The Metal Lawn Chair: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

Carey&Maria metal chairs

Not being one for swimming pools or baseball, my thoughts of mild weather turn more toward gardening around my 1953 Cape Cod home and enjoying cool drinks, warm friends, or quiet moments alone outdoors. This season I’ve indulged a bit and colored my exterior world with a modern American icon, the metal lawn chair.

The stamped metal lawn chair arrived on the scene in the late 1930s as a purely American style of outdoor seating. I had always assumed after the U.S. entered World War II in 1941 all steel production shut down to retool for war productions, i.e., making bombs, ammunition, planes, etc. However, civilians needed some minimal level of comfort and economy, and metal chair fabrication carried on through the duration and amazingly continued into the 1990s. Over all those decades of production and restyling, these chairs picked-up such names and nicknames as the Tulip, Clamshell, Bayou, Restro, and Shellback.

When WWII ended Americans longed to return to family life. Builders threw up simple tract houses for veterans and their families, which fortunately sat on small but useable lots. These new homes were often in a modern ranch design, a perfect complement to the clean-lined, sleek, and colorful lawn chair.

Another phenomena imbued vitality into the chairs. The highway expansion beginning in the 1920s coupled with the building boom of the post-war 1950s gave rise to an exploding number of motor lodges which had recently been dubbed “motels”. The mid-century bustling economy, the American love affair with the automobile, and a refocus on family life thrust Americans onto the road for weekend getaways and vacations. The metal lawn chair infused itself into this culture as a warm “welcome” outside the front door of motel rooms and a colorful escape beside the motel pool. Thus the name “motel chair” also attached itself to this distinctive American paragon.

Large discount store marketing schemes are partially to blame for the near death of these chairs, as manufacturing temporarily halted in America in the mid 1990s. Imports filled the lessened demand until new American companies took up the reigns only a few years later. So, to this day, new chairs, gliders and tables in a multitude of colors can be purchased at your local hardware, discount, or internet store.

Being a vintage chick, I pick mine up at flea markets, off craigslist, and recently out of my mom’s barn, with my prices ranging from free to $40. This is the more cumbersome acquisition route, as, once the chairs are found, they require a second investment of time, elbow grease, and several cans of spray paint to reach a sleek and modern condition. Alternatively, leaving the chairs in their weathered state can add a warm, traditional look to your yard. Since March I’ve obtained seven vintage metal lawn chairs, all in moderate to good shape but still requiring a bit of rust removal, dent straightening, surface sanding, and a fresh color that’s more to my current liking.

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Durability and longevity are not an issue with these chairs as they are well designed and made of steel. I had to beat one with a hammer to get a slight dent to budge. Over time rust can creep up, but the problem is manageable with a little sandpaper and spray paint—a cheap fix. If properly maintained, these chairs will be useable for decades, as, according to my estimations, one of my chairs is about seventy years old and in magnificent shape.

Versatility is perhaps my favorite metal lawn chair characteristic. While they were designed for the yard (their tubular base doesn’t leave divots in the lawn), they obviously can be placed on the patio, deck, by the pool, on the front porch, or even inside the house—why not?

I love that I can repaint them every year or two if I want, to match that season’s mood or to compliment the more interesting cushions I find. But frankly they are comfortable without cushions—and honestly more beautiful. As an artist, these chairs give me incredible flexibility and fun to impress my guests. As a sensible homeowner, they provide piece of mind that I’ve wisely invested in something that will be around forever and will never go out of style—seriously…they’ve been making the same chair designs since the 1930s!

finished chairs

The minuscule amount of internet information available on these chairs is shocking. I couldn’t find a single Wikipedia entry. Not one book at my library. The variety of names tagging the chairs made this search even more difficult. I was stuck on “metal patio chair”, which I have since learned isn’t the most accurate.

I floundered until I stumbled across a book that was published last summer. I promptly ordered it and was delighted. Not only is it loaded with history and information about the chairs, their designers and producers, and a slice of American business and manufacturing history since the 1930s, it also includes the added bonus of pictures of a variety of chairs and gliders fabricated over time, and a beautiful assortment of chairs, gliders, tables, and coolers being produced today in an array of colors.

Leaves me thinking this piece of the American landscape will continue into perpetuity. The book is A History of the Metal Lawn Chair …What We Know Now, by Skip Torrans. His family-owned business, Torrans Manufacturing Company, produces and distributes these chairs, and his passion and hard work have brought us the rich history that would have surely been lost with the passing of another generation.

Some of my earliest memories involve our elderly neighbor lady, Mrs. Mallory. She’d perch herself in her green metal lawn chair on the front porch of her bungalow in the evenings and watch our gang of neighborhood kids play. My cape cod has no front porch, but my metal chairs are currently sprinkled about the back porch, patio, and lawn. I often perch myself in one of them, enjoying my own children, watching birds, chatting with neighbors, writing in the fresh air, or simply imagining the long history of people that did all those same things in that very same chair.

Sources:

Torrans, Skip. A History of the Metal Lawn Chair…What We Know Now. 23 House Publishing. 2014.