Rocking Chairs As Sculpture

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When is a chair not a chair?

Sounds like a riddle, but the answer is when it’s a piece of art, like the sculptured rockers created by woodworker Tom McCormick of East Quogue.Mr. McCormick creates his elegant handiwork from black walnut. “I think it’s the most beautiful wood to work with,” he said. “It’s a hard wood, you can carve it and work with it.” The grain is brought out carefully with a varnish Mr. McCormick mixes himself. The gliders also feature lines of pale maple as well as ebony plugs.

“Yes, it’s artwork. But it’s also functional,” he said. The rockers are, perhaps surprisingly, very comfortable, with a contoured seat that fits the body, and long inviting armrests.

The journey began for Mr. McCormick almost 20 years ago when his wife, Lucille, presented him with a gift certificate to attend a workshop to build Windsor chairs—those spindly seats found in only the best 17th-century homes—with famed chair maker Mike Dunbar of New Hampshire.

This started another career for Mr. McCormick. His Windsor chairs, painstakingly created without power tools in his home studio, at a rate of about a dozen a year—are in high demand. Added to the roster was a line a children’s furniture, also built entirely by Mr. McCormick.

“I really enjoy woodworking to the nth degree. Even as a kid, I was always working on models. When I worked on the Windsor line, people kept looking at the seat, and saying it looks like sculpture. I really took pride in the Windsor line, in being unique and symmetrical on the way the seat looked.

“But the Windsors are reproductions”—here he gestured to his living room table, surrounded by the fruits of his labors. “I love them, but I wanted to try something different.”

When Mr. McCormick saw the works of the late wood artist Sam Maloof, who created a rocker for President John F. Kennedy, his interest began to veer toward the creation of functional sculpture.

“People who saw my work had started calling me an artisan,” Mr. McCormick said. “I had no idea what they were talking about, until I saw a book about Sam Maloof. He was the ‘granddaddy’ of this design. Just masterful. Out of all the woodworkers in the U.S., there’s not too many people to do this work.”

Mr. McCormick called the art of making functional sculpture “extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. This is not what to do if you’re trying support a family.”

So for the past four years, he has been paying homage by creating sculptured rockers inspired by Mr. Maloof. “I’m not a very creative guy,” Mr. McCormick said modestly. “I’m a copycat.”

The first rocker “took me almost a year,” he admitted. “It’s a learning curve. The rails, the rockers, that’s seven pieces of three-sixteenths slats. I had to build something like a mold, then take each piece—shave them, clamp them and shape them. There are eight individual slats that have to be glued up, to get the bow shape in there. Then you take all of your hand tools, and start to carefully carve. If you want to have a nervous breakdown, make a mistake,” he added.

So has he upped his game, or does it still take a year to create a sittable, moving sculpture?

“If I really go at it, I can get a rocker done in three or four months,” Mr. McCormick said.

There are other pieces in the line, including a comfortable low stool, a table and a non-rocking chair. Mr. McCormick currently sells privately only, and the price per rocker hovers around $5,000. His website, tjmccormick.com, features his Windsor line, along with a history of the Windsor chair and his methods of construction, but the rockers are so new, they aren’t listed yet. “The idea of sculptured rockers generally comes up with just a handful of people,” Mr. McCormick said.

He admitting that “it’s hard not to fall in love with something after you’ve been working with it for three or four months,” and he tries to keep on hand at least one item of each style in his catalog. The best transaction, he said, is if “someone says they want a rocker, I explain the amount of time and the cost involved, and they say ‘Build me one.’” He explained that when people come to him, they generally know how long it will take.

“A woman recently said she needed eight of my Windsor chairs, but she knew the timeline, so there wasn’t any pressure. God forbid I get someone who comes in and says, ‘I want two rockers!’” he said with a laugh.

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