The Ethnographic Seat Stulpiņš, 17th−21st Century
Stulpiņš is a simple seat or chair made out of a tree root or twisted branch. The backrest and seat, and sometimes even a leg, is fashioned from one solid piece of wood. The remaining legs are then added to complete it. According to a Canadian American architect, professor and writer Witold Rybczynski, who wrote the book “Now I Sit Me Down” (2016) about the history of the chair, what we choose to sit on says a great deal about our tastes and values. Stulpiņš is an example of the resourcefulness, thrift, and affinity to nature common to Latvian culture. It is a piece of furniture that typifies the clever use of natural materials in creating necessary items for everyday life.
It is believed that stulpiņš has been around since the 17th century. Examples of the primitive seat have mainly been found on the coast in the southwest of Latvia in the Kurzeme region, possibly because of the pervasiveness of conifers and particularly juniper, which often grows into twisted shapes. The prevalence of this type of seat around the Baltic Sea region, suggests that there was plenty of material suitable for making the stools as well as a sustained tradition of doing so. Although the seat was made everywhere according to the same principles, each stulpiņš is unique due to the nature of the raw material. Rather than a testament to skilled craftsmanship, it is proof of the farmer’s ability to make use of his surroundings and let nature guide his hand. The making of these particular seats continued even after more advanced designs were implemented. If one happened upon a suitable piece of wood it might be made into a stulpiņš.
Like elsewhere in the world, chairs were initially reserved for selected people. In everyday life, while performing chores and any number of tasks, a stool would be used for sitting. At gatherings and around the table, benches were the norm – except for the head of the household or special guest who would sit in a chair. Stulpiņš is more than a stool but less than a chair. While often used as a stool, it was also reserved for the traditional mičošana ceremony at a wedding. The bride would be seated on a stulpiņš for the ceremonial dressing from newlywed to married woman, typically by exchanging the wreath or crown for the wife’s bonnet.
Stulpiņš has remained a symbol of ingenuity in Latvian design. In the 1920s, the nationally significant designer Ansis Cīrulis (1883−1942) was creating the interior for the Hall of Ambassadors in Riga Castle and made a stylized version of stulpiņš. He retained the form of the seat but employed modern methods of manufacture. In the 1960s the plywood factory “Latvijas Bērzs” started manufacturing nested sets of three-legged stools and tables, which became a staple of the Soviet Latvian home, and are reminiscent of stulpiņš. A modern version of stulpiņš called Staklis was created by designer Elīna Bušmane in 2005, then a student at the Art Academy of Latvia. Increasingly, contemporary designers are looking to primitive examples for their simplicity and practical solutions. Authentic varieties of stulpiņš can be found in the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia in Rīga, though the example typically shown in photographs was lost in a fire in the Kurzeme farmstead in 2000.
The use of wood that retains its characteristic shape, so called live edge is increasingly customary in contemporary furniture design. In Latvia, found wood is still being used in designing contemporary pieces, as can be seen both in student design work and professional design studio products. A contribution in the 2018 Latvian Design Society competition, “Touched by the sea” by Imants Rutks is a LED light set into a piece of drift wood to create ambient lighting. Created partly by nature, and partly by the designer who sees the potential to augment its form and function, it follows the same ingenious design process of the original stulpiņš in the 17th century farmstead.
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