Though Jody Chaffee was ready to pass on some of her belongings to her children, her daughters had made it abundantly clear that they weren’t interested in their mother’s “brown” furniture. Crushed but determined, Chaffee decided to update and re-cover three dining room chairs in a neutral linen to give to Anne, Jane, and daughter-in-law Katie for Christmas. Moreover, she had the chairs monogrammed with their initials “so they couldn’t give them back or throw them away.” In a happy-ending twist, the young women were delighted with the chairs — even Jane, “who was way over monograms.” “Mom,” they said, “you should sell these.”
That happy ending was the beginning of J. Wilkinson Chair Company in Greenville, which Chaffee started in 2019 at age 65. She used her maiden name — Wilkinson — as a nod to the one pillowcase that she still has from a set purchased at Thalhimers in Greensboro after her senior year of high school, which “will go with me to the nursing home,” she says.
The gorgeous photos of chairs are enough to make you start a bonfire of your belongings.
As with any new business, challenges arose. Finding a monogrammer who could provide both consistency and quality nearly made Chaffee give up, but a chance Instagram photo led her to someone who could ensure both. Today, J. Wilkinson offers five styles of chairs and barstools in finishes with names like Driftwood and Obsidian, plus a dozen monogram designs.
Choose a glossy green monogram on a leopard print. Vivid red on blue stripes. Or — “the young girls’ favorite” — gold on navy velvet. Thread colors are legion, but “you’d be surprised,” Chaffee says. “We’re trying to find a phantom lavender right now — a unicorn.” A client wants to embroider a Greek key motif on a Carolina blue background.
At Greenville’s J. Wilkinson Chair Company, every chair — like this one, in the Densmore style — is customizable. photograph by KATHERINE JOHNSON PHOTOGRPAHY/J. WILKINSON CHAIR CO.
A journey through J. Wilkinson’s website, with all of its gorgeous photos, is enough to make you start a bonfire of your belongings: See beautiful chairs in garden rooms and breakfast rooms, gathered around roughhewn dining tables and against exposed brick walls. There are foyer chairs, accent chairs, nursery chairs, and, now that working from home is the new normal, desk chairs (for those, the monogram is often on the back, because it’s frequently the first thing you see when you enter a home office). And if you think “bespoke” is a term that only applies to tailor-made suits, think again. A recent order came from an 83-year-old woman who wanted a chair for her husband to sit on when he put on his socks. “Our answer is always yes, and then we figure it out,” Chaffee says, laughing.
One remarkable aspect of the company is that, contrary to expectations, the majority of clients live not in the South, but in Utah, Arizona, Oregon, Connecticut, and beyond. “It’s mind-blowing,” Chaffee says.
She also admits to feeling that, for someone whose business depends on monograms, her own name starts with one of the least attractive letters. J, like “the tragic P,” as she terms it, doesn’t lend itself to the swirls and curlicues and flourishes of a classic monogram. Oh, well — best to go with the block style.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.