Breathing New Life into a Cape Country classic: Rediscovering the Tulbagh Chair

Breathing New Life into a Cape Country classic: Rediscovering the Tulbagh Chair

Posted by Luke Pedersen on

For country craftsmen, life on remote farms was demanding and all-consuming – moments of leisure were reserved for stealthy daydreams stolen under bright, open skies. The furniture they made reflects this reality; there is nothing ornate about the Cape Country period, but it is beautiful in its spare design and sturdy construction. A distinct style developed in this region, leaving antique collectors of today scrambling to find authentic examples of pieces from that era.

Crafting a chair made of solid wood is a considerable feat, and our Tulbagh Chair is the result of years of dreaming and fine-tuning. There is not a single piece of fortifying metal like screws or plates to strengthen the design of this chair – everything must be supported through wooden dowels and intelligent design while maintaining our sleek aesthetic. 

After turning out several prototypes in our Maitland workshop, we decided that a trip to Tulbagh was in order – what better way to acquaint ourselves with this significant piece of South African furniture history than to visit its namesake? Our team’s plan centred on finding wood from Tulbagh to bring back to the workshop and use it to craft a limited release of this modern classic. With a punnet of grapes and a bag of droëwors to keep us going, we hit the road. 

Insights from Tulbagh

Wildfires surrounded the valley on all sides, obscuring the peaks as we approached Tulbagh. Our first stop was the Oude Kerk Volksmuseum, with two rows of chairs in the middle of the aisle. Cool and gloomy air hushed us as we approached the antique chairs. For furniture designers, this was like beholding the Holy Grail: the Tulbagh Chair – here it is. Hundreds of years have passed since these chairs were made and used, and now there we were, seeking clues and insight from their now-silent craftsmen in the details left behind. 

After close inspection of the riempies, dowels, and back splats, we took our quest for inspiration beyond the thatched confines of this museum. We moved from crystallised memory and into reality – what do the streets of Tulbagh have to inspire us from the 21st century? Piles of tyres and secondhand mattresses, as it turns out; we pulled up in front of a large warehouse that doubles as a tyre depot and thrift shop. Sewing patterns sat on the counter in a bowl like potpourri, R5 a pop. And in the muted light of the entryway, an old woman installed herself in a floral armchair to read, wedged between a washing machine and sideboard. You can’t make this stuff up. 
Meeting the Master Crafstman: Francois Smuts

In the end, it was the reassuring blue line of a Google Maps route that led us to the unsuspecting hero of our Tulbagh trip, Francois “Faf” Smuts of Francois Smuts Meubels. In his workshop, a nest of chairs in various states of repair hung across the ceiling in an arched mass of legs and colours. Below it, a poster exploring “Die wonder van hout” (the wonder of wood) was tacked up, urging its readers to grasp the miracle of how a tree becomes a finely crafted piece of furniture. 


Delighted by the visitors, Faf swept us around the workshop he’s crafted from for the last 40 years and scraped handfuls of camphor shavings into our palms, coaxing us into taking deep breaths of the fragrant wood’s scent. He told a story about a receptionist who, upon smelling the same aroma from a new desk being brought into the office, begged Faf for a sachet of shavings that she could keep and inhale when life at the end of a phone got too stressful. 

Beyond the workshop under the sun, neat stacks of timber lay in wait. All in various states of process, the wood ranged from logs covered in bark to tidy planks, arranged to allow air to flow through and avoid moisture build-up. After several hours of trading anecdotes, Luke and Faf trawled the yard together and landed on planks of locally-grown cypress for us to take back to Maitland. We watched in awe as Faf manoeuvred a forklift with the grace of a ballerina to get at the wood we were after. Faf shrugged off our compliments: “I’ve been doing this all my life.” 


We celebrated a successful and meaningful time with Faf over roosterkoek and Coke at a café nearby (“It has aircon!” was Faf’s final and most compelling selling point). “It’s funny to me that it used to be people from farming regions going to cities for inspiration, and now it’s us leaving the city to come here for ideas,” says our co-founder, Luke Pedersen. Around the table, the team overflowed with reflections and observations from the day. “I’m so used to seeing finished planks arrive at the factory, it’s refreshing to get up close to untreated logs and remember the source of the material we’re working with,” says James Hagen. 

Redefining the Design

In the weeks following the visit, the design team’s approach to the Pedersen + Lennard Tulbagh Chair was altered to appropriately respond to the findings of our time in Tulbagh.

“The most difficult part of any construction is the corner detailing – all the technicality is in this tiny space,” says designer, Amber Robertson. “The corner must provide all the strength in the chair. But, this is also where most of the aesthetic detail lives. Taking from the inspiration of the antique Tulbagh Chair and the technical requirements of the piece, we ‘exploded’ the corner to give these details their own space and the chair an overall sense of lightness.” 

In doing this, the designers created a ‘window’ into the corner to see the bowtie joint in the frame of the seat, showing that the chair is entirely made and secured with wood alone – this is not common practice for furniture produced at scale. Our challenge also lay in achieving Pedersen + Lennard’s signature clean lines and soft aesthetic without forgetting about sturdiness or large-volume production. 


Echoing the mandate of the country craftsmen to construct furniture that would last and be a pleasure to use, we’ve created a robust frame and gone after an uncompromised pursuit of comfort that’s felt in the rounded legs, inviting seat, and gently curved backrest of the Pedersen + Lennard Tulbagh Chair. 

As a company dedicated to designing and crafting beautiful furniture that will last lifetimes, we are grateful to live in a country with such an unusual blend of culture and history that leads to furniture like the Tulbagh Chair. Through our homage to a Cape Country classic, we hope to illuminate a unique and fascinating aspect of South Africa’s heritage for a new generation.

Our Tulbagh Chairs in oak coffee oil with riempie and our Escarpment Round Table in oak coffee oil. 

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