Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Saga of the Safari Chairs

These are our chairs. They come from Pakistan, manufactured in Pershawa around 1970 by a man named M. Hayat. They are made of leather, rosewood and have brass fittings. The chairs totally disassemble and can be transported in canvas bags.

The original chair design came from India during the British Raj. (At least that is the time the chairs became known among the British community.) They are sometimes referred to as a Rookhee chairs. The concept of a compact, portable chair expanded into other household pieces of furniture as well. Even canopy beds, as the photo shows, were designed to be taken apart and transported easily from the hot summer lowlands of India to the cooler mountainous regions.

Those Victorians took everything with them. One source says:

"Campaign furniture is primarily military, often multi-purpose with folding or separable parts. A sofa-cum-bed was first seen amongst Campaign furniture. Legs were made to unscrew, and the chair backs came off.

Made in British India from the late 18th century through the 19th century, this kind of furniture consists of such pieces as chairs, tables, settees, chests, desks and beds. While it provided comfort, it also maintained the prestige of the officers. It evolved during the Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian eras of Great Britain.

The only catch was that the more portable the furniture became, the more the officers ordered it. Reports suggest that "60 horses, 140 elephants, two or three hundred baggage camels and bullock carts without end" were used to transport the Governor-General and his two sisters up the country from Kolkata.

You could get a portable billiard table, folding chessboard and a portable shower."

Assembling one of these chairs makes me think of something akin to saddling a horse. The leather seat has lacing on the bottom and is slipped over the front and back supports. The front and back also have leather belt-like straps that tighten. The leather backrest slides down over two upturned side pieces that pivot and the armrests are leather straps that attach from the backrest to the front legpost. The chair is designed so that when a person sits on the seat and leans back, the weight of the sitter creates tension making a very sturdy, supportive and comfortable chair. The original chairs had enough flex to adjust to uneaven ground.

When we were stationed in Bahrain. I saw a couple of these chairs at a friend's house and got all the information about the manufacturer. I called Mr. Hayat long-distance in Pakistan, to asked about the price and how to go about ordering. Mr. Hayat said he could ship them to me via Dhow and they would be ready in a few months. I ordered four. (I'm sure I couldn't have paid more than about $20-25 dollars for each chair since at that time, we didn't have a lot of money.)

After a good bit of time, I got a call from the Head of Customs in Manama, Bahrain, requesting that I come down to his office at the port to 'talk something over' with him. After scratching my head for a minute, I realized that the chairs had arrived. I assumed that some kind of import tax may be due, so I loaded my children up in the tiny car we had and headed downtown.

I was welcomed into the Head of Custom's office and we were made comfortable with soft chairs, sweets and casual chit-chat while a man went to get the reason for my visit. He arrived with a large canvas bag which he placed on the floor and stepped back. We all looked at the bag. The Head of Customs asked if this was my shipment. I said "Yes, I think so," sort of puzzled by the whole production. I said there should be three more bundles just like this one. Mr. Customs asked if I would please open the bag. Puzzled even more, I said, "Sure" and then it dawned on me.

My chairs had been made and shipped from the area in Pakistan famous for handmade rifles and other firearms. Guns were forbidden in Bahrain. I was under suspicion of being a gun-runner!

I could hardly keep my amusement under control. I said, "It's a Chair! It comes all apart and fits into the bag. Here, let me show you." and while they (more men had trickled into the room by then) all took another step back, I opened the bag, pulled out the legs and supports, unrolled the leather back and seat and gave a demo, with running comment, on how to fit together a safari chair.

We've had the original four chairs since and, in the course of raising teenagers, one chair was enthusiastically flopped into and the back seat support got broken. So, it and the other three chairs have been stored in the basement for years. One day while cruising the net, I happened to see an exact duplicate set of two chairs listed on an antique site. An Inquiry about price caused me to almost fall backward away from the screen. It sent me to the basement really fast to take a look at mine. I had wanted to replace the one, but couldn't even think of buying two (they Had to be sold as a pair). The asking price was incredible. Even with the wheedling I did with the seller got me a price reduction, but it was still just too high, so I shelved the idea and considered finding a woodowrker who could either repair or replace the broken piece.

Within a few weeks, ANOTHER chair came up for auction on eBay. And this one included the ottoman shown in the picture. I had never seen an ottoman before in the Middle East and certainly not here either. I won the chair (at a considerably lower cost than the ones in the antique store) and after a space of 26 years, had replaced the broken chair and got an ottoman to boot.

But it even gets better. After the sale, I found out that the man who had it lived within a short driving distance of our house. We arranged for a central meeting place for us to pick it up and had a very nice visit with him and his wife to boot. Turns out, he was very relieved because the chair had never been disassembled and he was worried about packing and shipping it.

But wait, there's more! Within about another week, YET ANOTHER Chair appeared on the web. It looked awful. But only because whoever had put it together did it incorrectly. The seat was looped around the side supports instead of the the back and front ones. The result was the chair sagged and the seat and back looked like they didn't fit. I bid on and got the second chair at an even greater bargain.

Footnote: The chair that had never been apart did disassemble easily. The only difference between it and my originals was a metal name plate attached to the back.

Since the spate of Safari chairs on the web, I haven't seen another listed. Occassionally, ones supplied with special edition Land Rovers, some canvas versions or or light brown leather ones designed in Denmark in the '50s and '60s will appear, but so far, no more black leather, brass and rosewood ones.


Michael Kline said...

What a story!

dw said...

I'm laughing at this because we have two of those chairs as well, also purchased in pakistan (in the 90s). they're very comfortable. I didn't realize the history, so thanks for that.

we also lived in bahrain for a while. your story brought back old memories.

clayartist said...

Hang onto those chairs! They are one of the few things that have gone up in value substantially over time.

My original set cost about $20-25 each. Imagine my jaw-to-floor reaction when the antique dealer quoted $2000 each!

Rowena said...

how terrific to find this info and story! my husband and i just bought a set (our first furniture purchase together). ours are teak and dark brown leather bought in san francisco - a small store in the mission area). glad to know they survived your kids! (at least most).

Raj Singh said...

Enjoyed going through the story on your purchase of Roorkhee Chairs from Peshawar and the typical Customs of any country.
Do take a look at my website on Campaign furniture. at www.jandrguram.com

Bonnie said...

Jeanette, Great history. Just was given one of these rosewood/brass/leather chairs to repair. Can you email me pix of lacing style used on bottom? I want to be authentic now that I've cleaned up repaired.

Amina Aziz said...

What a great story !! :) just want to mention the maker of these fabulous chair was my late grandfather M Hayat and the brand was M Hayat & Bros. Would like to add my parents still run the amazing furniture outlet in Peshawar :) and if you would like to order the same chairs or other pieces do let me know. My contact is

Clay and Fiber Artist said...

Wonderful to hear from you! I have loved these chairs ever since we ordered them and have kept them with us all these years and always found a place for them. So nice to know the tradition of fine craft prevails! Thank you for your message.