When Parker Converse II goes home and tells his girlfriend that he's having "such a problem with Calista," or that "Jackson is being a bit obstreperous," she knows he's not talking about children or pets. Jackson and Calista are rocking chairs, sleek, gracious creations that Converse labors over for weeks in the studio of his one-man operation, Sarasota Rockers, on a side street off Clark Road.
Every new chair gets a name of its own, because every chair is unique. "They're not for everyone," Converse admits about his pieces. "The kind of person who would buy [my chairs] is someone who wants something that's original and will stand on its own."
The chairs' graceful lines and perfect proportions ensure they'll take center stage in any room; and Converse uses a variety of beautiful woods-jeweled, coppery, striped, spotted, buttery yellow, rich brown and solemn gray-that elevate the rockers to works of sculpture.
"I believe in functional art, and this is the epitome of that," says Converse. "First and foremost, a chair should be comfortable. People come in different sizes, and so should chairs."
Converse customizes his chairs to his clients' proportions, carefully measuring the distance between arms, the height of the seat, the angle of repose. The backs consist of slender slats that attach to the seat through specially angled holes, allowing the backs to give comfortably. Each rocker is made of seven layers of wood, and legs are made of 10, sculpted to provide maximum strength and flow. Converse painstakingly turns and carves each piece himself (he makes no more than 25 chairs a year), rubbing the final product with a Danish oil to bring out its unique grain.
"Machines can't make the graceful lines that are in these chairs," Converse declares.
Through the process, each rocker develops a distinct personality and name, which Converse engraves on a brass plaque under the seat. Jackson, for example, is a large dignified American black walnut with a distinct grain. A delicate marbled African lacewood chair is clearly a Victoria, and, at the risk of being considered cute, Converse dubbed his smallest chair-a light, warm sycamore-Buttercup.
Converse worked for years raising venture capital and running an international magazine that he'd founded before becoming a sea captain. In the meantime, he found an outlet for his creative juices by studying woodworking, and set his sights on learning how to build a perfect chair.
"Chairs are the pinnacle of woodworking because nothing is flat," says Converse. "A lot of the work is in the eye."
He apprenticed himself to a Virginia chairmaker, Hal Taylor, and spent weeks under his tutelage before heading back to New England to open his furniture-making business. He decided to concentrate solely on rocking chairs after moving to Sarasota in June 2002.
He shows his work locally through Sternberg Interiors, but also enjoys chatting with people in his studio. In fact, Converse says he'd love to pass on some of his experience to a woodworking aspirant. The spirit of sharing is one of the things he most enjoys about being a part of the artisan community; and, on occasion, he's traded or exchanged labor with someone for a chair when they couldn't afford to buy one of his rockers, which start at $4,300.
"It's not just a money thing; it's an art thing," says Converse. "I love constantly doing something that pushes my limits a little bit."
You can check our Converse's chairs at www.sarasotarockers.com.