The Magnificent Journey Of The Red Chair
By: Christopher Kazarian
Robert Frost once used a rock wall as a metaphor for civility among neighbors. Filmmaker Orson Welles once used a sled as a metaphor for the lost innocence of youth.
It is this concept—bestowing greater meaning to inanimate objects—that innkeeper Elizabeth S. Colt of Woods Hole has taken and run with using a discarded red chair she found at the Falmouth swap shop about two years ago.
She had intended that trip to the dump with her husband, PK Simonds, to simply discard unwanted items the couple had brought with them when they had moved here in 2008.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one to not leave the swap shop without taking something with them,” she laughed. So it was with a pair of matching red wooden chairs she saw sitting there, alone and looking for a home. “They were this beautiful color red, and it just caught my eye,” she said. “They were a little wobbly, but I thought these would be fine for our porch for us to sit outside.”
On that day one man’s trash became Ms. Colt’s treasure.
Initially, they were used for their practical purpose, as chairs, during the summer of 2010 before they moved inside as the days grew shorter and the temperatures grew colder.
A Star Is Born
But six months later, on a February afternoon, one of the red chairs made a triumphant return when Ms. Colt escorted her two children, Charlie Colt-Simonds, now 14, and Sam Colt-Simonds, now 11, to the pond behind their home. She used the chair to help the siblings get their skates on and then watched as they played on the ice. “As we headed back to the house, it was gray and getting dark, I looked back and there was the chair. I had forgotten it,” she said. “It was this arresting red against those muted tones.”
Admiring the contrast, Ms. Colt turned back and snapped a photo of the lonesome chair with her iPhone, later posting the picture on her personal Facebook page as well as that of the Woods Hole Inn. “It got so many likes,” she said. “It lit up the Internet. There was something about the starkness of the photo and the way the red chair popped off of the pond.”
For me, the metaphor of the red chair is the invitation to come explore yourself in a quiet and beautiful place.
- Elizabeth Colt
Among those captivated by the chair was Julie Ann Cromer of Santa Barbara, California, who came across the image on Facebook. “It really inspired me, and I loved it,” she said.
So last March, Ms. Cromer and her boyfriend stayed at the Woods Hole Inn with one simple request of Ms. Colt. “She e-mailed me a few days before and said, ‘I’m a photographer. Could I borrow the red chair?” Ms. Colt said, laughing that “My first reaction is that my guests will stop at nothing. My feeling was that it is one of my possessions. It is my red chair and was not even at the inn.”
Ms. Colt ultimately realized that the chair was meant to be shared. Before Ms. Cromer arrived that weekend, Ms. Colt left the chair at the inn, instructing her staff to allow her guest to use it while she and her family went out of town. When Ms. Colt returned, she asked her staff about Ms. Cromer’s experience with the chair. The answer was vague. “They told me, ‘I think she liked it,’ ” she said. “It was kind of neutral.”
She soon forgot about the incident until a month later when she received an e-mail from Ms. Cromer. “She wrote that your red chair opened up a whole new place in my work and I wanted to thank you,” Ms. Colt said.
More Than Just A Chair
Two weeks later Ms. Colt received a sizeable package from Ms. Cromer. Inside was “a stunning picture, printed on canvas, beautifully framed of the red chair on Nobska Beach sitting between dune fencing with the waves crashing behind it,” Ms. Colt said. “Tears were in my eyes. I got really emotional. It struck me because you do so much to make your place hospitable and give your guests a good time. On top of that, to feel like you are having an artistic dialogue with them, it made me emotional.”
That picture now hangs proudly inside the lobby of the Woods Hole Inn.
Though photographs from Ms. Cromer’s March 2011 vacation depict the chair in a variety of locations—in front of a Cape Cod cottage; sitting in a field—it is the one on the beach that has sold more than any other she has taken as a photographer. As to why, Ms. Cromer said, “it evokes an emotion... It is a very inspiring thing. It touches people in many different ways. I have one friend who has cancer, who says the picture of the chair on the beach brings him peace.”
As the summer season got underway last year, Ms. Colt blogged about the experience and the chair’s importance in her own life. “For me, the metaphor of the red chair is the invitation to come explore yourself in a quiet and beautiful place,” she wrote. “It is the dialogue between artists and innkeepers, dreamers and shop-girls, lost travelers and those that welcome them into warm beds. We are all—on some level—lovers of destination, landscape, color.”
The Journey Begins
At the end of last month that dialogue expanded to the entire Cape, as a group of innkeepers from Falmouth to Provincetown welcomed the same red chair that Ms. Colt and Ms. Cromer artistically captured with their cameras.
The first stop in its travels was the Belfry Inne in Sandwich on March 26. On that date, Ms. Colt loaded up the chair in her car and headed north. “I felt like I was taking my teenage child off to summer camp,” Ms. Colt said. “There was this real sadness as I drove. I wondered, ‘What if it gets lost, stolen or broken? What if I never see it again?’ ”
Ms. Colt has seen it, multiple times, in photos and stories that innkeepers have posted at www.redchairtravels.com.
The chair has become a celebrity of sorts—the Flat Stanley of Cape Cod—as it’s been paired with much larger lifeguard chairs at Sandy Neck Beach, sat amid the stainless steel beer barrels at the Cape Cod Beer brewery in Hyannis and next to the Higgins Farm Windmill at Drummer Boy Park in Brewster.
Annabelle and Simon Hunton, owners of the Platinum Pebble Boutique Inn in West Harwich, spent two days with the chair, bringing it to a yoga session, placing it on the mound at Whitehouse Field, home of the Harwich Mariners, and taking it to an “audition” on stage at the Harwich Junior Theatre.
“It was fun to take the chair and set up these slightly different photographs,” Mr. Hunton said.
The one thing the couple did not do was sit in the chair. “From our perspective, we felt it would be rude for the chair, once you create this personality for it, though we asked ourselves ‘Do you sit in it or do you not sit in it?’ ” he said.
To him, he said, the approach has been a novel way to connect innkeepers throughout the region, while providing the chair’s hosts with a marketing tool using social media.
Cooperation, Not Competition
The spirit of cooperation has impressed Ms. Colt, who said it should be an example of how like-minded businesses can work with one another to strengthen the whole. “A rising tide floats all boats,” she said. “We are so much stronger when we work together.”
She also has been captivated by the ingenuity of innkeepers who have placed their own spin on the idea, trying to outdo each other in terms of creativity.
Most recently the chair was seen in Provincetown at Gabriel’s at The Ashbrooke Inn, before it was to make its way to the Orleans Inn this weekend. Its final stops will be at the Whalewalk Inn and Spa in Eastham and the Captain’s Manor Inn on Main Street, Falmouth, at which point it will return home to Ms. Colt.
As to what is next, Ms. Colt said, she may “put a few extra screws in it to tighten it,” though she refuses to mess with its color.
Ms. Cromer, who will return to Woods Hole at the end of May, has suggested a much longer journey, with the chair going cross-country to her home in Santa Barbara. “And then I would drive it back,” she said.
“Those two red chairs were probably sitting there for days,” Ms. Colt said, marveling at how famous they have become. “I didn’t realize how special they were when I put them in the back of my car. They were definitely overlooked.”
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