The Athanasopoulos familiy continues the craft of wickerwork in the traditional way. Their core business is to build and repair the wooden greek tavern chair.
We are roaming through a maze of narrow alleys in Athens’ artisans district Psiri. Over the past 15 years the rough, shabby neighbourhood has attracted a young creative scene, who, with restaurants, bars, design studios and trendy shops give the area new impetus. The new arrivals mix with long-established workshops, wholesalers and antiques shops.
On the narrow sidewalk on the corner of Lepeniotou and Leokoriou Street we discover a collection of handmade wooden chairs. Next to the shop entrance a steep staircase leads down to the workshop of Yannis Athanasopoulos. A friendly voice is calling us: “ela mesa” – come in! A middle aged man, tanned and of impressive built, introduces himself as Yannis. He is seated on a stool, holding a chair frame between his strong thighs. With meditative calm he is weaving the dry reed row by row into the wooden frame, creating a solid seat. Two naked fluorescent tubes bath the crammed basement in sallow light. The space is at the same time workshop and storage – piles of broken chairs, furniture, lamps and all kinds of antiquities everywhere. With a sweeping gesture Yannis tells us: “This is my next order, these are all chairs from a kafenion.” The owner of the kafenion is a loyal customer; time and again he is taking his broken chairs to Yannis for repair. In one corner materials like wood and reed are neatly arranged. The smell of dried grass and mouldy walls blends with sweat of hard work.
„With my grandson, Konstantinos, we are passing the knowledge to our fourth generation“.
Yannis Athanasopoulos learned the craft from his mother Katerina. In 1965 she came with her parents from the region of Macedonia to settle in Athens and establish a business of wickerwork. Katharina, a courageous woman, proudly says „with my grandson, Konstantinos, we are passing the knowledge to our fourth generation“. The family business – mother, son and grandson – is specialised in the weaving of chairs as well as mending old ones and other furniture, including the ordinary Greek tavern chair but also chairs with delicate Viennese netting.
The art of wickerwork was a common craft in the Balkans, especially among the nomadic ethnicities of Roma communities. Materials like branches and reed were easily and cheaply available. The mobile workshops travelled across the country canvassing the villages selling and repairing chairs.
Chairs have more than one life
In the early 90s, when the traditional handmade Greek tavern chair saw the arrival of a competitor in the global “monobloc” phenomenon, the functional stackable plastic chair flooded Greek village squares and seafronts. Some exclusive locations, mainly on the islands and in areas of high standard tourism, however have rediscovered the timeless charm of the tavern chair a couple of years ago and come back to tradition. Yet the market of handcrafted wooden chairs with woven seats stayed marginal, a disaster for the craft without an alternative.
Yannis Athanasopoulos continues the craft in the traditional way. His business is going well, he says. “A traditionally made tavern chair lasts many years. We use high quality wood in order for the chairs to age well.” His clients appreciate the quality. Cheap imports from China are therefore no competition for the Athanasopoulos family. “Oh well” Yannis says, “why import when we can repair the old ones?” After two seasons the frame of the cheap chairs is often in such a poor condition, it cannot even be repaired anymore. The Athanasopoulos family’s work ethic of creating a durable product isn’t so much a current trend towards sustainability but rather a way of embracing and honouring the craft.