Furniture that makes a summer statement

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National Post, Friday, August 8, 2008

This appears to be the summer when Ontario has successfully invaded Quebec cottage country. The Muskoka chair has arrived on docks in la belle province.

For several years, the Muskoka chair at the end of our dock was the only one to be seen along our bay on Lac St-Pierre, in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa. No longer. Their numbers have multiplied, like Ontario trilliums by the side of the road, to the point where they have taken over the neighbourhood.

In a chair count on a canoe ride around the bay yesterday morning, it turned out that 14 out of 22 docks had Muskoka chairs on them.

It must be said that not all of them were authentic. Some were plastic. Some were painted. But all of them had the Muskoka look -- the seven ribs on the rounded back, the contoured seat and the large armrests. The perfect outdoor chair for reading, watching a flag snap in the breeze or contemplating the possibility of a glass of white wine to accompany the sun setting off the end of the dock.

Not all Muskoka chairs are made in Muskoka. Indeed, there is a spirited discussion about whether the Muskoka chair is itself authentic, or a Canadian knockoff of an American original, the Adirondack chair.

According to Wikipedia, the Adirondack chair (or, in some parts of Canada, a Muskoka chair) "is a type of chair used primarily in an outdoor setting." (Another Wikipedia entry hilariously describes Muskoka as "approximately two hours north of Toronto." The writer clearly never made the drive on a Friday night.)

It seems that the original Adirondack chair was designed by a man named Thomas Lee for his summer home in Westport, N. Y., in 1903. It was patented as the Westport chair in 1905 by a local carpenter, Harry Bunnell, who made thousands over the next two decades.

How the Adirondack chair got to Muskoka might be a matter of some dispute among the permanent residents of Huntsville and Bracebridge, not to be confused with the 100,000 cottage owners and two million visitors who enjoy the region's 1,500 lakes every summer. In their mind, the question might be how the Muskoka chair got to the Adirondacks.

What's in a name? A thriving cottage industry, quite literally. A quick Google search brings up any number of local manufacturers, including the Muskoka Chair Company, which advertises matching footrests on its Web site, and Muskoka Chairs, whose cedar chairs can be outfitted with headrests.

For Muskoka chair purists, footrests and headrests may seem a heretical notion. But not as heretical as the plastic Muskoka wannabes, stacked up in the outdoor aisles of hardware stores. And whether in wood or plastic, the classic wood stain colour is clearly giving way. One of my neighbours has three Muskoka chairs on his dock, in three different colours -- red, yellow and green.

As far as that goes, we are acknowledged Muskoka chair traditionalists. While our chair was built in an Ottawa garage by a neighbour's son, it was proportioned and stained to Muskoka specifications. And a splendid chair it is, in all kinds of weather. The aerodynamics of the Muskoka chair are perfect --built low to the ground, with wind space between the back ribs. It would take a tornado to blow it off the dock.

A Muskoka chair is also a statement: that the owner is serious about residing in cottage country. Its display at the end of a dock is equally a statement that someone is home. And this is usually enough to discourage breaking and entering. (This summer, the smart thieves on our lake are confining themselves to stealing gas from boats).

But what is to explain the sudden proliferation and presence of an Ontario trademark chair in Quebec? Perhaps it's the proximity to Ottawa, where most of the 500 cottagers on our large lake come from.

This could be something for the cultural mavens of the Parti Quebecois to keep a vigilant eye on. They mustn' t allow any diminution of Quebec's precious patrimoine.

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