Ever since the rocking chair’s origin in the early 18th century, it’s maintained its presence in households around the world. The rocker often evokes images of mamas rocking babies, or retirees knitting, leading to them being sidelined as niche items. But over the years, designers have brought rocking chairs to new heights of luxury and ergonomics, turning the humble rocker into a statement piece that’s just as stylish as it is useful. Here, we delve into four noteworthy rocking chair styles, how they fit into the larger design lexicon, and the need to know, iconic makers behind each of these rockin’ chairs.
The Scoop: In the 19th century, Shakers used their expert, no-frills craftsmanship skills to riff on the classic Windsor-style chair, creating their first signature rocking chair. These rockers (often referred to as Shaker rockers) featured a wooden frame and a tall ladder back. In this rocker’s early days they were primarily used for their health benefits. The chair’s rocking motion allowed for occupants to assume their most ideal sitting position while simultaneously soothing back and joint pains. To this day, when most people picture a rocking chair, they’ve got the Shaker rocker in mind.
Notables Who Rocked ‘Em: In 1926, the P&P Chair Company created a Shaker-esque rocking chair with modern ergonomic sensibilities. Featuring a steam-curved headrest and a woven rattan back, the chair attracted the admiration of physician Janet Travell, who prescribed it to John F. Kennedy to soothe back pain. JFK reportedly loved the rocker so much that he used it in the Oval Office and even toted it with him on Air Force One. After photos surfaced of JFK in the chair, P&P’s phone was ringing off the hook with calls from people who wanted the “Kennedy Rocker.”
Love It? Keep an Eye Out For: George Nakashima Rocking Chairs. In the 1970s, George Nakashima—a self-described “Japanese Shaker”—created his own version of a Windsor-inspired rocking chair that featured walnut and poplar, an oversized back, and a contoured seat. The rocker came in three variations, including a two-armed version, an armless version, and one with a single, wide free-formed arm.
The Scoop: In the 1860s during the Victorian period, woodworker Michael Thonet created the first-ever bentwood rocker by wetting beechwood and manipulating it into swooping rocker bands that also served as the chair’s arms. Over time, the Thonet rocking chairs’ iconic swoops became more and more intricate. Today, the style of a Thonet rocker’s swoop can indicate its age.
Notables Who Rocked ‘Em: In its heyday the Thonet’s rocker was so distinct that it actually appears in numerous paintings of the era. Among the notables who loved their Thonet rockers enough to paint it? Pablo Picasso. Photos of Picasso show the Bentwood rocker was a staple at his studio, and he also incorporated it into a handful of portrait paintings. Most notably, his rocker makes an appearance in his aptly-titled, Femme dans un rocking-chair.
Love It? Keep an Eye Out For: Franco Albini Rocking Chairs. Renowned for his crafty furniture designs that played with suspension and support, designer Franco Albini created a bent rattan rocking chair inspired by the Thonet rocking chair in the early 20th century. Featuring tear-shaped rocker treads that also function as the chairs’ arms, the Franco Albini rocker utilized bamboo pole construction. The overall effect is a rocking chair that’s equal parts traditional and breezy bohemian.
Modernist Rocking Chairs
The Scoop: When modernist movements like Bauhaus began merging high design with ergonomics in the 1930s and 40s, new life was breathed into the humble rocking chair. In particular, Danish Modernists, like Ib Kofod-Larsen and Hans Wegner crafted simple, body-cradling designs that sacrificed no amount of style for comfort. These designers’ elegant, modernist designs lent the rocking chair a new air of cool. From this point forward, no one needed an excuse to purchase a new rocking chair.
Notables Who Rocked ‘Em: Proving their timeless appeal, modernist rockers have tons of contemporary fans, including actress Julianne Moore. In Julianne’s quirky-cool New York townhouse, an Ib Kofod-Larsen Penguin Rocker resides in the living room. Stylistically, it works to tie together Julianne’s loves of graceful modernity, whimsy, and cozy comfort.
Love It? Keep an Eye Out For Jens Risom Rocking Chairs. In 2009, legendary Modernist Jens Risom released a comfy upholstered rocker paying homage to classic Danish design principles. The chair, which could give just about any recliner a run for its money, features a fully upholstered seat and back, button-tufting detail, and ergonomic armrests. For those looking for max comfort and style, there’s really no better alternative than the Risom Rocker.
The Scoop: In the 1960s and 70s designers began incorporating cutting-edge materials into rocking chairs such as plastic and Lucite. Unlike wood, these manmade materials allowed for rocking chairs to take on new, never-before-seen (sometimes gravity-defying) shapes. Plastic, for instance, allowed Charles and Ray Eames to craft the rocking chair version of their iconic molded shell chair. Thanks to its unique shell-shaped seat and Eiffel Tower-style base made of chrome and wood, the Eames rocker stylistically pushed the limits of what a rocking chair could be.
Notables Who Rocked ‘Em: Moms. From 1968 to 1984, Herman Miller gifted all of its expectant employees Eames Molded Plastic rockers. Mamas-to-be were encouraged to pick out both fabric and shell color combinations. Following their kiddie’s arrival, a placard with their respective name and birthdate was affixed to the back.
Love It? Keep an Eye Out For: Charles Hollis Jones Rocking Chairs. If you love Eames rockers, but want something that pushes the envelope even further, try Charles Hollis Jones’s rocking chairs. Constructed of upholstery and Lucite, CHJ rockers feature a traditional padded seat held aloft by two Lucite oval treads that also serve as the chairs’ arms. In the right light, the transparent treads can give the illusion that the chair’s occupant is floating, lending this rocking chair the ultimate air of futuristic cool.
Lead photo by Brad Knipstein