Sitting has not been of vital importance to human survival and yet it appears to be one of the most common human activities, from the time of the pharaohs through classical times up to present day. We do it way before we learn to walk, and we do it every day.
It does not matter if it is a bench or a bar stool, a theater seat or a saddle, a swing or a sofa – as long as we can have a seat. The stone seats found at the Neolithic village of Skara Brae in Scotland, dating from 3200 BC, are the earliest signs of our human desire to elevate ourselves from the ground.
Rare surviving examples of cloth or leather-covered chairs made of ebony, ivory or carved wood with rich patterns, supported on representations of the legs of beasts or figures of captives show that ancient Egyptians sat above the ground as well.
Much lower than today’s version, the chair was however not a common piece of furniture in the Egyptian home. When it was, it was crudely made and used by the master of the household only.
The early use of three-legged, four-legged, and even folding stools in ancient Egypt gave way to chairs with backs and arms. The higher the rank of the individual, the taller and more sumptuous the chair was. Thus, the pharaoh sat on a throne, often made of wood with overlaid gold and silver, decorated with exquisite carved details, as discovered in the tombs of Queen Tia and King Tutankhamen.
The ancient Greeks further refined the form of the chair, introducing the klismos chair with curved legs and back, the latter indicating attention to comfort and ergonomics. Although no example of these chairs survived to the present day, relief structures and vases depict its elegance, making the form popular among Neo-classical designers in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
Who knows if the chair would have remained trendy up to present day if it were not for the ancient Romans and their richly adorned marble-made curule chairs. The earliest images of chairs in China date from the 6th century but the practice of sitting in chairs became widespread as early as the 12th century.
Although ancient and simple, the chair has been an article of state and dignity for thousands of years. Up until the 16th century, when it became common everywhere, it was reserved for use mainly by royalty, dignitaries and other important political and religious figures while the ordinary folk sat on backless chests, benches, or stools. The rulers used high-backed four-legged chairs whereas the religious officials sat in so-called faldstools. However, unlike the Greeks and their understanding of ergonomics, the medieval furniture, influenced by Gothic styles, was rather uncomfortable as it reflected the prevailing Christian emphasis to asceticism.
As the Renaissance flourished, chairs became lighter, more refined and much more comfortable. Looks became as important as function. With the rise of wealthy noblemen, the church gradually lost its dominance as the only patron of the arts.
However, the undisputed influence of the European kings at the time dictated the chair design and decoration: the latest trends introducing more luxurious ornamentation, heavy and rich fabrics, exotic wood, precious stones, and metals further strengthened the idea of privilege.
This idea, however, faded as the chair became affordable, making its way into the homes of aristocratic and merchant families. An article of everyday use, the chair began to vary in size, shape, and sturdiness, gaining in popularity as the centuries went on. Until the middle 17th century, the majority of chairs were made of oak without upholstery. When it became customary to cushion them, leather was the first choice. Velvet and silk were also extensively used and then replaced by cheaper and more durable materials. Nowadays, leather still remains one of the most frequently used materials for chair covering.
The 17th century chair was also known for its considerable weight and solidity, which were finally reduced with the introduction of the handsome Louis XIII chairs. Different variations of the ancient Roman curule seat appeared in different regions, reviving what is today considered as one of the most significant furniture forms in history.
Chairs used to be symbols of authority outside Europe as well. Associated with the elite in China by the 10th century, the armchair finally became a fixture in households of lower rank under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
The 18th century was the golden age of the chair, with Paris being the epicenter of chair making. French and English monarchs ushered in Rococo forms, curved lines, floral decorations and even more ornamentation. The explosion of styles and designs filled the households of middle and upper class families with several kinds of seating instead of only one: dining chairs, side chairs, armchairs, a low bench by the fire.
The 18th century chair was inspired by the informal gallant manners and the new half-reclining posture, thus reflecting the richness and formality of the time. In demand even today, the Windsor chair, the fashionable Louis XV chair without stretchers, the first Parisian neoclassical chairs as well as the beloved rocking chair were among the most popular styles of the century.
After the French Revolution, straight neoclassical lines replaced Baroque and Rococo opulence. Large empire chairs became trendy under the emerging Napoleonic Empire. Mahogany imported from the Americas was used in elegant chairs and other furnishings. By the mid-19th century, the heavy straight lines of Neoclassicism, referring to Greek and Roman architecture, gave way to the lavish heavy fabrics and dark colors typical of the Victorian era. At the same time, the Federal movement was taking hold on American soil, known for its colonial classical look.
Searching for honest structures that would be visible rather than covered with upholstery and ornamentation, the designers of the art nouveau school replaced the lavish curvy chair with simple geometric lines and minimal decoration, the most famous example being the 1859 Bendwood’s ‘bistro chair’ which has revolutionized the industry and is still being produced today.
By the 1830s, furniture production passed largely into the hands of factories, thus allowing the average American family to buy a chair for every family member. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, chairs became more readily available. Mass production also made it possible for people to design furniture themselves. The designers of the 20th century made lightweight chairs with a minimal industrial look using novel materials such as plywood, plastic, and chrome, one such example being Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair.
Modernism took off right after the Second World War. The increasing use of technology and combinations of materials allowed for unprecedented chair construction, introducing completely new forms to the market: all-metal chairs, metal-legged chairs, ergonomic chairs, recliner chairs, the butterfly chair, bean bags, the egg-shaped pod chair as well as the first mass-produced plastic chairs such as the 1966 Bofinger chair. Not to forget the adjustable chairs for office use or the fantastic massage chairs.
Looking at how far our ingenuity and adaptability have taken us, it is unbelievable how crucial the chair still is to everything that we do. For we use it not only to sit but also create, solve, share and even sleep. An invention that’s definitely worth it!