Rockers are still on a roll ^ C

June 25, 1995|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

The image of a mother seated in a rocking chair, lulling her baby to sleep with a comfortin to-and-fro motion, exudes warmth. A rocker beside a blazing fire or welcoming visitors to a front porch is classic Americana. Among the most democratic pieces of furniture, rockers have been welcome everywhere from the humblest homes to the White House.

John F. Kennedy made his rocker famous when he installed it in the Oval Office to ease his ailing back. Jimmy Carter brought five of his Jumbos (a rocker style designed by Thomas Brumby in 1875) to Washington. Abraham Lincoln enjoyed his until the day of his assassination on April 14, 1865. He was sitting in his upholstered rocker at Ford's Theater when John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal bullet.

"For more than two centuries Americans from all walks of life have been rocking, dozing, dreaming, reading, nursing, spinning tales and orating from rocking chairs," writes Bernice Steinbaum in her book "The Rocker: An American Design Tradition" (Rizzoli).

The rocker's old-fashioned, homespun image conjures up in many the feelings of family. Ms. Steinbaum believes its symbolism is even more profound.

"Rocking chairs are for dreams and dreamers," she said recently. "They're the place we most associate with life and death, from the cradling of the baby to the rocking in our sunset years. Yet we can enjoy rocking chairs at all ages. The rocker is the most likely piece of furniture to pass down. We all want a piece of yesterday so we can have some tomorrow."

Psychology and nostalgia aside, there appear to be some physiological benefits to rocking as well.

"Any time you recline, the muscles of the back work a lot less hard than when you're sitting up straight," said Christen Grant of the University of Michigan Center for Ergonomics in Ann Arbor. "When you recline, you're more balanced. Also, you put less weight and pressure on your discs than when you sit up straight.

"The core of the discs is alive, but the core is surrounded by tough fibrous rings. Past adolescence the blood supply diminishes and probably starts to shut down when you're in your 30s. When you sit in a rocker, you're constantly compressing and decompressing those discs. It follows that the core of the discs [is] better fed.

"Finally, you use your feet or legs for the rocking motion. This stimulates blood circulation."

Just who conceived the idea of a rocking chair is unknown. Benjamin Franklin often is credited with inventing the rocker, but its origins more likely are European. "The rocker probably was adapted from a baby's cradle," Ms. Steinbaum said.

One classic style that many American furniture companies still manufacture is the bentwood rocker.

Designed in 1860 by Michael Thonet, a German cabinetmaker living in Vienna, the rocker's form was innovative. Steam-shaping the wood allowed the arms to arc from the oval rattan back to join the deeply curved frame, which in turn continued seamlessly into the bottom skate (rocker). A scroll decorated the sides.

The Bentwood Model 2825, manufactured by Thonet Industries, measures 43 inches high by 23 inches wide by 40 inches deep, with a 17-inch-square seat.

Other classic designs remain popular. There are interpretationof the Windsor rocker, adapted from the English chair that dates to the 17th century. Some of these are painted with floral motifs, stenciled or sponged, as were the originals.

The simplicity of Shaker rockers has captured a 20th-century audience because they bridge modern and vintage architecture, country and urban interiors. The spare and familiar silhouette, with slat backs, rounded finials and rush or woven seats, has been interpreted by any number of manufacturers.

The Victorian fondness for wicker chairs, settees, tables and planters led to the design of rocking chairs in that medium. Many examples at the turn of the century were quite elaborate, detailed with curlicues and cuts. Today, more unadorned designs are being reproduced to reflect modern tastes.

Rustic country styles for front porches and outdoor decks include delicate twig styles naturally finished or painted. A rustic twig rocker, like one made around 1915 in West Virginia that is now is part of a collection at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, suits a contemporary setting quite well. Such twig rockers still are being made. At least four styles of hand-made hickory rockers are produced for the Amish Country collection in New Castle, Pa. The average price is $300.

Barbara Goodman and her husband, Eric, sell hand-crafted teak or Honduras mahogany furniture suitable for outdoor use through their mail-order catalog, Wood Classics. They long have harbored a love affair with the rocker. "Rockers speak to our emotions," said Mrs. Goodman. "They evoke images of tranquillity and warmth. In our house, it never fails. People go straight to the rocker."

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