While we encounter chairs routinely in our daily lives, we seldom consider the service they tirelessly provide. Taken for granted is the precision required to integrate arms, seat, back and legs in perfect harmony. Millenniums have seen the evolution of this object, one whose function is to seat us. While development in material and technology are key to changes in chair design, we must credit a particular love and creative inspiration for the continuous fascination with its form and function.
A chair takes its place in the realm of art, with global exhibits and collections displayed in the finest museums. This plays to its remarkable journey from simple stone seats of 10,000 BC to the beauty of ergonomic and sculptural modern day design. The chair is truly distinguished as it defines the history of furniture.
In a statement from the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, form and function interact very closely in chair design. "In chairs more than in in any other object human beings are the unit of measure," Curator Paola Antonelli explains, "and designers are forced to walk a fine line between standardization and personalization.". There are many factors that must be considered in the design of a chair. The designer must think about who will be using it, and where. In some cases, such as a seat on a airplane, chairs are designed for a general user. In other instances the chair might be designed for a specific user. Each chair has its own set of criteria or constraints that govern the process of its design.
"For designers, chairs are a ritual of initiation."
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Anthropologist discovered that prior to the advent of the chair, people squatted in various positions as related to their cultures.
As noted by the Design Institute of San Diego, archeologists found evidence of stone objects of domestication during the Neolithic period dating back to 3200 BC. Seating in the form of benches, beds and tables were early efforts to elevate ourselves above the ground. It was not until the 16th century that the chairs became common. Until then, people sat on chests, benches, and stools, which were the ordinary seats of everyday life. The number of chairs surviving from an earlier date is exceedingly limited.
A basic timeline of the chair, provided by "The Furniture Bible: Everything You Need to Know to Identify, Restore and Care for Furniture" (Artisan Books, Nov 2014), author Christophe Pourny, a French-born, New York-based furniture expert, opens with the history of the world as seen through chairs from the 5th Century through today. His historic perspective demonstrates human creativity, ingenuity and adaptability to the development of the chair as it relates to the social and cultural mores of the period as follows:
12th - 15th CENTURY
Seats added backs and four legs to become chairs. Gothic styles influenced furniture, which was often carved. High-backed and very straight cathedral chairs were typical.
After the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Empire emerged. Heavy, straight neoclassical lines replaced Rococo frippery. Large, Empire chairs became very popular. Around mid-century, the Victorian era took hold, with its opulent displays of wealth. This period
became known for its heavy fabrics, like velvet, in dark colours, such as red and green. The coutner part to this style in America was the Federal movement, a colonial classic look.
16th - 17th CENTURY
As the Renaissance thrived, chairs became more refined, lighter, more comfortable and more decorative. Looks became as important as function. The church was no longer the only patron of the arts; noblemen were, too. But European Kings, particularly the French line of
Lois XIII, XIV, XV, wielded the greatest influence. Louis XIV introduced luxurious ornamentation, veneers, rich fabrics, exotic wood, stones, gold and silver.
Seats were primarily three-legged stools or benches. They were primitive, crudely made, and purely functional.
This period took that richness and formality even further. Monarchs ushered in Rococo forms, curved lines, floral decorations and even more ornamentation. Instead of owning just one kind of chair, the middle and upper classes now had several kinds of seating: stools for perching, dining chairs, side chairs, armchairs, and a low bench by the fire.
No longer associated with sovereigns, furniture design came into the hands of the people. The century started with mission, arts and crafts styles. Chairs’ severe lines were a reaction to Victorian excesses and reflected industrialism. Art nouveau, modernism,
art deco and Bauhaus followed. After World War II, mid-century modernism took off. Its function first, forthright, minimalist look fit the nation’s mood. Chairs were light and sleek and featured new, inventive materials: molded plywood, plastic and chrome.
20TH CENTURY CREATORS AND THEIR ICONIC CHAIRS
With so many deserving of acknowledgment, here are but a few chairs and their creators that have left an ongoing, indelible mark on the chair as the major furniture design element in modern times.
CHARLES AND RAY EAMES
A bold iconic chair, the Eames lounge chair was designed for comfort and luxury. With its bent plywood shell, many believe there is no equivalent to this chaise. They did not aim to make a designer classic, their goal was to simply improve existing lounge chairs. To make a lounge chair that is comfortable first and foremost and one that ‘fits like a glove’
LUDWIG MIES VAN DER ROHE
The Barcelona chair was designed by Rohe to complement his German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona. One of the most famous designs of the 20th century, Rohe’s intention was not to produce the Barcelona for the public.
CHARLES RENNIE MACKINTOSH
The Mackintosh side chair, designed in 1897 by the artist, architect, and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, was uniquely inspired by nature. His designs emphasized natural, organic forms with strong graphic detail.
According to Wegner, “a chair is to have no backside. It should be beautiful from all sides and angles.” Although many of his iconic chairs were reduced to the simplest possible elements, “Papa Bear” has often been cited as the chair designed with the most comfort given its precision measured angles and padding.
In the 1920s the iconic architect and designer, Corbu, referred to this classic armchair LC3 as “cushion basket.” With its chrome exoskeleton, this cube shaped plush classic offers perfection in timeless comfort and style.
A clean break from the more popular heavy furniture designs at the time, the Wassily Chair found it inspiration in the tubular frame of a bicycle. Breuer created a forward-thinking style that presently personified his Bauhaus approach in the 1920s, uniting arts to industrial design.
An iconic and highly acclaimed American furniture designer, Kagan was influenced by materials and forms in nature. He stated, “I created what I called vessels for the human body.” His mid-century modern creations of organically sculpted wood furniture in sinuous, sleek form are dramatically designed for comfort.
VARIOUS CHAIR TYPES
Bergere: Enclosed, upholstered French armchair well recognized for its beauty and comfort. Graceful curves, upholstered back and armrests, exposed wood frame and deep, wide seat make an elegant lounge.
Fauteuil: Upholstered French armchair with open arm, intricately carved show wood frame, padded back and curved lines.
Club Chair: Definitive, traditional armchair with substantial arms, deep seat, and plush comfort. Silhouettes and sizes vary greatly.
Wing Chair: Named for pronounced side wings that extend up from armrests, originally introduced to prevent draft. Stately, impressive and throne like, a statement piece in any setting.
Slipper Chair: Armless silhouette with lower than average seat (often 15”). Slender, sophisticated originally enabled women in tight corsets and layers of petticoats to put on and remove shoes and stockings.
Barrel/Tub Chair: High rounded back with continuous sloping arms evoking Art Deco period. Simple, elegant design, most often fully upholstered.
Occasional Chair: Accent chair with decorative value runs the gamut in shape and style. Able to move around freely for additional seating.
Chaise: An elongated style created for relaxation and ability to stretch legs out, often with semi reclining angle.
Chair and a Half: An extra wide frame, between an armchair and loveseat. Versatility allows for lounging, and coziness
The length from outside arm to outside arm.
From the front-most point to the back-most point. Usually from the front of the seat cushion to the back-most part of the frame.
Measurement from the floor to the top of the back cushion or frame (whichever is higher).
Measurement from the front of the seat cushion (where the welt is) to the point where the back cushion starts.
Measurement of side-to-side seating space. It’s the distance between the arms, but on armless pieces it corresponds with the length.
Measurement from the floor to the top welt of the seat cushion.
Measurement from the floor to the tallest point on the arm.
Measurement from the floor to the highest point on the back of the frame.
Measurement of the skirt. It’s not measured from the floor - it’s just the measurement of the actual skirt because there is approximately 1” of clearance from the floor so the skirt doesn’t drag on carpet. For hardwood floors, skirts can be made longer if desired.
The chair, anthropomorphic in its form, ascribes to human characteristics. Arms, legs, backs intersect in what appears a simple feat to the consumer. However, architects and designers have been fascinated with this object, working toward its perfection through the ages. The chair is symbolic of the evolving cultural environment with changes in materials, technologies, aesthetics and societal trends. As stated by the famous modernist architect/designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.”