This summer, on our road trip out west, the lady and I were on the lookout for old cast-iron implement seats. The classic, butt-cupping shells were first used on horse-drawn equipment in the 1850's. Prior to that, most farm implements were walk-behind. The term tractor seat came into use as farms were mechanized in the early 20th century, but serious collectors insist the proper name is farm implement seat, as unwieldy as that might be. For ease of use, I will refer to them as simple tractor seats throughout this post.
The seats went through generations of design development, as shapes were refined, and perforations added for ventilation and rain drainage. Eventually, as gas- and diesel-fueled tractors came into widespread use, the molded cast-iron seats were gradually abandoned in favor of padded seats with backs. Many old seats were snapped up in scrap-metal drives during the World Wars, and they became increasingly scarce. Today, antiques collectors love tractor seats. There is a dedicated element out there, hunting old seats down and obsessively documenting their history.
At some point along the way, an enterprising farmer must have affixed an old seat to a stationary base and put in the house or out on the porch. One might call the result one of the original studies in ad-hocism, improvisatory design born of the mashing-up of disparate elements into a functional piece. And, of course, later along the way, a modern master (or three) co-opted the idea into a slick, streamlined piece made for the galleries. Achille Castiglioni, along with his brothers, Livio and Pier Giacomo, designed the Mezzadro (sharecropper in Italian) Seat in 1957. The minimal cantilevered base retains a classical balance of tension, rigidity, and symmetrical construction, executed in modern materials. That same year, they released the Sella (saddle in Italian) Stool, which was a simple bicycle stool mounted to a teetering base.
Since the Castiglioni brothers first brought tractor seats to the attention of "serious" designers, the market has been flooded with them. Most are cheap knock-offs, executed in modern steel, unwieldy cast iron, and even plastic. One designer, Craig Bassam, made a lovely version out of shaped hardwood, softening, refining, and warming up the form. There is just something about that shape -- the organic, ergonomic, butt-hugging curves -- that makes tractor stools instantly sexy, even when poorly executed.
I had to execute my own version for the new apartment. The lady and I found two old tractor seats in two separate flea markets in Iowa, paying about $30 each. That's a little more than I would usually like to spend on something for a piece of guerilla furniture, but it's a good median price for a genuine seat in mediocre condition. We sanded them down, cleaned them thoroughly with denatured alcohol, then primed and painted them in flat black enamel. I built bases from scrap wood in my parent's basement -- an old 2x8 -- and some plywood scraps leftover from the construction of the Box Bed.
I think they turned out half-decent -- the bases are skinny and tapered, looking nice in a whitewash against the black seats. The seats are mounted on top of rubber washers to articulate them from the base, setting them off a little and providing some resilience for the sitter. That said, the narrow base is a bit tippy, the bracing structure at the top fat and unwieldy, and I put the footrest too low. I'll get it right next time, but for now, they are a solid addition to the kitchen.