Scissor chairs

The master chairman

Inside met a seasoned artisan who makes one of Monchique’s biggest symbols: the scissor chair

One of José Leonardo Salvador’s favourite things to do when he was a child was to take a planer and smooth out wood planks until the floor was covered in curly shavings. At that time, scissor chairs were not yet called scissor chairs – they were simply known as Monchique chairs –, and many Portuguese children were forced to leave school to work at a young age. José was one of those children; after completing primary school, he began working with his father and grandfather, both sawyers, when he was 13. Now, at 72 years old, José is one of the few remaining master carpenters who grasp the complex art of scissor chairs, one of the most iconic symbols of Monchique and part of the region’s Roman heritage. He is also one of the best known, as his innovative ways led him to develop the traditional chair into around 30 models, from benches to tables and even rocking chairs.

Following his family’s tradition in the wood industry, José worked as a carpenter for most of his life. In the ’60s, when the Brits “discovered” the Algarve as a tourist destination and became avid buyers of such craftsmanship, José found himself flooded with orders. “My work, which I described as a carpenter’s work, was now called an artisan’s job,” he jokes, adding that it was also due to the tourists that the Monchique chairs became known as scissor chairs.

Actually more a stool than a chair, these pieces were the most common type of seating in the Roman period, mainly due to their portability, as they folded in a scissor style. A democratic chair – it was used by both emperors and slaves –, it is one of the strongest symbols of the Roman presence in the area, along with Monchique’s extremely popular water springs.

Making the most of this wave of interest in an old regional classic, José opened a small family-run shop in 1977 on Monchique’s Rua Calouste Gulbenkian, where his workshop is still based. Located in what at the time was one of Monchique’s busiest streets, José’s business blossomed, and he eventually felt the need to separate the shop from his workshop. That is why Casa dos Arcos moved a few steps away from his workshop to Estrada Velha around 20 years ago. A great display space for José’s work, the shop is literally filled with pieces – all inspired by the traditional scissor stool model. There are tables, long benches, chairs with embellished arms and backs and even eating chairs, with a purpose-built support for dishes and cups. According to José, he created his first new model in 1978 and has since expanded his range of creations. Many have tried to copy him, he added, but making these pieces requires such an intricate process that few had the patience to carry on.

The shop’s walls, covered in memorabilia, also tell the story of this proud artisan: pictures sent by clients of his pieces in countries such as the US, Germany, Scotland and Denmark; newspaper cut-outs of the many articles written about him, and even images of the three churches in Belgium that were completely furnished with his pieces can all be found hanging from the walls. In a garage next door, clients can also see one of José’s most popular pieces: a giant scissor chair that he made back in 2002 and which helped attract huge media attention to his work. “It is not for sale though,” he says, adding proudly that he’s had quite a few requests.

Each basic chair José makes takes around four to five hours of work to complete. Whilst everything was done by hand in the past, he now relies on the help of a few machines, but the process is still very much artisanal and time-consuming, depending on the chosen finishes. The most complex pieces have wooden finishes throughout and display José’s carved signature.

His wood of choice is alderwood, which grows near water courses and which he buys locally. “We have good quality wood in the area,” notes the carpenter. “The best quality wood is the one that is chopped off in the autumn.” To showcase such quality, the craftsman chooses to sell his pieces in natural wood, without any varnish or finishing product. Clients can then apply teak wax or the product of their choice to protect their pieces.

Whilst before, most of his customers were British, José’s chairs are now bought mainly by Swiss and German tourists, who can rely on the help of his friendly daughter Célia. Having helped her dad sell his pieces since she was seven – “I spoke to tourists by using gestures!” she recalls, smiling – Célia has extensive knowledge of her father’s work and is also in charge of shipping his pieces abroad if requested by clients.

As the owner of what he calls a “true family business”, José admits he would like to have an apprentice to pass on his know-how. He shows us a little wood sculpture carved by his son Paulo, who is currently living abroad, and says: “I still hope it will be him.” Prices for a basic stool start at €25 but they can go up to €200 for the more intricate models. The shop is open Monday to Saturday from 10.30am to 7pm.

Casa dos Arcos – Estrada Velha, Monchique | Tel: 282 911 071

Text Ana Tavares – Photos Sara Alves

Author: Inside Carvoeiro

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