I first noticed the rocking chairs a few years ago while flying out of Seattle. It seemed like a quirky touch not out of character at an airport with an abundance of art and whose drinking fountains play amplified gargling sounds. Then I noticed them in Durham. Then in San Diego.
If I had to pick places I’d expect to see rocking chairs, front porches, living rooms, and pretty much anywhere else would rank far above cavernous and stark airport terminals, yet that’s probably where I’m most likely to see them. And while I could imagine an aggressively whimsical designer somewhere throwing a bunch of rocking chairs in a terminal, I had a hard time seeing how they’d sprung up in so many airports across the country. Why rocking chairs? Where did they come from?
It turns out they come from a guy named Champ Land and his wife, Jean, who co-own Troutman Chairs in North Carolina, where the trend began.
"We’ve got rockers in about 40 airports around the country," Land says, perplexed by my call at first but clearly proud of his dominance in the airport rocking chair industry. "Philly has rockers, Burlington has rockers — right many of the North and South Carolina airports have rockers."
The chairs are called Kennedy Rockers, named after the type that John F. Kennedy used to alleviate his back pain. Kennedy had dozens of the chairs and placed them everywhere — in the Oval Office, at Camp David, and aboard Air Force One. Kennedy’s chairs were made by P&P, another North Carolina company, which the Lands bought in 2009. The chairs are tall and straight, with flat wooden slats running up the back and a curved seat. In airports, they’re usually painted white or stained and left unpainted.
The trend started by accident in 1997 at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The airport had a temporary photography exhibit called Porch Sitting, says Haley Gentry, who manages amenities at Charlotte Douglas. There were large photos of front porches, with rocking chairs, and in front of the photos, as props, actual rocking chairs. When the exhibit’s time was up they took the chairs away, and people got upset.
"We didn’t realize how popular they were 'til we went to remove the exhibit," Gentry says. "We went to remove the rocking chairs and we got such a public outcry that we said, ‘Wow, we need to keep these here,’ and we expanded them."
From there, the rockers spread from airport to airport. The people I spoke to at Sea-Tac and Miami were a little hazy on exactly where the idea for the chairs came from — someone who worked for the airport saw them at another airport, thought they were nice, and contacted Land, who became the de facto supplier of airport rocking chairs.
The chairs caught on for the same reason they seem so out of place: airports are not, typically, pleasant and relaxing places. Security is an ordeal. The threat of missed flights or delays gives everything an undercurrent of anxiety. And through it all, you’re lugging unwieldy baggage. Rocking chairs signal the opposite of hurry.
They’re also an easy addition to terminals, which are ordinarily difficult to renovate. Airports are always in use; they can’t be simply shut down and redesigned, so any improvements have to be made piecemeal. Rocking chairs are basically modular seating that can be installed overnight and rearranged as needed. A bonus, Gentry points out, is that they can be moved near power outlets, often in short supply at older terminals.
"Airports tend to be such a fast-paced environment," Gentry says. "It can be overwhelming for people who aren’t seasoned travelers. The rocker is a yin to that yang. It’s more of a slow pace. You’re controlling the rocker, where a lot of the time in an airport you’re not controlling your environment. It’s a nice pause button in a hectic environment."
Land gives a similar reason for his chair’s success. "A rocker is something that relaxes you, and everyone is uptight in an airport," he says. "If you get enough rockers in there, that’s at least that many people who aren’t going to be calling and raising heck about something."