A Brief History
of the Lawn Chair
A Brief History
of the Lawn Chair
How a simple aluminum chair
became an American icon
The folding lawn chair is an American summertime classic. Lightweight and durable, the portable chairs are carted to campouts and tailgates, backyard barbecues and beaches. I wonder how many Fourth of July fireworks have been admired from the webbed seat of a classic aluminum lawn chair? How many great summer memories from your youth are punctuated with the sound of those chairs being snapped open?
The rise of this all-American staple coincided with the growth of suburbs after World War II, when homes with larger lawns were suddenly more affordable. Aluminum production soared during the war, since it was used in the structural framing of military aircraft. After the war, manufacturers sought other uses for the strong yet lightweight material. Turns out, narrow aluminum tubing was great for making chairs.
It was actually a WWII veteran turned inventor who designed the original lawn chair. A former P-38 combat fighter pilot named Fredric Arnold came up with the idea of streamlining an existing collapsible chair that had been used for decades in schools and churches. His original design in 1947 was more crude and less sturdy than today's metal folding chairs, but was it was influenced by the stripped-down utilitarian designs of the early mid-century modern period.
The chair's shape and interwoven fabric webbing were eventually refined and by the late 1950s, the Fredric Arnold Company was manufacturing more than 14,000 of these portable chairs each day from its Brooklyn factory. The affordability, usefulness and minimalist style of the design made the chairs a ubiquitous household staple.
They were so well-built, so durable, that families held onto them for decades. Think about it. I know the set that hung in my garage growing up were likely there before I was born. Used every summer, they were still hanging there—worn but in great shape—when I went off to college. It can't be great for business to make a product that rarely requires replacing. Perhaps that's why the companies that made the chairs eventually went out of business.
By the mid-1990s, the webbed chairs' popularity had waned. You were more likely to find nylon camp chairs, complete with thin crisscrossed legs and mesh cupholders. Any traditional lawn chairs you might find for sale were imported and featured cheap webbing that frayed and steel frames that were not only heavy but also quickly rusted.
Those imitations of the real deal is ultimately what lead to one small company reviving the chairs. Gary Pokrandt officially founded Lawn Chair USA with his son Andrew in 2009, but lawn chairs have been something of a family business for generations.
Pokrandt's grandfather owned a company that made plastic yarn and waterproof webbing. “When these chairs were very popular, most of the webbing came from my grandfather's factory,” he says. But when chair manufacturing moved overseas, business all but dried up. “But we kept getting calls.”
It was clear that the demand was there, so the Pokrandts bought some old production equipment from a former client to create aluminum frames. They fired up production on the webbing again and started cranking out their version of the nostalgic chairs. Today, they make dozens of different styles and designs from their small factory in Florida.
Sturdy aluminum tubes are cut to length and then placed into a bender before getting punched with holes to assemble the folding mechanism. The most time-consuming part of the process, Pokrandt says, is weaving the fade-resistant webbing onto the seat and back in a hardwearing T-bar design. This is still all done by hand to ensure the exact tension needed for a comfortable sit.
They're handsome chairs that look a whole lot like the ones that were being cranked out half a century ago. Why change it? It's a design so revered, that it's recognized by the Museum of Modern Art—in fact, they sell the chair in their official store, right along Arne Jacobsen's famed Egg Chair and the Eames Lounge Chair. Not too shabby for something you sit on while drinking beer and eating barbecue.
Aluminum webbed lawn chair,
$59.99 by Lawn Chair USA
The chair weighs just over four pounds, but boasts a weight capacity of up to 225 pounds.