A decade of Deck the Chairs

Bolles Chair made my Bolles Art Club.
Bolles’ Chair made my Bolles Art Club.
Ava Cheng

If you happen to visit Jacksonville Beach this winter, you’ll find the area donned with lights, music, and decorative lifeguard chairs that attract tens of thousands of visitors every year. Holiday spirit fills the air and colorful decorations set the area aglow—but the beach wasn’t always this festive. 


“In the wintertime it’s quiet and almost goes dead. In fact, in 2012, there were no lights, no decorations, no anything,” said Kurtus Loftus, the founder and Executive Director of Deck the Chairs.


Loftus came up with the concept for the organization a decade ago, while on a morning run. “It was July of 2013. I’m looking at these big tall red lifeguard chairs and as I’m running down the beach I’m thinking about what the symbolism means. How important the story is, from the volunteer lifesaving corps to the beaches—everything about those chairs was speaking to me.” 


At the time, Loftus had his own business: the Kurtis Creative Inc. worked in advertising, focusing primarily on design illustration. Drawing inspiration from his creative background and a previous event, Loftus began to form the idea that lies at the heart of Deck the Chairs. 


“For the Otis Smith Foundation we painted these manatees and we put them all over the city downtown, and it was cool because it brought art into the public spaces and helped promote the businesses,” recalled Loftus. “Those chairs, like the manatees, spoke to me about the culture and the space in which we can decorate them and that’s exactly how it was formed.”


Loftus took his idea to the businesses and civic leaders in the area, and with their support began working on Deck the Chairs in August 2013. By November of that year, the organization had set up 16 chairs in the park space at the beach. “It was that simple,” said Loftus. 


Of course, it wasn’t really that simple: the first event took four months of planning from thinking of the idea to pitching it, and Loftus was building the idea from the ground up. “It’s a ton of stuff to think back on and go, ‘I actually started this from scratch.’”


While a large number of people, ranging from beach residents to the city mayor, came on board with their approval, Loftus faced his fair share of scrooges. “No one had ever done anything like decorating lifeguard chairs and there were a lot of people that laughed at it and a lot of folks that looked at it as just a crazy idea. Thinking back you can certainly see why someone would go decorate lifeguard chairs? What the heck does that mean?” 



Nevertheless, Deck the Chairs was a success, with small businesses coming together to share their stories through their decorations. “Each business, nonprofit, had their own story. You can imagine the exhibit takes on this really wonderful quality because it’s not just light lights on the chair. It’s storytelling.”


A decade later, the nonprofit has grown to become nothing less than the pinnacle of holiday spirit at the beaches. “It was a slow build, getting people to understand why we were there, who we were raising money for, where the money went, all of that stuff. Took a lot of years to really make the mission concise and get people to understand that our goal is our children and what the next generation is going to have. It doesn’t matter who they become, but promoting arts education, promoting creativity, and inspiring our kids is what it’s about.”


Now, Deck the Chairs is thriving with involvement from the Cultural Council and partners like Publix and the Jacksonville Jaguars. The area receives over 100,000 visitors over the six weeks the chairs are on display, with hundreds of performers—the event is so popular that the organization now has a waiting list to decorate chairs. 


Deck the Chairs expanded from its initial focus on local businesses to include student exhibit spaces. This year, the nonprofit opened a new display at James Weldon Johnson Park, solely featuring student-decorated chairs. 


By involving students in the exhibits, Deck the Chairs has uplifted art and STEM programs at various schools around Jacksonville. “It doesn’t have to be strictly art,” Loftus said. “It’s getting the kids engaged and inspiring them, helping them understand how they can tell a story and then putting it all together into this public space.”


At the Bolles upper school, students from the Honors 3D Art class created a design that students from the art classes and club executed over the course of 40 hours. Entitled “Love is the Gift,” the Bolles project was inspired by elves preparing presents for the world. 


The placard in front of the display reads, “The final design represents the symbolism of gifting as an expression of love. Love is the real gift, uniting us all in its light.”The project is lit up and adorned with beach balls, gift boxes and hand-painted hearts, embodying this year’s theme: “unite, or unite with light.”


On Wednesday, December 6, visitors came together at James Weldon Johnson Park to enjoy an annual tree lighting, City Hall Open House, and of course: Deck the Chair’s newest student exhibit, where Bolles’s chair now stands. 


To embody this year’s theme and “unite with light” this winter, make sure to stop by Deck the Chairs at the beaches or downtown, where the displays will be up until early January. For more information, visit https://deckthechairs.org/

About the Contributor
Ava Cheng, Design Editor
Junior Ava Cheng is a third-year Bugle staffer and Design Editor. She is proud of her 256-day (and counting) Duolingo streak and loves hanging out with her bunnies and friends.  Ava is looking to improve her interviewing skills and expand her subject matter. When shes not working with bugle or spending times with her bunnies, she is volunteering at JaxTHRIVE.