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Labour + Industry

Van Life, Chair Repair and One Couple’s Dream of the Road

Their rolling RV repair shop brings loving care to treasures and happiness to owners.

Christopher Cheung 6 Dec 2023The Tyee

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @bychrischeung.

As Laurie and David Blake travel from city to Canadian city in their RV, there are people waiting for their arrival, standing in parking lots and even the odd gas station to hand over precious possessions — chairs.

It might seem unusual to lug delicate teak chairs across a driveway. Some are designed by mid-century masters and are collectibles or family heirlooms. But if the seat and backing are in need of repair — whether the caning is broken or the cord has been stained or attacked by the cat — there aren’t many people who know what to do with them.

That’s why when Laurie and David roll into town, there’s a long line of customers who need the seat-weaving duo to save their chairs.

Backing in to van life

The art of seat weaving has been a key source of livelihood and community for Laurie’s family.

Growing up, her family lived in Toronto. Both of her parents were blind and her mother worked as a rehabilitation teacher with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. She learned the craft so that she could teach others with visual impairments. Along the way, her mother saved the income she earned from seat weaving for family vacations.

“One day when I was 16, she asks, ‘Do you want to help me weave a chair?’ I said, ‘If you pay me!’”

Laurie learned by working backwards. She’d undo the weaving on chairs while taking photographs and making notes along the way.

She kept up with the skill over the years, but seat weaving would not become full-time work until she and David decided to ditch their jobs working for a global corporation in Calgary, where they met. She was a construction project manager and he was a plumber.

Four years ago, the couple bought a 36-foot Voltage 3200 trailer for their truck, set up a workshop inside and hit the road as they’ve always dreamed — weaving seats to make ends meet.

“We removed the two sofas, put some kitchen countertops on, and they’re our workstations,” said David, who learned the craft from Laurie, though he leaves the hand-caning projects to the second-generation seat weaver. “We’re a good team. You’ve got be able to work in a small environment with your wife or partner.”

David putting the finishing touches with some black Danish cord. Courtesy of Laurie and David Blake.

A roving business in demand

Now that winter is on the way, Laurie and David will be spending the milder months in Fort Langley, with visits to Vancouver and detours to Vancouver Island. Their seasonal schedule has them heading east as it warms up, mostly in Calgary and Ottawa, with plenty of stops in between depending on what they want to see and where there are chairs to be repaired.

“If we’ve got a week’s worth of work somewhere, we’ll stop,” said David. When they made their first stop in Saskatoon, some customers had been waiting three years.

There’s something soothing and satisfying about watching seat weavers at work, wrapping materials like Danish cord snugly around the hooks and teak frames to form strong, beautiful patterns that can last 60 years with regular use.

Their business, called Caning Canada, repairs chairs and other furniture like headboards with everything from imported Danish cord, cane, rattan, seagrass and fibre rush to Shaker tape.

Most of the work they get is through word of mouth. They’ve also formed good relationships with vintage furniture stores in various cities where they’ve hosted meet-ups and in turn have brought in customers.

You can call it remote work, but it still requires the logistics of picking up, repairing and dropping off furniture at a steady pace. Pick up too many and it becomes crowded. During a journey to Ontario, they were able to store a record 67 chairs in their trailer, but there was no room to work on them.

A row of mid-century modern chairs in front of a beautiful grassy landscape with a river in the back.
Chairs en plein air, near the Ghost Dam on the Bow River, Alberta. Photo courtesy of Laurie and David Blake.

“The project manager mind comes in handy,” said Laurie. “Prior to our meet-ups, I have to think about the space we have in the trailer and then book a truckload for us both to be busy.”

“We’ve got a storage unit now and we don’t want to get another because then you’d just keep storing stuff,” said David.

Some customers who can’t meet the couple in person will mail their seats and backs in, unscrewing them from chair frames and packaging them via Canada Post. Postage costs about $60 and so does the service, totalling about $120 for a mail-in repair.

On furniture, fast and slow

The couple knows their stuff.

The Tyee showed them a photo of a chair with Danish cord from a recent article on a 1960s house designed by Arthur Erickson. Laurie was quick to reply: “That’s a Hans Wegner dining chair 23.”

Even with their expertise, the seat weavers are constantly learning.

As chairs pass through their hands and they inspect the pencilled initials and stamps on their undersides, they uncover new information about the world of furniture, including Canada’s own chapters of design history. They’ve worked on pieces made by Brunswick Manufacturing in Toronto, founded by a man named John Stene, who escaped occupied Norway during the Second World War, became a Royal Air Force pilot in England and started making furniture in Canada.

Ironically, trying to work on pieces of mass-produced fast furniture takes more time.

“[The weaving] might be attached with staples or the measurements aren’t right,” said Laurie. “It wrecks our tools trying to get the staples out.”

Such chairs last only a few years, paling in comparison to the older, well-crafted pieces.

Because of their quality, the market is hot and there are many collectors. A designer chair available for $1,400 at a vintage store could cost $2,000 online, says Laurie.

A man with his arm around a woman inside an old barn that has been converted into a flea market. Around them on tables are corded chairs.
The seat weavers make a stop at the Vancouver Flea Market. While their primary business is chair repair, they do sell the occasional piece. Photo for The Tyee by Christopher Cheung.

If you follow Caning Canada on Instagram, you’ll see that the account is a fusion of two cultures with dedicated online followings: van life, for vehicle dwellers, and furniture lovers, particularly those passionate about mid-century design.

Laurie and David had been planning to do this for years and they’ve managed to make it work. Wherever they are in the country, there’s outdoor adventure (their first date was climbing), their kitchen trailer (they bake their own bread) and chairs to repair.

“We’re not going to get rich doing this. For a lot of the hand-caning work, I’m making less than minimum wage,” said Laurie. “But I’m torn, because I want to save it as well.”

“Sometimes we take on projects like a little old woman who brings in her great-grandmother’s chair and the seat’s completely done,” said David. “We have not made any money on the job, but we have made someone really happy.”

Keeping treasures out of landfills and restoring them for families is a different reward.

Just about every customer gives Laurie and David hugs upon receiving their pieces. There are even tears. It can be an emotional experience to see a beloved piece of furniture restored to the way it once looked in Great-Grandmother’s house.

“Who sat on that chair?” Laurie sometimes wonders. “If it could tell stories, what would it tell you? If you have a 160-year-old chair, what has that seen?”  [Tyee]

Read more: Art, Labour + Industry

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