The Long and Rich History of Chairs

Historicalfacts.net: The Long and Rich History of Chairs - When you sit on a chair, do you ever think about where chairs came from? The truth is that seating came about thousands of years ago. In the past, this item that we consider an ordinary everyday item was used as a sign of dignity. In the 16th century, people finally started using chairs as every day seating items.

From the ground to the carpet to the stone to the stool to the chair, the exact date the first chair was crafted is shrouded in the fog of history. The most ornate chairs in antiquity were reserved for the landed gentry and royalty. In medieval Europe, the Church fathers and royals enjoyed elaborate chairs, neigh thrones. The flourishing of craftsmanship during the Renaissance saw the dissemination of chairs for public consumption.

Today people have many options when it comes to purchasing one of these. They can go with a new item, a used item, or in antique item. Many people prefer the retro versions, classic versions, or even centuries old antiques over the newer ones. The older ones usually have a history attached, and can be much sturdier than the ones sold on the market today. If you decide that you need a new chair or chair set, you have the option of going with chaise lounges, rockers, a recliner, one that folds up, and more! Some people prefer antique queen ann seating in their living room, while others prefer a comfy new leather armchair. No matter what your preference is, you are bound to find the perfect one for your home and personal preferences.
History of Chairs
The Long and Rich History of Chairs (image by caravanta.com)

These items have come a long way over the past few centuries. The first Egyptian versions were for the rich, and were made of ivory and ebony. Can you imagine sitting on that? These items from the medieval times were usually made of stone or wood, doesn't that some comfortable? The chairs in ancient Egypt were quite ornate. They were finely carved wooden chair with inlaid ivory and obsidian designs. The Greeks equally enjoyed the comforts of the chair, as did the Roman. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) in China, the sedan chair was developed to keep the nobles from having to walk to their destinations. These sedans were carried by slaves on their shoulders.

Luckily, we have the seat cushions of today and the comfy padded versions. Even our outdoor seating is padded and comfortable. Many antique English chairs had woven rattan like seating, much different from our cotton stuffed seats today.

The chairs of medieval Europe could be quite beautiful. The Chair of Dagobet, cast from bronze, is on display at the Louvre Museum. During the Renaissance, chairs seem to have been crafted solely for the sake of comfort. They were stuffed with down and fabrics and were marketed for mass consumption, at least among the growing middle class.

The rocking chair, in contrast to the foggy origins of the chair itself, was created circa 1740 in Sweden. It was crafted with six legs and was referred to as the "Gungstol," which simply means "rocking chair." In England, during the same year, the Windsor Rocker was made. This rocker had spindles on the sides and back and had 4 legs connected to the rockers.

The most popular chair to date is not the rocker, rather, its the recliner. The recliner dates back to 1780 and the court of Louis XVI. Napoleon also had a trial version of the today's reclining chair. A padded version of the reclining chair appeared in 1887. Its popularity has everything to with its reclining mechanism, allowing people to comfort of lifting their feet and relaxing in a semi-reclined position.

Every home you visit will have chairs in almost every room. We rely on them for seating and comfort. People sit in chairs while eating dinner, playing cards, talking on the phone, watching TV, enduring many other activities. Some people even sleep in chairs. These items have a rich history, and have come quite far from where they were centuries ago. To view some of the centuries old versions in person, visit your local art or history museum. While you cannot sit in one featured in a museum, you can see that they were made more for looks than for comfort.

Medieval chairs

Let's start the history of chairs from Medieval ages. Maximianus, who was Roman emperor from 286 to 305, had a chair that now stands in the Cathedral of Ravenna. The chair is made of marble, is round, with a high back, and is carved with figures of saints and scenes from the Gospels and the Adoration of the Magi as well as the flight into Egypt by the Jews and the baptism of Jesus Christ himself. This chair is a truly amazing piece of art and craftsmanship. The smaller pieces of the chair are filled with carvings of animals, birds and flowers.

Another very ancient chair is the Chair Of Dagobert which is now in the Louvre. It is made of bronze and sharpened with a chisel. The chair is of the curule and is supported on legs that are made in the shape of heads and feet of animals. The seat of the chair was probably made of leather but is now totally gone. The age of the seat has been debated for some time now. Viollet-le-Duc dated it to early Merovingian times. It may very well be the oldest curule in existence today.

Of this same type of chair is the famous abbots' chair of Glastonbury. These chairs had the ability to be broken down into pieces when their owners traveled. In time, these chairs eventually acquired arms and a back and yet still retained their ability to be folded up and transported. The most famous of these chairs is the one belonging to Edward I of the 13th century. All subsequent monarchs have been crowned in that chair. The chair was made of oak and covered with gilded gesso which is long gone.

It is evident from these historic examples that these great chairs passed on from ruler to ruler. These were seats of authority and sat either at the ruler's table, by his bed side or on his dais. The seigneurial chair, which is most common in France and The Netherlands, is a very interesting type of chair. It had a very high back and was sometimes covered with a canopy. The lower part of the chair was carved on the sides and in front. The seat was sometimes hinged and closed with a key. A very unique chair indeed.

Historians have noted how we still sit in armed chairs similar to those from this period of time and how we in turn also sit in our so called chair of authority even if we are only common people. They refer to a normal dinner where the head of the household, usually the man, sits at the head of the table. The only difference in most cases is that dining room sets don't have one chair that stands out from the others, though some people will actually go through the trouble of getting a special chair for the head of the table as a symbol of authority. This is more common in the Eastern world than in the West.

Chinese chairs

There is not much known about ancient Chinese history of chairs. What we do know is that during the Tang dynasty, which was from 618 to 907 AD, higher seats started to appear among the Chinese elite and then soon spread to the more common people of China. By the 12th century, sitting on the floor, which at one time was what every Chinese person did, was becoming less common even though in other Asian countries the custom of sitting on the floor continued.

We then move on to the Renaissance period. In Europe especially, it is because of the Renaissance period that the chair became a symbol of authority in the European State. It became custom that the only people who had chairs were those of authority or royalty or those who could simply afford them as they were very expensive. However, once the idea of privilege faded away, the chair became more common in everyone's household.

Once chairs started to be manufactured for common people it was immediately noticeable that the chairs themselves reflected the fashions of the times. Over the course of the Renaissance period chairs have varied in size, shape and sturdiness. They were fashioned not only after women's dress but after men's as well. The chair itself started to become too monstrous with many of the items they were adorned with and soon these items started to disappear in order to make the chair more functional.

By the 18th and 19th centuries the costly adornments of these chairs were threatened by the ordinary adornments of the more common chairs. Because of this came the development of the "conversation chair" which enabled the person sitting in it to sit with his face to the back of the chair. This can actually still be done with many chairs even today. The earlier chairs usually had large arms and it wasn't until the end of the 16th century that the smaller chairs became common.

The majority of chairs in the 17th century were made of oak and were made without upholstery. When it became fashionable to cover them, most of the time leather was used. Sometimes velvet and silk were also used. During later periods, less costly materials were used.

An old Abraham Bosse engraving from around 1630 depicts a Parisian musical party that has pulled their low chairs, which were called backstools, away from the tapestry hung walls where they were usually lined up. The padded back panels were covered with needlework panels. Plain cloth was put across the back to hide the wooden framing. The engraving also depicts stools with column legs.

Leather began to be used only for the most costly and elaborate chairs. These chairs were sheathed in thin plates of silver and were usually sent from Venice to other places all over Europe. To this day, leather is still the most infrequently used material for chairs. Until the 17th century the main characteristic of chairs was to be made sturdy and bulky. After the time of Louis XIII, chairs were made with cane backs and seats and their weight was reduced substantially.

English chairs

Although much English furniture comes from French and Italian influence, the early forms of English chairs owe very little to influences outside of England itself. This is especially true towards the end of the Tudor period. It was during this time that the French began to take their chair designs from the English.

The squat style chairs with heavy backs that were carved like a piece of paneling gave way to taller, more slender and elegant chairs. The framework of these chairs were less carved and new directions were taken as far as how these chairs were ornamented. Cabinet makers of the Restoration began to take advantage of the opportunities given to them to design these new chairs. Chairs began to take on an elaborate construction with graceful semicircular ornaments that connected all four legs by a vase shaped knob in the center. The arms and legs of the chairs of this period were scrolled with the splats of the back containing a rich arrangement of spirals and scrolls.

The most popular of these chairs were the ones made so by the cavaliers who had been exiled by Charles II. During the reign of William and Mary these chairs degenerated into chairs that were more stiff and rectangular with a solid fiddle shaped splat and a cabriole leg with pad feet. Chairs that were a bit more ornamental had cane seats and caned backs. It is from these forms that the Chippendale chair was developed. This chair had an elaborately interlaced back, graceful arms and square legs. The Chippendale chair to this day is one of the most popular designs in history. It was created by Thomas Chippendale who lived from 1718 to 1779. He was one of the big three furniture makers of the 18th century along with Thomas Sheraton and George Hepplewhite. In 1754 he published a book of his designs which included the Chippendale chair design.

Sheraton and Hepplewhite tried to lighten the design of the original Chippendale chair, which even in the hands of the one who created it was a very heavy piece of work. Sheraton and Hepplewhite were successful in their attempts to modify the design and lighten the chair and to this day the modern Chippendale is comparatively slight next to just about every other chair of its type.

Another man who attempted to make major changes to the Chippendale design was Robert Adam. Adam lived from 1728 to 1792. He was a Scottish architect who lived in Kirkcaldy. He set up his business in 1758 in England after returning from a grand tour of France and Italy. It was then that he started work on his variations of the Chippendale design which can still be seen throughout the world today. Historians say his success is attributed to the fact that everything he designed he did so down the smallest detail.

Chairs of the 18th century

With the coming of the 18th century, chairs started to become more informal and started to replace the bolt upright look of the courts and the aristocracy that was common during the time of Louis XIV. Around 1720 the commodious seat was developed in Paris, France. The new Rocco chairs were comfortably upholstered on removable frames secured by clips so that changes to the chair could be made to accommodate both winter and summer temperature and humidity conditions. These early Louis XV chairs were upholstered a la reine, with the back in a flat panel that was placed squared to the wall. This way the top rails curves complimented those of the panels behind them.

French fashion in chairs came from Paris as did everything else of the times. From the late 1720s, Louis XV French chairs were made without stretchers because they interfered with the unified flow of curved seatrails into cabriole legs. These usually ended in scrolled feet. This style was strictly enforced until the revolution when they were made mostly by a menuisier in association with the person who made the upholstery who was the huissier. These people specialized in furniture making in Paris. Specialized seats were developed and given some pretty fancy names. The most popular of these was the bergere or "shepherdess". The woods used to make most of these chairs were walnut and beech. The finishes of the chairs were made in very light tones. The days of the dark finishes were coming to an end. In some cases, the chairs were left in their natural color and were unfinished. Most of the unfinished chairs were made from walnut because it looked better unfinished than beech. In some provinces fruitwoods became very popular for chair making. These were considered variations on the traditional French models. These variations were produced mostly by Bordeaux and Liege between 1725 and 1780.

In the late 1760s the first, what are called, neoclassical chairs were manufactured in Paris. These were made even before the ascension of Louis XVI whose name is actually associated with these models. The legs of these chairs were straight tapered fluted. They were joined by a block at the seat rail. They also had architectural moldings. The leading chair makers of this style during the 1770s and 1780s were Louis Delanois, Jean-Claude Sene and Georges Jacob.

The 18th century is considered the golden age of the chair. This was especially true in France and England where there were many different ideas for chair making going around. Diderot wrote extensively about these chairs in his encyclopaedia. One of the most famous chairs of the period was the Louis Seize chair which had an oval back and a very ample seat. It also had descending arms and round-reeded legs. It was upholstered in Beauvais and woven in Boucher or Watteau-like scenes.

Chairs of the 19th century

To understand the dramatic change in chair design in the 19th and 20th centuries one first has to understand the arts and crafts movement of the 19th century. This movement was almost solely responsible for the change in chair styles.

Arts and crafts, for starters, are things that are generally made by ones own hands, or as we call them today, hand made. This was a very big thing, starting in the 19th century, that things of quality had to be made by hand. In spite of the industrial revolution where items were now made mostly by machine, the chairs that truly defined the period were actually made by hand.

This movement was said to be started by William Morris and Edwin Lutyens. William Morris lived from 1834 to 1896. He was one of the principal founders of the British Arts and Crafts movement. In 1861 he founded Morris, Marshall and Faulkner. This company, which eventually became Morris and Company, recreated some of the medieval tapestry made for chairs of that period. His designs are still sold even today under the name Sanderson and Sons who bought the license from him.

Lutyens came a little bit later. He lived from 1869 to 1944. He began his own business in 1888. His first commissioned works were for private houses. He would design most of the furniture in these houses including the chairs, all in a very classical style similar to the works of Morris. Both of these men believed that medieval craftsmen found a joy in their work that was missing in today's designs and they strove to emulate that work. So in a sense, 19th century chair design actually took a step backwards.

During this period, many other craftsmen followed in Morris' footsteps. Many of them worked to refine their skills for very low wages simply so that they could get the work. A guild society of these workers was formed so if someone wanted a hand made chair they knew where to go as the society itself was very well promoted.

The materials used for these chairs varied greatly. The more important part was not so much what the chairs were made of but how they were made and how they looked, always trying to strive for that medieval appearance.

Eventually, however, these "artists" could no longer compete with the industrial revolution and these hand made chair makers started to slowly disappear. By the early 1900s most of them were long gone.

When the 20th century hit, with it hit an increasing use of technology in the construction of chairs. We saw the introduction of all metal folding chairs, which are still popular today for bringing to the beach or putting out in the backyard.

The 20th century also saw the appearance of the slumber chair, molded plastic chairs and ergonomic chairs. By the 1960s the styles of chairs had literally exploded. We had everything from the butterfly chair, beanbag chairs and the egg or pod chair. Because of the advances in technology we had molded plywood and laminated wood chairs. We also had chairs made of leather or polymer. Today, if you can pretty much visualize a chair design most likely somebody has made it.

Yes, we have come a long way.

The Long and Rich History of Chairs