The Art of Comfort

This chair’s function follows form

by Chris Farnsworth

verfolkrocker0219Jim Geier started out in construction, doing artistic pursuits on the side, until he created a chair using blocks of wood interlocked with nylon rope. The result was the basis for his Starksboro business, Vermont Folk Rocker.

Jim Geier was only 16 when he made his first project for someone else. His neighbors where he grew up, near Albany, New York, had a daughter who wanted a dollhouse, so Jim decided to try his hand at (miniature) carpentry.

“It was just wood and cardboard,” he says, smiling as he recalls the dollhouse. “But there it was.”

It was also the start of a process that took Geier through many roles over the years. He named his business Vermont Folk Rocker after the chair he has made so popular, but he can still trace his progression to working with his grandfather long ago.

“My father was building this place called the Red Oak Swim Club,” he says. “There were three pools and a place for kids to play, with a castle and a 15-foot-high dinosaur, which I built with my grandfather. It was a two-year project, but he got sick, so I finished it myself.”

His grandfather, Frank Geier Sr., was a marble mason by trade who worked on the beautiful Great Western Staircase (provincially known as the “Million Dollar Staircase”) in the Capitol in Albany. He also imparted an enduring respect for masonry to his grandson.

“Masonry is one of the best things you can know if you’re building something,” Geier says, “because, well, it’s about foundation, for one.”

Nonetheless, when he decided to attend St. Michael’s College, he ended up earning a degree in biology. “My two brothers and I wanted to go to a school where we could ski,” he says. After graduation he taught biology for a year before he joined the Army in a burst of patriotism. “I just lucked out and didn’t have to go to Vietnam,” he says of the war.

That didn’t stop the Army from being a very strange experience for Geier. As a lieutenant, he was charged with all sorts of odd jobs, from his first public speaking gig in front of cadets to running a rifle range for officers to, at one point, being “a lawyer for a guy who stabbed someone.”

It helped, however, to cultivate a sense of versatility that would serve him well once he returned to Vermont in 1970.

Geier wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he didn’t want a boss, or anything resembling what he calls “a regular job,” so he started doing renovations to houses around Burlington, then renting them out.

He opened a shop on the corner of Pine and Howard streets in Burlington’s South End where he crafted custom kitchens. The name evolved, between 1975 to 1990 from Vermont Folk Furnishings to Vermont Folk Rocker & Furnishings, and ultimately Vermont Folk Rocker.

Although he was good at crafting custom kitchens, he eventually decided that he didn’t want to deal with the chemicals — the lacquer and polyurethane. By then he had begun to get orders for his woodworking, and he hired someone to help.

“I like to make things,” Geier says. “That’s the key ingredient. I don’t care what the materials are, I just like to make things.”

Sitting in his shop one day, staring at random materials, Geier had an idea. He took some two-by-fours, some plywood, and an old clothesline rope lying around and crafted his first chair.

“It was the kind of thing only someone in construction would make,” he says of the prototype. It was enough to keep him trying, though, and over the next two years he started crafting chairs to sell to friends and acquaintances. “Five years later, we were selling to the public.”

Things really took off after he took his rocking chairs to a craft fair in Springfield, Massachusetts. “I was doing them as straight chairs, and then my sister-in-law, Beth, said, ‘You’ve got to make that into a rocking chair,’ and I did.”

His rockers caught the attention of visitors immediately, and Geier’s transition to working exclusively with the chairs had begun. It didn’t take long for word to get out.

“What really got me going was a couple from Shelburne who came in and ordered a half a house of furniture — tables, beds, chairs — and I did a lot of new designs just for them. We never stopped being busy after that,” Geier says.

“The chairs are incredible!” enthuses Russ Halpern. Halpern lives near Geier’s shop and owns a couple of the rockers, one in maple and one in walnut. “They are just so comfortable. I have a camp down near Vergennes, and I take one with me when I go. They’re great for a nap.”

What makes the rockers so special is Geier’s meticulous design. The seats and backs are made with interlocking blocks of wood (cherry, bird’s-eye maple, red oak, or black walnut) that are threaded through with nylon rope. The effect of the blocks is to form a moveable cushion that contours to the body as a person sits.

“Most chairs you sit in, you’re pushing them apart from day one and they eventually fall apart,” Geier says. “This chair, you’re always pulling it together, sort of like how a hammock works. You don’t have nearly the stress on it. If you take care of it, it will last a long time.”

It took Geier a bit of time learning and redesigning to arrive at the finished article. He also had to adapt to changing trends in woodwork.

“I don’t like Mediter- ­­ranean, heavy, and dark furniture,” he says. “But when I started, everything was oak. Definitely heavy and dark.”

In the mid ’70s, that changed, Geier says. Woodworkers began using lighter woods and crafting more furniture in blond. He took to it immediately.

“Everyone started making stuff with a blond look, right around ’75. It was heavily influenced by Scandinavian and Shaker work, which was always the furniture I liked,” he says. “A couple of years later it switched to cherry and that’s never really changed. Most people want cherry.”

The final touch to his signature chairs was created in 1990, just as he moved his Pine Street shop to a hillside in Starksboro that it shares with his home.

“I was making these Adirondack chairs and I thought to myself, ‘I really like these big arms.’ So I adapted that design and redesigned the entire rocker and all the jigs and tools it takes to make it,” Geier recalls. “It looked great. It was like finishing a painting, you know? You just know when it’s done.”

With the chair finally perfected, Geier set about making them a staple of local craftsmanship. He stopped all other custom work, even making other furniture, to focus on the rocker. He assembled a workforce of five to 10 employees, based on seasonal and workload estimations, and began shipping the rockers across the United States and Canada, sometimes overseas.

Chairs were also placed at rest stops across the state, in the Burlington International Airport, and in the new addition at Vermont Public Radio in Colchester.

While plenty of business is done over the phone and on the Internet, Geier says that from May to Christmas the shop also receives lots of visitors. “We have a fantastic brochure,” he adds.

Those who do visit will likely meet Geier’s beloved Jack Russell terrier, Wally, the shop mascot. The little guy is very much a people-loving dog, greeting visitors and testing chairs.

“I bet Wally sells a ton of chairs!” says Russ Halpern with a chuckle, adding that Geier himself makes it easy to visit the shop. “He’s just a straight-up kind of guy, really easy to talk to.”

Emily Hall, a 39 year-old who works in Web development, fell in love with the rocker while traveling through Burlington. “I live in Syracuse, but fly in and out of BTV frequently. I just remember being exhausted one day and plopping down in the nearest seat, which turned out to be the folk rocker. It feels like no other chair I’ve ever sat in.”

With the increasing popularity of his rockers, Geier is taking comfort in having his business right where he wants it.

“Bigger isn’t always better,” he says. “Bigger sometimes just means more work, and maybe for nothing. I’ve been playing with that equation for 20 years now, and I’m really happy with where we’re at.”

His favorite pastimes are hiking and painting. “I like to travel around the country and paint,” he explains. “I have a niece that lives near Jackson and I love to go and paint at the Tetons.”

As he tours his workshop, full of wood piles and jigs, he sits down near a painting of Zion National Park.

“I paint a lot, but I rarely finish them,” he says with a guilty grin. “I love the process, though. I used to paint on furniture, but now I just paint for myself. Landscapes, mostly.”

The Zion painting and a few other pieces Geier has made, hang beside a beautiful portrait of the “Million Dollar Staircase” his grandfather Frank Sr. worked on. It is a fitting tribute to the man who inspired Geier to start building and creating. •