Balancing Act

Imogen Lycett Green meets Windsor chair maker Jason Mosseri.

All around me are turned spokes and fine spindles on shelves and curved wood on hooks, smooth planks in ash or beech, elm chair seats, chisels, hammers and bookshelves bursting with books on carpentry, meditation, woodland management, art. This wonkily roofed, homespun studio feels like an alchemist’s workshop, where spells might be concocted, and magic performed. It is crammed yet ordered, and leaning against the edge of the worktable – tattooed from neck to ankle, wearing faded red shorts and a pink T-shirt, yellow and red WORZL flip flops, with curly brown hair and spectacles – is the 52-year-old magician himself.

“A chair is creature-like,” says chair maker Jason Mosseri, stroking Megan, the family dog, a Collie-Labrador cross, who has followed us here, down to the end of the garden, and jumps up, seeking affection. We are in Lewes, on the Nevill estate, former social housing built for Lewes Prison officers, now mostly in private hands. Jason has lived here for over 15 years in a red-brick house with his wife Abby, a jeweller, and their two sons. He built this studio and now we sip from mugs of tea as we contemplate a perfectly proportioned, greenpainted, high-back Windsor chair that Jason has made.

“See the hand-planed spindles,” he points out on the chair’s back. “Each one has a character of its own. A chair’s legs are splayed to support you, its arms hold you. It has a back and a seat. It must be comfortable and practical, all its elements united, balanced. The back bow, the comb, the turned legs and faceted spindles. Otherwise you’d fall on the floor.” A chair is one of those pieces of furniture that you can’t imagine unbalanced, unless in a Cubist nightmare. Does he ever make unbalanced chairs? “Oh, I have done,” he admits.

Windsor chairs have been made for about 300 years and the term loosely describes a chair that “consists of a seat made with parts socketed into it”, so Jason tells me. (As opposed to a ladder-back chair, for instance, with a woven seat, or chairs designed and made by cabinet makers.) Originally, the back sticks and spindles and legs would be turned by ‘bodgers’, itinerant workers who lived in the English forests, cutting down wood and selling parts in towns. Before Dutch Elm Disease, seats were mostly made of elm, the sticks and spindles of oak, ash or beech. Armbows and curved ‘crests’ or ‘combs’ of the high backs would be steamed into shape. They are called Windsor chairs not because of any connection to the Royal Family, but because in the 18th and 19th-centuries the Berkshire market town of Windsor, up the Thames just west of London, was where most of the chair traders lived and traded from.

“In Britain, Windsor chairs have always been seen as country chairs. Over in the US, constitutions were signed in Windsor chairs, statutes written by statesmen sitting in Windsor chairs.” In America, they still have a high value as family heirlooms, and historically, in the civic arena. Here in the UK, we have always revered French furniture and cabinet making, high-end Sheraton chairs and Louis XV, but Jason remains fascinated by the history and craft of the Windsor chair, its origin in the woods. The bodgers, who primarily turned legs and stretchers in rented woodland, would bring their thousands of turnings to the chairmaking factories in the towns. In villages, the carpenters made everything wooden including complete chairs.

It’s clear the ‘outsider’ reputation of Windsor chairs appeals to Jason. His tattoos shout ‘outsider’, too. Or they would have, 20 or 30 years ago. Jason won’t show me his tattooed chest, but explains away the geometric patterns on his legs as a ‘mish mash’ design. He was a tattoo artist in Brighton for 20 years before he became a chair maker, and learnt by practising on himself. “Tattooing used to be a folk art, on the fringes of society. It had symbolism and meaning in the military and naval forces. As soon as it became fashionable for people who weren’t sailors and soldiers, its meaning diminished.” However, he is not dismissive of it and defends tattooing as a high art. “It is the last refuge of the draughtsman. If you think about it, graphic design and illustration are all half-done by IT. Tattoos too can be fed through a computer, but the actual application is hand-done.”

Windsor chair.

So the self-styled ‘bodger’ was formerly a tattoo artist. And before that? Does he come from an artistic family? We were intending to walk back up the garden in the October sunshine and sit on the deck that Jason also built, but somehow it feels right to remain in the studio, immersed in wood and tools. We sit down in a matching pair of ‘birdcage’ ash dining chairs (unfinished).

“The Mosseri family were influential bankers and philanthropists in Cairo, Sephardic Jews who arrived in Egypt from Livorno in the 18th century. Expelled from Egypt in the Suez crisis, they lost everything. My father settled in Surrey and got involved in agriculture, married my mother, who was half English, half Irish.”

Jason has not been to Egypt, but he’d like to go. And bizarrely, or not bizarrely at all if you subscribe to the theory of intergenerational trauma, he went through an ‘exile’ of his own: sent, aged only eleven, to an isolated boarding school in the West Highlands of Scotland. “I was a sensitive child, as all children should be,” he adds. “But at those schools, you don’t show weakness, you learn to cover it up.” Fagging still existed, so for the first year, he played servant to an older boy. And the hot water always ran out before the smaller boys could get into the showers. But I made friends with a massive boy, that eased my way.” There was no recorded abuse at the school, not even much bullying, but Jason’s hand goes to his chest and his voice cracks momentarily when he speaks of the small boy, braving it. “At worst, I was mildly traumatised. At least it’s given me a wealth of stuff to work through.” At best? “It’s bred rebellion in me.”

He was never going to be a bank clerk. After school, where he excelled at not much except art, he studied art at Kingston (foundation), then at Brighton. But instead of graduating, he left for India, where he joined a peripatetic group of travellers, designing and painting backdrops for the 90s rave scene. He set up a collective, ZAG, which produced sets for parties. They summered in Brighton, wintered in Goa or in the Himalayas. He still listens to acid trance and loves to dance. “I still party, but rarely. Only with friends, when I have the time to spend two or three days recovering.” We talk a lot about ‘time’, about how hard it is to find time to work when both of you need time to make things and you have the accounts and the vegetables and the school run and food and the dog and just, stuff. Paperwork, the business of living. When ‘living’ set in, that is family, the travelling was no longer possible, and he chose tattooing over the constant migrating backwards and forward to India. How does he make these seemingly radical choices?

When he has opened his heart at critical moments, it seems, the right mentors have walked into his life, usually men. Older well-travelled hippies in India, well established artists and tattooists in London and Brighton. Another turning point came when he became weary of tattooing and was inspired by a chair making course at The Weald and Downland Museum. He then travelled to Tennessee, to study under Curtis Buchanan, master chairmaker and champion of the Windsor chair in the United States. Inspired and mentored by Buchanan, Mosseri has been making bespoke Windsor chairs ever since.

Taking another Windsor chair as a model, Jason explains the breadth of the splay in a US chair. The legs and general ‘flavour’ of the chair is less upright than English chairs. He and I enjoy musing on whether this is national character or a response to the openness of the US physical landscape as opposed to the restrictions, both stylistically and geographically, of this island nation.

Jason Mosseri likes to chew the cud in this way, he thinks a lot. He reads a lot of fiction, particularly US fiction, and meditates. Without meditation, he can find himself going down. Does he get depressed? A bit, in winter. But the meditation and the challenge of making pulls him through. He runs too, eats healthily, looks after himself. He teaches as well, annually at West Dean college, during the spring and the summer at his woodland workshop near the Ashdown Forest, on week-long chair-making courses. Teaching feeds him, challenges him, teaches him back.

“You start with a log and make a chair.” Can anyone do it? “I had this barrister who came along, you know, a full on QC or even KC. A very smart man, does pro bono work, an activist. He’d never done anything like it in his life and by the end of the week he was flabbergasted. There was his chair. He was so moved, working with his hands like that.”

It is only in the last 200 years that we have lost connection with the land, with manual work in this way, says Jason. “From flintknapping to chair-making is such a small step.” Jason believes that if we lose a connection with it, we lose a connection with ourselves. He was always handy, always making things. Now, almost by accident, he has found himself in the woods for half the year, like a bodger. “A sharp tool meets the material environment of nature. It’s utile, it makes sense.” I wonder if to ‘bodge’ something comes from ‘bodger’. You know, to mess it up. Later in the dictionary of slang, I find that it does. The word has almost been adopted as a term of abuse. Particularly in Australian culture, the itinerant bodger who lives in the woods and works with wood is excluded, marginalised, looked down upon. Here again is this echo of persecution.

Shaker bench.

We walk back up through the wildish garden, with views to Mount Caburn. Jason Mosseri is truly the captain of his fate, yet at the same time so clearly the product of his family history and culture. Is he rebel or conformer? Are any of us doing what we want, or just doing what is laid out for us? Jason likes to think there is magic and mystery in the world. He opens his arms to it, and is entertained by the thought of a path set out for him. He only had to find it. It fits, for now, at least. And while he’s here, he will make sure he’s the very best at it. Making chairs employs a plethora of techniques and bodily positions, it is a highly honed craft, and he designs his own elegant, contemporary take on the Windsor chair. He is both bodger and master, both artisan and artist-designer. Both leading his life and following tradition. If you are not going to topple over, perhaps the key lies in balance. In the chair as in life.

Imogen Lycett Green is an arts journalist and curator of kids’ poetry projects, including Betjeman Poetry Prize and Track Record.

Check Jason’s website for 2024 woodland chair making courses

Follow Jason on Instagram @hopespringschairs