The elegant klismos chair: an ancient Greek design that has stood the test of time

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Katerina Bulovska
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Works like The Iliad and The Odyssey, beautiful sculptures of gods and goddesses, and architectural masterpieces such as the Parthenon are just some of the marvels produced by the ancient Greek civilization. But they also made timeless designs of furniture, that even today are widely copied and part of every classic and elegant interior design. Among them is the ancient klismos chair.

The chair first appeared somewhere between the 8th and 6th century BC, but its design was perfected in the 5th century BC, during the Golden Age of Athens. The earliest forms of the chairs were made of wood, had a curved back, four gracefully curved legs, and were mostly used by women. Homer mentioned the chair in his Iliad, and commented on the iconic chair, saying: “Goddesses liked the klismos.” The golden age of the klismos chair was the 4th century BC and its popularity spread to ancient Rome as well. However, the Romans made some changes to the original design, for instance, the legs of the chair were less elegant and their chairs were heavier than the Greek ones.

Many ancient artifacts such as pottery and sculptures illustrate the famous chair, but unfortunately, not a single piece of an original klismos chair has been found to this day. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the chair declined in popularity, and during the Middle Ages, it remained neglected until the most important archaeological excavation of the 18th century.

Klismos chair, with curved backrest and tapering, curved legs, on the stele of Xanthippos, Athens, ca. 430-20 BCE. Author: Marie-Lan Nguyen. CC BY 2.5

In Southern Italy, the Roman city of Pompeii that was buried under volcanic ash for centuries was discovered in 1748. People were fascinated by the new discovery and soon developed an obsession with the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. As a result, in the mid-18th century, the Neoclassical movement was born. The revival of the ancient classics also affected the furniture design. Klismos chairs are featured widely in works of art from the classical world and also in many of those uncovered in Pompeii, and kliits design started to be widely copied around Europe.

A woman resembling the 1st century BC Roman Empress Antonia Minor is seated on a “klismos,” (a chair with splayed legs)

The chair was revived in the French Directoire, the English Regency, and the Empire styles. According to the region where it was made, certain modifications to the design were made.

Sculpture group with a man seated in a klismos at the Getty Museum. Author: Sailko. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the United States, the famous furniture designer Duncan Phyfe brought the klismos chair back to life in the early 19th century. Americans instantly started associating the chair with Phyfe and referred to the klismos chair as a Phyfe style chair. Klismos chairs also served as inspiration for the Boston chairmaker Samuel Gragg’s version of the klismos chair, called the elastic chair.

Remarkable examples of klismos chairs can be found in a suite that the Neoclassical architect Benjamin Latrobe designed in the White House. He furnished it in the American Federal style, which included furniture inspired by ancient Greek designs. The American Federal style produced some of the most beautiful klismos chairs.

Klismos Side Chair circa 1810-1820. Author: Ashley Van Haeften. CC BY 2.0

In the 1920s, variations in design continued, with added elements of Art Deco, giving the elegant chair a more extravagant look. In 1937, the furniture designer Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings designed a remarkable klismos chair with a well-preserved woven seat that is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art collections. In this period, the chair maintained its classic design but gained a more modern look. One of the most famous American interior designers, Angelo Donghia created two designs of klismos chair.

Klismos chair in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, circa 1825. Author: Ashley Van Haeften. CC BY 2.0

Many famous furniture designers from England, Russia, France, and America have copied its design and created their own modern versions of the ancient chair. Even today, the design of the graceful klismos chair has remained popular and is part of many modern collections, available in many different forms. It blends well with almost every interior style and is considered to be one of the most influential designs in the history of furniture.