University of Vermont

Easy on the Eyes and Back, New Chairs Are Also Job Creators

The new chairs in Memorial Lounge were created by Clear Lake Furniture of Ludlow. With the chairs (l to r) are Clear Lake's Paul Cristensen, lead craftsman for the UVM job, Doug Ficken, commercial sales and craftsman, and Brent Karnow, owner and chief designer. (Photo: Ben Sarle)

When UVM decided to replace the deteriorating, famously uncomfortable chairs in Memorial Lounge, which dated from the early 1980s, the request for proposals called for a product that was both durable and stackable. Those attributes proved so hard to combine, only one firm – from Massachusetts – made the grade. 

Vice president for finance and administration Richard Cate – a bullish advocate of Vermont-made products – had two words for his purchasing team: “Wrong state.” He asked them to look even harder for a Vermont firm that could submit a competitive bid.

At the last minute, Clear Lake Furniture of Ludlow, came forward. The company was not only happy to guarantee its chairs for 20 years, which few companies were, designers there had ideas about how to make them stackable, a key feature allowing the chairs to be moved out of Memorial Lounge and stored, so the space could accommodate events that needed open spaces.

Over the fall and summer, the 150 chairs the university ordered created a mini-economic development boom in the state's Okemo Valley that even Cate might not have imagined, says Brent Karner, Clear Lake founder, owner and chief designer. 

For starters, the project kept two of his most skilled employees busy building the chairs for three full months of 50-hour weeks. “This is a bad economy,” Karner says. “For me to keep two highly trained guys going for the summer is really important.” His brother also put in a month and a half finishing the chairs. The project also occupied Karner, who developed the chair’s design.

And there were ripple effects. The chairs provided work for Sheahan and Sons Lumber in Weatherfield, which took about 400 logs and turned them into 6,150 pieces of wood designed to Karner’s specs (each chair contains 41 pieces). The seats and upholstering busied another local company, Don Heaton Upholstery in Chester. And the chair’s cherry wood was harvested in Bethel. 

The final product – with its sculpted curves of rippled red wood and leaf-patterned seat – clearly demonstrates the artistry lavished on it by so many skilled craftspeople. Earlier in the fall, the Waterman Stacker, as Karner calls his creation, won first prize in the Vermont Fine Furniture and Woodworking Festival, beating out entries from the likes of Pompanoosuc Mills and Copeland Furniture.

At about $580 each, the chairs weren’t the cheapest the university could have bought, Cate says, although they were competitive with the other bids.

He views them as an investment. “We wanted to buy something that was nearly permanent, that would stand the test of time. These chairs are very well built.”

With a plush cushion and ergonomic curves, the chairs are also so comfortable -- compared with with their droopy seated, ramrod-backed predecessors -- they may even lead to a new era of productivity in Memorial Lounge, one of the most used spaces at the university. 

Cate won’t rule that possibility out. They could very well "result in more energy and engagement in the stimulating conversations that occur in that room," he said.