vintage: our almost-tulip dining room chairs

Burke Inc. chairs four star base Gonstead

When does a person develop his or her design sensibility? I’m not exactly sure, but I think my own interest in mid-century modern stuff was born at a fairly young age, even if it was sub-conscious. See the chairs above? They were located in the women’s waiting room of The Gonstead Clinic of Chiropractic, in Mt. Horeb, WI, which my father owned with his brother (my uncle) for many years.

Everything about this building was (and still is) funky and extremely cool. It is 19,000 square feet, and construction was completed in 1964. Commissioned by legendary chiropractor Clarence Gonstead, this building was designed by Wisconsin architect John Steinman who designed lots of mid-century modern public buildings and private residences around the state. Check out the roof line:

Gonstead Clinic of Chiropractic

Back to the chairs. I must have seen them a zillion times in my youth: I walked past them, probably sat in them, ran around them in circles. But it wasn’t until I went back to visit about 10 years ago that they really caught my eye. I said to my dad, “If anybody ever wants to get rid of those chairs, let me know. Or PLEASE save them for me.” At the time, I had no room for them — I was apartment hopping around New York and my living spaces just seemed to be getting smaller. I guess on some level, though, I trusted that I’d one day have the ideal place for them.

Then I met Rob, who also loves mid-century modern design and we found our house, built in 1965. My dad had, in fact, secured four of those chairs for me a few years before. Once we got the house, he got two more to complete the set. As a house-warming gift, he re-painted the fiberglass. Though we liked the mustard-yellow vinyl, it was somewhat beat-up and stained from over 40 years of use. So he and my ultra-kind, can-do step-mother, Sherill, had them re-upholstered in a fabric of our choosing. Then they shipped them half-way across the country in three gigantic boxes. We lined them up on our front walkway in order to apply copious amounts of Scotch Guard stain protector:

Burke Inc chairs four star base on walkway

Once they arrived, I was able to do some research. Alas, these chairs are not Knoll. They are not Saarinen. They are in fact modeled after those iconic tulip chairs, and the design comes pretty close, but they have a “four star” base instead. They were manufactured in the 60’s by Burke, Inc. out of Dallas, TX.

Burke Inc Chairs 103

Fun fact: it’s rumored and highly likely that these chairs were used in a modified form on the set of Star Trek.

Rob and I love how they look in our open concept dining room, located between our living room and our library/book nook. I am happy to report that so far (knock on fiberglass), the chairs have remained stain-free.

Burke Inc Chairs in dining room

We paired them with a Danish modern table (reasonably-priced from good ol’ IKEA), for which my mother gifted us a customized glass top.

Burke Inc chairs dining room 2

Like several items in our home, such as the vintage Hanova Double Candle Holder I wrote about recently, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by things with a past, objects that remind us of a certain time and a particular place. These chairs fulfill a purpose and they do so perfectly. But they also hold a meaning that goes far beyond the first glance. And this, I think, is one of my favorite aspects of having a home.

As a chiropractor, my father has helped thousands of people in pain feel better during his lifetime. Many of these patients waited anxiously in these very chairs, hoping for relief. And they got it.

On this note, you might be wondering, are these chairs comfortable? The answer is: Extremely! They give excellent lumbar support, indeed.

Thank you to Dad and Sherill for this wonderful gift…


Does anyone know anything more about these chairs or about Burke Inc.?

27 replies

  1. OH yes, love them. And that building. Fantastic. I have my own history of Eames-y, tulip Saarinen-y danish furniture and (unbeknownst to me at the time) mid-century architecture. In fact I might have to go over to my Mom’s house right now and investigate further. She lives in a very little, modest colonial house from the mid 1880s that has a late 1950’s addition on it with cathedral ceilings. God bless the super hip/design saavy Japanese family that lived there before my parents bought the place, and found a way to make a dramatic family room/kitchen. So right smack in the middle of this space (still) is a bunch of random wood dining chairs around (I think?) an authentic Knoll/Saarinen type tulip base white dining room table. BUT, its seen better days and I have no idea if it can be salvaged. The base is discolored and rusted from 50 years of (fill in blanks here). The top is…Sigh. I don’t think Mom knows how cool this table is. Since we all moved out its become her office/project table for all things-and she basically lives there, staring out her floor to ceiling windows overlooking the large yard. I don’t think I realized until recent years what she has hiding in her house. Do you think she’ll notice if I sneak it out of her house while she’s napping and have it appraised/re-done?

    • Yes, let’s do a Knoll-knapping RRI – I will help! 🙂 That house and the table sound extremely cool, no matter what state they are in. Isn’t it weird how that stuff we were surrounded by ends up shaping our tastes many many years later? You have such a great eye for this stuff (love that dining set, etc!)

  2. I’m not an MCM junkie, but even I can see the sheer awesomeness of that building… it’s phenomenal. Too bad your dad couldn’t squeeze it in one of the boxes with the chairs!

    The all-white of your color scheme is really appealing, and I like that you kept the upholstery simple, (although the mustard color IS pretty fun). Plus, they *really* match that table perfectly!

    • Thanks Victoria! I know, that building is pretty crazy – I wish I had some good pix of the inside – it is AUTHENTIC 60’s 70’s. It fully transports you back to that time.

      The upholstery is holding up well so far – it was a tough call to fully abandon the mustard – but it has made them feel more like ours. We were so lucky to find a table that worked with the chairs – and the price was DIVINE 🙂

  3. Very cool! Sure wish my dad’s shop had such stylish waiting-room furniture. 🙂

    Also, I’ve always wondered how people can live with white furniture (or flooring). I mean we don’t even have kids and I’m still fighting stains alllll the time. You must be very un-clumsy. 🙂

    • I have a sneaking suspicion that your parents (grandparents) have some pretty cool stuff around – I know you caught that vintage bug somewhere.

      Oh, Suzanne, I am indeed a klutz! The white white wonderland that is our home is pretty funny – the couch takes the biggest hit. The dining room chairs get covered with “special towels” when the niece-n-neph come over. Recently, it seems like my clothes have been the worst victims – stain city! This is why I always have to change into my housey clothes (i.e. pajamas) the second I hit the door! 🙂

  4. I just love those chairs! I agree with you that our design sensibilities are formed early and unconsciously. I wasn’t too aware of my surroundings until the 70s, but there was still a lot of stuff from the 50s and 60s around me growing up (including my parents’ furniture).

    • Thanks Leslie – I think it is so fun to set up your house with a mix from different eras. When I think about all the excellent treasures we (and all families) have put out the trash, given away and abandoned along the way… well, I don’t like to think about that… 🙂

    • No, we do not. BUT: we do try to eat lots of baked potatoes with lots of fixins while sitting in these chairs in honor of one very Trekky Birthday Party held long long ago in a galaxy far away. (oh, wait that last line is a star wars reference, but you already knew that, didn’t you?)

  5. Those chairs are timeless! I remember seeing an ad on Kijiji once that was about 2 hours away in the middle of nowhere and this guy was selling a set that looked to be either Knoll or Saarinen and they looked beat up but were dirt cheap. I often wonder who went to claim them b/c if they got them redone as yours are, they got quite a find. I love that your chairs have a history to them and I feel that some of the most prized items in our homes aren’t necessarily the name brand ones but are the ones that tell a story.

    • Oooh, yes, I wonder who scored that set! Possibly some MCM dealers who knew how to restore – and jack up the price!? Seems like some of the best deals can be found off the beaten path.

      Yes, I love the story behind personal belongings. I could probably give about a six hour and *** extremely tedious and annoying *** tour of our house with all the little backstories of everything. Hey, wait, that’s kind of what my blog is… 🙂

  6. What a great story and the chairs look incredible! I have to say that I’m equally blown away by the building they sat in. That roof line epitomizes mid century modern to me. Your mom and dad ROCK! New paint AND upholstery! True love! Parents are so great.

    As for Burke… Richie and I have bought and sold dozens of Burke pieces over the years. They are a beautiful version of the Saarinen designs and we never pass them up. We once found an oval marble top Saarinen dining table with six chairs. It was 1200 and we sold it for 3500. That was a great day! But nothing beats a find with a special story like this. Loved it! They are perfect in your light and airy modern home!

    PS. They are SUPER comfy!!!

    • I imagine that there is A LOT of Burke stuff floating around your neck of the woods! And that Saarinen tale: wow! You guys sure have a knack for this 🙂

      Yes, my dad and step-mother certainly helped our house become a home. And even though we are mostly couch eaters, as I have admitted before, I do LOVE entertaining at this table.

      And yes, that clinic is CRAZY cool – it needs a little love – I imagine that some DWELL-ish design team could come in and update it lovingly and make it off the hook…It is a real treasure. When Rob first saw it, he went berserk – I wish I had some good inside pics – it’s all wood and angles and glass brick.

  7. Oh my goodness are those chairs every AMAZING! I always love looking at your photos since I’m a Mid Century Modern homeowner myself. Love this style so much.

    My parents had a larger version of your chairs — two of them. Also yellow, though covered all around the chair seat. Chrome base. I loved those chairs. They even swiveled. What I would do to have them now!

    • Thanks Angie Z.

      Those chairs sound dreamy. And swiveling: nothing passes time better than a good long swivel session, esp when you’re a kid.

      I know, you really can’t think to hard about what ever happened to that kind of great stuff: it’s too painful.



  9. Cool chairs! The Star Trek ones were the model 115, which wraps around more at the corners between the seat and back than the 103. Probably made for a stronger chair, which would have been important on the show with all the times they got knocked over and tossed around. 🙂

  10. I just saw this in 2016. Those Burke chairs were designed by Hugh Acton from the Detroit area, who I recall moved to Texas about 1968 and changed the company from Hugh Acton to Burke. I had a set too in the 60’s that were from my company’s lunch room after they upgraded to real Knoll tulip chairs.

Comments welcome here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s