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Cinde W. Ingram

Charley Chair offers 'correct sit,' consignment flexibility

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Charley Chair
"Once people see it, touch it and sit in it, the Charley Chair has sold itself," McKinnon said.

The Charley Chair grew from an unconventional design Karen McKinnon created more than 15 years ago while she was studying at East Tennessee State University. The brightly colored miniature chair stayed on her kitchen shelf as a whimsical accent while she pursued her career as a residential and commercial interior designer in Johnson City, Tenn.

When she decided to make a full-size version of the chair, her husband Charley Ward, a chiropractor, insisted the chair that bears his name offers the correct 12-degree angle for the human spine.

"It was very important to him that it sit correctly," McKinnon said.

That was a key criterion when a retired builder with 40 years of furniture industry experience helped McKinnon build a full-sized prototype of her wooden chair, which sports a curved asymmetrical back and a skirt with a wave design.

Karen McKinnon
Karen McKinnon

Getting the right angle was only a first step in the learning curve for McKinnon as she developed her chair design for the market.

"The most challenging aspect has been learning the process, the ins and outs of manufacturing and distribution," she said.

Although she learned about sourcing through other countries, McKinnon kept pushing for U.S. production. Sourcer Jeff Holmes pointed her toward Joseph-Samuels Specialties in North Carolina where Casey Hearn, a craftsman formerly employed with Thomasville Furniture Industries, interpreted her design for indoor and outdoor use. The company manufactures the chairs with a birch plywood veneer and a European-developed outdoor finish, designed to withstand extreme Mediterranean climates, from Illusions Unlimited.

"My concept had always been an outdoor chair," McKinnon said. "Once we developed it with stripes and dots, it turned out to have a contemporary flair."

But it was the "correct sit" that surprised nearly all of the retailers and designers who tested the chair during the fall High Point Market, McKinnon said. She described surprised expressions and raised eyebrows as the response of nearly all of the people who sat in her chair.

"The surprise factor was definitely part of it," she said. "They would smile every time."

Now McKinnon proposes another unconventional tactic. She will offer a Charley Chair to retail stores on a consignment basis. If retailers will devote the floor space to a chair, she thinks consumers will buy once they find out how comfortably it sits.

The Charley Chair, ottoman and accent tables brought a splash of bright colors to its showroom on the ground floor of the Suites of Market Square. McKinnon plans to add softer yellow, blue, green, brown and taupe options. She plans to add outdoor rugs to her exhibit for the April High Point Market. She's also working on a dining table and chairs as well as a children's line.

"We'll be expanding the line all the time," McKinnon said. "My main focus is: The Charley Chair provides something reliable, durable and fun."

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