Based on the original design of a 1960s Woolworth’s counter stool, The Greensboro Chair pays respect to four brave young men who changed history by taking a seat.
Photographed by Jesse Rowell Jr.
Above, graphic layout by Danielle McCoy
“For some time we had been talking about how furniture items needed to be more than just a piece of furniture, they should bring meaning and dialogue; they should tell a story, [communicate] a purpose beyond the typical end use of the product.” —Benjamin Boutros, Bennu
For Portland-based designers Benjamin Boutros (of furniture brand Bennu) and Cedric Hudson (the man behind fashion label Contemporary Athletics), furniture design is more than the physical manifestation of an object—it is the creation of a catalyst for conversation. After years of appreciating furniture for its fine materials, quality craftsmanship, and interesting shapes, Boutros and Hudson longed for the conversation, “to enter a creative space where these usable objects can speak past their primary uses,” Boutros and Hudson explain in an email to GRAY. With this approach as a foundation, the designers each leaned into their individual skills and expertise to create the Greensboro Chair—a piece of furniture with design rooted in the story of a pivotal moment in Black history.
Benjamin Boutros (left) and Cedric Hudson (right) stand with the product of their collaboration, The Greensboro Chair.
On February 1st, 1960, one of the most historic and talked-about civil rights sit-ins was led by four courageous black freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. That day, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond sat down at the downtown Woolworth lunch counter, only to be denied service due to ongoing racial disparities. Refusing to give up their chairs, the men watched as their movement spread beyond Greensboro and they became the faces of civil rights history.
The Greensboro Chair pays homage to those historic Greensboro sit-ins that lasted through July 25th, 1960. It represents the men and women who, by choosing to sit down, stood up for so much.
The “four freshmen” on the iconic stools of their 1960 sit-in. Photographer unknown.
The initial design began with a series of
sketches focusing on aesthetics. The intention was to preserve the practicality of the diner chair while speaking to the meaningful history of Greensboro and the sit-in movement. While paying attention to both contemporary and midcentury design elements, Boutros and Hudson crafted the chair from bold Peruvian Walnut using a series of interlocking joinery techniques.
“The beauty of using solid hardwood was not without a challenge,” says Boutros and Hudson. “A traditional pedestal base is often constructed with fiberglass or metals to ensure a balance of weight and durability. We opted to construct the base using interlocking cross-sections, allowing the chair to sustain its own design. While reviewing prototypes, however, a concerning amount of instability was noticed between the base and seat. We determined that this would threaten the integrity of the chair as it was used over time. [By attaching] a swivel plate mechanism base to the seat, we found this to breathe new life into the piece and pay true homage to the original diner chairs that were designed with swivels of their own.”
Though inspired by a complex history, the Greensboro chair was developed with simplicity in mind. All components are cut from a single sheet of wood and run through a CNC machine before being laminated and assembled with interlocking techniques.
Taking furniture design beyond its primary use—while giving an even deeper meaning to the materials used—allowed the designers an opportunity to create a beautiful piece that truly preserves Black history through design.
Elements of The Greensboro Chair before assembly.
When asked if further collaborations between Boutros and Hudson were on the horizon, they stated: “We see the Greensboro chair as a chapter in a rich and diverse story. In future collaborations, we intend to continue highlighting moments of cultural significance to encourage a much-needed dialogue. Stay tuned as we have been approached about some potential opportunities that will continue to stretch what we can imagine.”