Ray Pontbriant is completely blind, mostly deaf and has a developmental delay, but there is nobody else in the state, maybe the country, that you’d rather have repair your antique chair.
With expert motions honed over more than 30 years of practice, Pontbriant navigates long, spaghetti-like lengths of what was once the bark surrounding vines, intricately weaving them through nothing more than his keen sense of touch and well-established muscle memory to craft a perfectly woven seat on a wooden dining chair.
“There is no machinery that can do the job that he does,” says fellow chair caner Valentino Barichello from behind thick glasses as he weaves fibrous twine into an impressive design on his own piece of work. “I don’t think we’ll ever be machinated.”
Yes, while the men working in the chair caning shop at the Jefferson Boulevard office of INSIGHT – a company with the mission of providing employment and advancement opportunities to those with visual impairments – are irreplaceable and not at risk of being phased out due to the advancing creep of automation, they unfortunately fall into another category.
They are among the last of a unique breed of artists.
Chair caning, the process of weaving wooden material into seats and backing for chairs and other furniture, dates back to ancient civilizations, as woven caned chairs have been reportedly found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1300 B.C.
In the heyday of manufacturing in America, chair caning was a way for blind and visually impaired people to contribute and gain some semblance of independence, explained INSIGHT executive director Christoper Butler. Those jobs extended into other meticulous, mostly weaving-based ventures like rug weaving and broom making – anything repetitive that could be accomplished through touch.
In fact, chair caning was among the first ventures of employment for the blind when INSIGHT first opened in 1925, known as the Rhode Island Association for the Blind back then. The shop opened in 1926 and today employs multiple people with either vision impairment or full blindness. Butler estimates that the Jefferson Boulevard repair shop is one of the few such shops in the state, and certainly is the only one that seeks to employ the visually impaired.
“We've been really fortunate these folks love doing it and have been doing it for a long time,” he said.
But times have changed. New chair caners aren’t coming up to fill the ranks of those retiring. Pontbriant will be turning 70 in December and going into retirement, and Barichello and Bob Sheldon, who oversees the shop’s operations, are likewise looking ahead to their own retirements.
Sheldon says that people would rather buy a cheaply manufactured, mass-produced chair from a big box store than invest the necessary money to repair an antique chair with handcrafted care – even though the former will likely break or degrade within a few years and the latter could potentially last indefinitely.
Butler talked about how that attention to detail and craftsmanship is also a factor contributing to the niche industry’s decline. Because repairs can take as long as many weeks, simply paying their employees becomes a cost prohibitive challenge, resulting in high operational costs that don’t break even for the cost of labor that goes into them. Chair caning repair jobs at INSIGHT can range anywhere from $85 to $175 in terms of price to the customer, but that is a heavily discounted price compared to what it should be.
“We greatly subsidize the program because we've wanted to keep these people employed,” Butler said. “What we charge is much less than what it costs to do the job.”
With all that in mind, Butler decided to make December of 2019 the last month of INSIGHT’s chair caning operation.
“It seems like a good time to transition,” he said, adding that they will take on as many final jobs in this last year as possible and finish them.
Transition is an apt word, as INSIGHT’s mission will remain the same despite losing one of the historic pillars of its founding. Butler said the company will reinvest the money they used to subsidize the caning program with and put it back into hiring people for new positions.
These jobs will include endeavors like visually impaired teachers who can assist people with new adaptive technologies available for free through smartphones – programs that can make life easier for the blind and visually impaired but may not be known or understood, especially by the elderly. Butler said he’s interested in hiring others to become advocates throughout the Rhode Island community.
The unemployment rate for the blind and visually impaired is still above 70 percent as of the most recent numbers, according to Butler. It illustrates how, even though a classic occupation within the community is sadly on its way out, there is much hope for a bright future and plenty of room to improve.
“People with blindness or visual impairment are excellent employees,” Butler said. “They’re not just limited to chair caning or answering the phones anymore.”