If this chair could talk

Spanning nearly four decades, the history of the Tyler workshops is a rich and complex one, weaving together artists, printers, papermakers, industry collaborators, photographers, writers, film makers, curators, family and friends. Over the years, many of these people sat, mused and even worked in an antique barber’s chair carefully selected by Ken Tyler for the studio. In today’s post, Tyler reveals the story of this unusual workshop fixture.



In 1965, when I set up the Gemini Ltd. artist’s studio, I decided to have an antique Koken barber’s chair.  It’s an ingenious throne-like device, levitating hydraulically and swiveling, as well as reclining.  In classic barbershop lore from the turn of the century, it was considered the pinnacle of innovation (1892 was when the pedaled version of the hydraulic lift device was introduced), elegance, comfort, and outstanding craftsmanship…an achievement in industrial design.  Like the Eiffel Tower, it celebrates Viollet-le-Duc’s ideas of ‘honest structural expression and the embracing of modern technology.’  For me, it is the ideal place from which an artist can contemplate their work as it is pinned on the studio walls and scattered across the floor, within a workshop that also embraces modern technology.

The antique dealer I originally spoke with informed me that Teddy Roosevelt had his hair cut in the chair I was purchasing.  He demonstrated the hydraulics by having me sit, relax, and listen to him as he intoned,‘Going u-uu-uuu-uuup, 1st floor: shoes, booze, and nothing to lose. 2nd floor: pants, endless lessons in dance, wild romance.  3rd floor: tops, cigars right-outta-the-box, lookout for da cops.  4th floor: hats and crowns, place one upon your head to astound.’

Sure enough, the chair made me feel like a potentate…or a President.  After all, the chair itself is a work of art, made from enameled cast iron parts, and nickeled steel.  It has a spring cushion on the seat, covered in fine leather.  There is a headrest that is adjustable, as well as a sophisticated articulated foot rest, that ornately carries the KOKEN name in its design.  In fact, the President model of the chair from 1910, which is the chair I chose, is pictured in the 1912 Koken Barber Supply catalogue in color, with The White House in the background.

When I found myself setting up another artist’s studio upon opening Tyler Graphics in 1974, I once again decided to provide the ‘inner sanctum’ of the workshop with another Koken barber’s chair.  This time, the antique dealer waxed poetic about how the model I was purchasing was more elegant by far than the one made famous in 1957, when the infamous mobster, Albert Anastasia, was groomed and then abruptly riddled with bullets while seated in one in the then swanky barbershop at the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City.  That particular ‘well ventilated’ chair became part of a mob memorabilia collection in St. Louis, until it was then purchased by legendary comedian Henny Youngman.  Youngman sold the chair eventually to Artie Nash, a noted New York mob artifact collector.  (By the way, I recently discovered that Nash was instrumental in placing the chair in the Las Vegas Mob Museum.)
Thankfully, the model gracing Tyler Graphics was from a gentler era, and carried curvilinear Art Nouveau ornamentation inspired by nature, including the pedestal, which gracefully carried the chair like a lotus blossom.  Every artist working at Tyler Graphics gravitated to the chair, spending hours and days, and in Frank Stella’s case, years contemplating their artwork as it evolved.

After we moved all operations to Singapore in 2001 and set up the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (which opened in 2002), the Tyler Graphics barber chair was re-installed there.  Now it resides in Singapore.

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