Think of a chair. Any chair will do, perhaps the one you’re sitting in now. Think about its shape, what it’s used for, where it’s placed. Does this bring up any memories, any emotions?
For many, a Johnnie Chair certainly would. More than a campus-classic piece of furniture, this classic chair has become, in the eyes of many, symbolic of the spirit of St. John’s.
I, myself, feel an intense sense of nostalgia at the sight of a Johnnie Chair. Memories of settling myself into one for each class, hanging my bag of books from the gracefully curving wooden back, settling myself into the wicker seat, and pulling out my mental notes for the class ahead fill my mind at the sight of one. Not that they’re an uncommon sight, peppered around campus as they are, in classrooms, dining halls, offices, even hallways.
The simple setting of a St. John’s classroom is one of the keys to the kind of education we try to give at the college. No bells and whistles, no smart screens, or laptops, just a table, a chalkboard, and those classic wooden chairs, made the same way for almost two centuries. Keep in mind that every class at St. John’s involves a discussion where students sit around a table, in Johnnie Chairs, alongside 16 classmates sharing a discussion with each other.
Johnnie Chairs are made by a company called E.A. Clore Sons, which opened in 1830. On their website one can find many reviews, ranging from the delighted to the sentimental, from Johnnie alumni glad to see that the chairs they remember from their time at St. John’s are still being made and sold. It’s this devotion from alumni towards their precious chairs, in fact, that kept E.A. Clore Sons open through a near-closure in 2016. Upon announcing they wanted to close, the company was so swamped with orders for what they call their Plain Master Chair that they decided to delay closing indefinitely!
I have heard many stories of the nostalgia of alumni and soon-to-graduate students towards their Johnnie Chairs, from alumni from the 1960s commenting on the E.A. Clore Sons company website to say how glad they are to see the chairs still being made as they remember them, to Annapolis croquet players having the handles of their game-winning mallets made from pieces of soon to be decommissioned chairs, not to mention the many alumni who go on to have Johnnie Chairs, or chairs that look like them, in their future homes.
It is a testament to the power of the college’s unique spirit that so many alumni want to carry reminders of it with them once they graduate. And it is a testament in turn to how important the Johnnie Chair is to that college spirit to see them being featured in pictures on Facebook groups and alongside the precarious stacks of books that seem to be a requirement in every home that houses at least one Johnnie alum. (And it’s often more than one, as Johnnies marry or live with other Johnnies quite often.
A Johnnie Chair is a solid piece of work. The wood and wicker can take quite a beating, from so many students sitting, wriggling, rocking, and even standing (I don’t recommend this) on them over the years, without cracking. Just like this, St. John’s aims to shape sturdy minds that can take disagreement and struggle, yet stay in one beautiful, artfully crafted piece.
The one distinction between various Johnnie Chairs is the colors and woods used on each campus: at Annapolis, the Johnnie Chairs are a reddish-brown, made from walnut and cherry wood, while at Santa Fe, they are made of a darker oak. Even this is in a way symbolic of the relationship between the two campuses: each part of the same college, each of the same spirit, but with their own distinct characters, shaped by geography and by the campus communities themselves.
St. John’s has no official mascot. But we do have several unofficial mascots! These include: the axolotl, the platypus, the book, the balance and, of course, the Johnnie Chair. The choices of mascots, made by the college community itself, shows how Johnnies think of themselves. The axolotl and the platypus are strange, unique animals, and so they stand for the quirkiness of a Johnnie, and, in the case of the platypus, which is a mammal that lays eggs, the difficulty one might have with putting a Johnnie into any easy box. The book and the balance appear on the college seal, and represent the basic elements needed to give a good education to our students. And the Johnnie Chair stands for the universal soul of the college, across time, campuses, classrooms, and everything else.
Maybe Johnnies are strange in our choices of what we get attached to, putting so much value on a chair. Or maybe not. Maybe our attachment to the Johnnie Chair just goes to show how appealing the community finds the concepts at the heart of St. John’s: simplicity, functionality, and commonality. The moment a new student sits down at the table for their first St. John’s class, they are sharing an experience with the students that came before them, going back centuries. Just as much as reading the first pages of Plato, sitting in a Johnnie Chair is an experience every Johnnie will understand. And that common experience is a large part of what we stand for as a college. It’s why we all have the same major, why we all take the same classes, why we all sign our names into the same book at Convocation. And why we all sit in the same chairs.