Crafting Comfort: Alan Daigre Designs

Crafting Comfort: Alan Daigre Designs
Words by Emily McMackin
Photos by Stephen Stinson
 Natchez, Mississippi, is hundreds of miles from the small Tennessee town of Woodbury where Alan Daigre lives, but his soul never strays far from the antebellum river town where he grew up. His thoughts often wander back to the rocking chairs on the porch of his grandparents’ lakeside cottage, where he would sit for hours shelling peas with his grandmother and visiting with family on cool summer nights.

“A rocking chair is a metaphor for many things: rest, comfort, relaxation, reflection, contemplation,” Alan says. “Something about them has always felt familiar to me. I had no idea I would end up making them, but somehow it was embedded in my psyche.”

Inside his showroom at Alan Daigre Designs, about an hour from Nashville, Alan encourages visitors to linger as long as they want in his handcrafted rope rockers fashioned from walnut, cherry, maple, and other indigenous Tennessee hardwoods. Their rich luster and clean, simple lines give the rockers an elegant beauty, while their smooth finish coaxes you to touch them. But the real magic happens when you sit in them.

“Even though you think you know how it will feel, it’s always a surprise,” Alan says.

That’s because the rocker conforms to the shape of your body, wrapping you up like a hug. Its seat and back comprisea patchwork of wooden blocks woven together through the frame by a single steel cable wrapped in synthetic rope. Each portion of cable has a 3,200-pound breaking strength to minimize stretch and wear over time. The design strengthens the frame and eliminates pressure points common in most wooden chairs.

Alan builds his rockers for comfort. Their flexible seating provides a cushy spot for resting your head, and the extra time he spends shaping the arms creates an inviting space for your hands.

“We put a lot of love into what we do,” says Alan, who operates his shop out of a 10,000-square-foot space where he also lives. “That may sound corny, but it’s true. Wherever you put your hands on the chair—whether it’s the top of the arm or the bottom of the rail—we want you to know we’ve taken the time to do it right.”

That intention begins two years out with selecting wood for the chairs and leaving it outside for months to air dry. Though Alan could dry the wood much faster in a kiln, drying it naturally makes the wood richer in color and less likely to crack. He gets most of his logs locally and can name the farms where they were harvested. Sometimes customers bring the wood to him. Alan recently crafted a rocker for a lady out of the leaves of her grandmother’s old walnut dining table. And he’s working on another for a family using logs from trees they cut down to build their new house.

In his shop downstairs Alan and his shop manager, Dallas Stout, meticulously cut out each part of the chair by hand, using templates and a router to perfect the angles. It’s a dusty, loud, and tedious process, but one that allows them to spot defects in wood early on as well as interesting grain patterns to enhance. Once the frames are assembled, the team sands them and applies a few coats of penetrating oil before stringing them up with blocks.

“We try to use and respect the beauty of the wood,” says Alan, showing off a chair he made from an ambrosia maple with a beetle infestation that left streaks in the grain he used as an artsy mosaic in the seat.

With the help of craftsman Dillon Matheny, who began apprenticing in the shop as a teen, Alan spends weeks polishing each chair for a hand-rubbed finish that includes multiple coats of oil and polyurethane varnish, sanding between each layer, and a final coat of beeswax. While this takes much more time than spraying on a lacquer, it makes the rockers smoother, sleeker, and better equipped to last for generations.

“So many crafts are lost because technology has changed them or there’s no longer a need for them, but people still appreciate things made by hand,” Alan says.

Growing up in Natchez—the oldest city on the Mississippi River and one of the South’s antebellum capitals—gave Alan an early love for handmade furniture and antiques. But it was years before he felt compelled to make something himself. Feeling burned out in his job as a mental health therapist, Alan decided on a whim to sign up for a week-long woodworking workshop at a nearby craft center.

“I was spending so much time in my head that I had a desire to do something physical and make something with my hands,” he says.

By the end of the week, he had learned how to make a chair from a tree. The experience of creating something with his hands that he could use and enjoy invigorated him.

“It flipped a switch inside me that I didn’t know I had,” he says. “There was something about getting out of my head and into my body that I really needed.”

Alan also discovered how much he enjoyed working with traditional, antique hand tools, partly because of the connection they gave him to the past.

“It fascinated me to hold a worn, 150-year-old tool in my hand and imagine who owned it. What did the person make with it? What was his life like? What was he thinking about when he used it?” he says. “I felt like it had a soul.”

Alan scaled back to part-time work in the clinical field to devote more time to chair making and began experimenting with Shaker-style ladder-back and mule ear chairs. Selling his first chair inspired him to pursue the vocation full-time, but differentiating himself from other makers proved tougher than expected. At craft shows, he struggled to draw people to his booth and often came home with zero sales.  

“I knew if I could figure out how to get their attention with something different, then I stood a chance,” Alan says.

His previous experience building and facilitating ropes courses for a local zipline park gave him the idea of using suspension seating to give his chairs a different look and feel. With the help of his woodworking mentor, Jim McGee, Alan tested out a few prototypes—and the rope rocker was born.

“The concept itself isn’t particularly new; I just put a different spin on it,” he says. “It was a learning curve, but once I got the first one done, I knew it would work, and it was so different that I felt like I was really onto something.”

Alan has been refining the rocker ever since, tweaking everything from the height and arc of the rockers to the pitch of the seat and placement of the arms, to make it perfect for relaxing. He’s even adapted his rope-and-block design to fit other types of chairs, including dining chairs, bar stools, armchairs, office chairs, and lawn chairs.

Though physically demanding at times, Alan finds the work therapeutic, especially the sanding and finishing.

“There are things about it that are meditative,” he says. “It clears my mind and takes away the worry. It allows me to focus on what I’m seeing and create something out of that.

“That’s when you see the beauty start to happen,” Alan continues. “The grain begins to pop, and I’m reminded of why we do it.”

Years of honing his woodworking skills has freed Alan to experiment with his chairs in ways he would’ve never imagined before. Lately, he’s been exploring different ways of texturing and coloring wood to mimic tree bark, and other inspired designs.

“A few years ago, I began seeing the chair as a bit of a palette,” he says. “It’s given me the opportunity to be creative without straying too far from what we’re doing and has triggered new ideas that are percolating.”

These days Alan spends as much time on the road as he does in his shop, traveling to 10 craft shows a year in top maker markets, such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, and Asheville, North Carolina. He knows his chairs aren’t necessarily an impulse buy (rockers alone start at $3,400), but those who invest in them are drawn as much to the story behind them as to the chairs themselves.

“If you’re fortunate enough in this life to be surrounded by things that mean something to you, I believe it makes your life richer,” Alan says. “That’s what I’m interested in—making something that means something to someone.”

He sees his rockers as more than just chairs. They are places where stories are shared, memories are made, and people can find a respite from their hectic lives. Many of his rockers have been given as gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions.

Alan’s eyes tear up when he talks about the parents-to-be who saved up to buy one of his rockers for their firstborn child, and about the elderly man who called hours before passing away to order a chair for his wife who had always wanted one.

“What I love most about what we do is the connection we make with people,” he says. “As a therapist, I always valued that. I don’t see that what I do now is all that different. I still bring comfort to people, just in another way.”