, and was surprised at the reaction. "People kept coming up to me and acting like they already knew the chairs,” he recalled. “There was something familiar to them."

Soon, Torrans and his wife, Kathy, began manufacturing their version of the old steel lawn chairs that he remembered from his youth, and Torrans began researching their origins by flipping through archives of advertisements. From his research, he published a book, A History of the Metal Lawn Chair. As best as he can tell, what we know as the metal lawn chair began in the '30s. "Somewhere around '35 to '38, there were some flat metal chairs in a metal frame. They didn't really have a design to them, but they had the basic shape of the metal lawn chair."

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One possible source of the metal lawn chair as we know it is a design by Leo Jiranek, an industrial and furniture designer who contributed concepts to the likes of Ethan Allen and, in the 1960s, was the president of the Jiranek School of Furniture Design and Technology in Manhattan. During the course of his research, Torrans found a hand-drawn print that Jiranek did in the late ‘30s that came close to what we know of as the classic metal lawn chair. 

The rise of the lawn chair has much to do with the growth of the suburbs after the Second World War, when the 1944 GI bill and other legislation made owning a single family home with a backyard much more accessible to middle-class Americans. With the increase in lawns came an increase in demand for lawn furniture. Into that gap stepped the first major player in the world of metal lawn chairs. The Warmack Company, founded by sheet metal fabricator and Arkansas manufacturer Ed Warmack, began making steel gliders, tables, and lawn chairs in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and swiftly turned into the largest metal outdoor furniture manufacturer in the USA, with some of their lines carried exclusively by Sears. Then, in 1954, Flanders Industries, founded by Dudley Flanders, bought the Warmack Company, and continued making those same steel chairs until 1996, when the market became dominated by plastic-based lawn furniture.

Torrans picked up pretty close to where Flanders left off, making vintage-inspired steel furniture from 2002 on. Their models include the classic rounded-back chair, as well as the Thunderbird, modeled on a Sears-exclusive chair that, as Torrans says, "is just dripping with that old-school look."

What makes the metal lawn chair an American classic is its longevity and ubiquity, but also that it stands out in a sea of other options. "When you go to a big box store, you’re going to see a lot of furniture with fabric stretched over a frame that's done as cheaply as possible," Torrans says. "They're always in some kind of a brown. It might be a mocha or a coconut or a beige, but it's brown." Stamped metal lawn chairs come in a variety of colors, and besides, says Torrans, "They won’t sag in one season."

But really the appeal of the metal lawn chair is that it triggers that back-of-your-mind mid-summer nostalgia. "Our catch phrase is 'Just like mom'n them had,'" Torrans says. "Because these chairs bring back a lot of memories. Most people have a story about a lawn chair."

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