Parker Converse built his first sculpted rocking chair for his 94-year-old grandmother, Rosebud. It took him six weeks. If an angle was off one degree on one piece, the whole chair was off. It took patience, but he was proud of it. His work has only gotten better since.
When his grandmother died, the chair became his mother’s. And when his sister had a child, she borrowed the chair. Three generations in 13 years have enjoyed the chair.
“It’s not like a couch from Robb & Stucky,” he says. “This is a really personal item and is built to last generations.”
It’s that way for every one of his chairs. Forbes described him best as a “bespoke tailor.” The chairs consist of a minimum of 72 hand-carved pieces. He adapts the arm shape, headrest shape, curve and seat to the patron’s preference. He even takes measurements to perfectly customize the chair to the owner’s shape.
Instead of having to conform one’s body to a chair, the chair’s flexible back braces conform to the person sitting in it. It’s like Goldilocks — every chair is just right.
Woodworking is vastly different from venture capitalism, which was what he did for the bulk of his professional career. Converse and his wife, Louise, moved in 2001 to Sarasota from Key West, and neither could find jobs in the fields in which they wanted to work.
“I remember waking her up one morning at 3 a.m.,” he says. “I said, ‘It’s time to make chairs.’”
He’d been thinking about creating rocking chairs since 1986. That’s when he saw his first beautifully made rocking chair by Sam Maloof, the ultimate authority on sculpted rockers. He found a chair maker in Virginia, Hal Taylor, who taught him the craft.
These days he can produce a chair in 10 days. He’s made more than 80 out of his Sarasota workshop at Tuttle Avenue and Hyde Park Street. Converse works from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily while listening to everything from opera to Coldplay to The Beatles. His yellow lab, Maggie, keeps him company in his office-showroom, but she hates the sound of power tools.
His showroom displays finished chairs — each has a name. Typically, the chairs are named after former girlfriends: Pamela, Cassandra, Georgia, Katherine, Amy, Victoria, Dorothy, Valerie. He stops naming names so as not to get in trouble.
“I gotta live with my wife,” he says with a laugh.
The chairs are high-class ladies — they cost $5,000 up to nearly $35,000 each.
“I know my chairs are expensive,” he says, “but if someone is going to spend that kind of money on a chair, they want woods that clearly say, ‘I’m unique. I’m special. I’m a really interesting chair.’”
The lower-end woods are American hardwoods such as walnut, cherry or curly maple that come from Virginia, Pennsylvania and California. The higher-end woods are exotic tropical woods. For instance, the most expensive was amboyna burl from Laos (one of the most valuable woods in the world). The chair he built from that wood took six months to make because the wood grows without a distinct grain.
But you can’t find his lower-end woods in hardware stores. They come from a wood dealer who dries the wood for three years before it gets cut into 2-inch slabs and shipped across the country. In comparison, IKEA uses particle board.
His customers appreciate craftsmanship. One was a modest man, a fourth-generation cattle rancher who lived on 2,000 acres. The man wanted a rocking chair to sit in while he led Bible study sessions at his home. He lived in a small ranch house, where he had Converse over for dinner.
“He admitted his tastes are simple, but that he has two indulgences in life — his rocking chair and his Range Rover,” Converse says.
Converse is a craftsman by nature. His father, Courtland B. Converse, was a marine engineer who designed both the deepest-diving submarine and the first solid-wing sailboat. He built the prototypes in their home’s basement, which was so big Converse drove go-carts inside it.
Converse began building boats as his first job out of high school. His penchant for using his own two hands, the ritual of practicing grueling patience to produce a piece of perfection, has been there all along.
“There’s no job you can’t bring excellence to,” he says. “I don’t care if it takes more time, I just want to do the best work I’m capable of.”
For more information on Parker Converse’s chairs, visit parkerconverse.com.
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