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From Benches to Barstools

A History of Chairs, Posture, and Society

It seems that since humankind first stood up to see over the tall Savannah grasses, we’ve been looking for a place to sit back down. The historical record is not quite so succinct, however—but when early migratory peoples first settled down into a domesticated lifestyle, it appears one mark of the civilized person was a seat that elevated the body “away from the cold, damp floor” (de Dampierre 2006). By the simple act of constructing an artificial place to sit, humans began the long tradition of distinguishing themselves from the animal world. It is a form as simple as the bending of our knees and upright posture as our back, and yet that form is not so simple.

Sitting at the Dawn of Civilization

Archaeological evidence of sculptural relics at Neolithic building sites suggest chair and bench-like areas, so it appears that chairs emerged during the Stone Age. But it is not certain at what point during the expanse of time after the last Ice Age from about 10,000 B.C. to the dawn of civilization the first person crafted a seat with a back (or, alternatively, a simple platform with legs, like a stool) and then sat down on it (Crantz 1998). In addition, apart from simply elevating humans, humans of elevated status, in particular, have long been associated with the early history of chairs.

The Ancient World

It is believed that humans appeared in China as far back as 40,000 B.C., with relatively dense population patterns apparent in Mongolia by 20,000 B.C. Seats have been found in Chinese tombs but seem strictly utilitarian, and designs remain relatively unchanged through the sixteenth century, when a carpenter’s manual depicts standards of Chinese furniture in the form of woodblock prints. Records suggest that the vast majority of “the earliest Chinese did not use chairs, but instead knelt on the ground, leaning back on their heels to support their weight.”

The practice remained common through the tenth century and remains in use today in some traditional settings in Eastern Asia, where low cushions and mats are still frequently used to sit upon the floor (de Dampierre 2006). Like other civilizations, the stool—and in this case a folding stool—is considered the oldest Chinese elevated “seat.” All said, there are many ways to sit and many things upon which to sit, but the seat with a back and (most frequently) four legs is generally the Western concept known as a chair.

One need look no further than ancient Egypt for the earliest surviving physical examples of the Western world’s use of chairs. Egyptian tombs that have been unearthed contain chairs and stools from as far back as the Egyptian Old Kingdom, about 2680 B.C., well preserved by Egypt’s dry air. The most famous example dates to 1352 B.C.: the ornate throne sealed in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, or King Tut. There is, however, hieroglyphic evidence of chair usage by all strata of society—though certainly not as pervasively as in modern society—dating back at least to the third millennium B.C. (Crantz 1998). These early examples demonstrate basic woodworking skill, which gradually gave way to advanced techniques in woodworking, including sophisticated joints, veneering, ivory and precious metal inlays, and cushioning of virtually all available materials. Indeed, “Egyptian craftsmen…created the fundamentals of all seating furniture,” including folding furniture (de Dampierre 2006).

Early in their history, chairs were largely used by higher strata of society, particularly in the form of thrones—so the simpler, backless version of the chair,the stool,was the primary seat of lower strata. Domestic furniture like the low-profile, rectangular-framed stools of ancient Egypt were “formed with a double cove construction of curved wooden slats…which pass through holes in the frame” (de Dampierre 2006).

Outside of Egypt, stelae from the Euphrates river valley in Mesopotamia depict the usage of chairs, particularly by kings, but Galen Crantz suggests the more humid climate prevented any wooden or rush-based chairs from surviving. The archaeological record from the other great early civilization across the Mediterranean—Greece and the Cyclades Islands—is similarly sparse, broken by devastating earthquakes and fires that disrupted and relocated entire civilizations. Few surviving pieces of artistry depict simple stools from the second millennium B.C., though the first cultures appeared in Greece as much as a thousand years earlier.

After a five-century gap in the archaeological record, paintings and sculpture starting from about the seventh century B.C. have been unearthed that show an evolution of design resulting in much more sophisticated furniture. As the culture evolved, Greek society’s focus on form, rhythm, precision, clarity, and proportion worked its way into all aspects of life, including furniture. Chairs, stools, and benches served all levels of society, a fact made evident by their surviving art and, more importantly, their literature (de Dampierre 2006).

Etymology

The Greek language lends to the Romantic languages a contraction of kathedra (also into Latin, cathedra), which is derived from kata, for “down,” and hedra, for “to sit.” The word passed into Middle English from the Old French chaiereand the variant chaise, which is variously in use in English for styles of chairs today (Jewell and Abate 2001). The other important related word, “throne,” arrives in the English language from the Indo-European base word dher, which means “to hold or support.” For Crantz, the distinction suggests that thrones were meant to support the privileged or royalty, while chairs, which anyone can use—in a literal physical sense—were meant to sit down. Meanwhile, in contrast to the upright back of the throne, a more reclined, relaxed, lighter Greek chair with a tilted back called the klismos found its way, alone, with commonly used stools into the next great Western civilization (1998).

The Roman Empire and the Dark Era of Chairs

In Rome, “the bed was the all-purpose piece of furniture,” a place where a Roman would not only sleep, but “eat, read, write, and socialize,” while formal dinner banquets were held upon U-shaped couches (Crantz 1998). Though more rare, chairs such as the upright thronus and the reclined cathedra were used for formal functions and lounging women, respectively. Like the work of many early civilizations, the mostly wooden pieces crafted during the Roman Empire have not survived to the present day. Existing evidence has shown that a few largely identical designs were used throughout the empire, from North Africa to Germany to Britain, and the more durable pieces incorporated various metal and stone.

Regarding hierarchy and posture in the Roman Empire, stools sufficiently supported children both in school and at the dinner table, while the father lounged on a couch and the mother sat in a chair (though later in the history of the Empire, it appears the mother reclined on a couch as well). The hierarchy also placed servants on stools, that time-honored seat of the masses. But the arrangement does speak to many cultures' tendency to situate their royalty and their gods in a chair, seated in an upright, supported position (though there are also examples of individuals slumping as in a clismos that complicate the picture).

While modern scholars have discouraged the use of terms such as “The Dark Ages” to describe the era between the sacking of Rome and the rise of the Renaissance, chairs saw very little development during the millennium of the Middle Ages. Indeed, those who sacked Rome took no interest in their culture—so along with Rome’s myriad technological advancements, the simpler things such as their chairs also virtually vanished from the minds of civilization. Throughout the Middle Ages, chairs in the standard definition were quite scarce, and their use was limited only to masters of the household, even in the richest households. Medieval folk often improvised places to sit, from storage chests or heavy high-backed chairs with chests under the seats that were anchored against walls (to prevent theft as well as indicate status) to benches like those used in church choirs—or they simply squatted in a way that is time-honored in other societies around the world (Crantz 1998).

The Chair Revival

The fifteenth century saw a centralization of urban trade centers and governments, and with a settling of society came a settling of wealthy noblemen. These individuals and families began investing in permanent homesteads, wherein chairs became free-standing pieces of furniture with specific functions, often still reserved for the elite. The Renaissance saw a revival of Antiquity and renewal of culture, and with the refreshed outlook came more sophisticated chairs with lighter, more complex construction and classically inspired decorative motifs. The most important innovation was the lighter construction. The Italian sgabello, for example, was a low, three-legged stool-inspired chair with a high balanced backrest. Its successor in the sixteenth century added the forth leg, lowered the back and, without any chest under the seat, it meant “the age of completely portable furniture that could be moved from room to room as need had come” (de Dampierre 2006).

Meanwhile, in establishing the divine authority of royalty of the seventeenth century, the thrones of those such as Louis XIV, Queen Christina of Sweden, and Alexis I of Russia were magnificent and majestic. In the court of Louis XIV, in particular, the hierarchy of chairs was strictly regulated, the most important being the armchair—a term first used in this century (Crantz 1998), followed in order by the chair with a back, stools, and hassocks. However, “in the king’s presence most people had to remain standing. Permission to use a stool—the only seat allowed in his presence—was a coveted honor” (de Dampierre 2006).

The era of chairs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a flourish of high style, beginning with the Baroque and moving through the Rococo, Neoclassical, and the cult of Antiquity: styles that merged evolving taste in decorative arts with the form and status of chairs. During the period of the Restoration in England (into the late eighteenth century), inlaid decorative elements and ornate carving became more common. Most importantly, at the same time, chairs were simply becoming “more common as life became more sociable” (de Dampierre 2006).

Europe and America alike focused on status in chair production beginning even in the pre-Colonial era of the United States. Stools and benches continued to be used by the masses while people of status, who could afford them, were those who purchased and used chairs up until the nineteenth century. Into the 1800s, however, chairs became more commonplace in American households, with usually enough provided for every member to sit down to dinner. Indeed, by the 1830s, factory-manufactured “fancy chairs” such as those by Sears, Roebuck, and Co. allowed families to purchase machined sets. The Industrial Revolution became the great democratizer of the once-elite chair (Crantz 1998).

La Chaise Moderne

The twentieth century saw a range of intriguing chair design influenced by the various artistic movements, beginning with Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Art Deco emerged with the Machine Age, which included austerely styled but well-crafted pieces by names like Le Corbusier and Bauhaus. Additional artistic styles that worked their way into chair design included Cubism, Surrealism, the Baroque, and a “primitive” style that looked to the “timeless innovation” of the long (but sparsely recorded) history of African chairs and stools, particularly “those for ritual, political, or symbolic use” (de Dampierre 2006).

The inter-war period, in particular, saw a flourishing of unique style prompted by the passionate Modernist pursuit of proper form. The chair was based upon “the sociological expression of modern values” and, as a result, those early twentieth-century chairs have become admired classics, particularly among designers, but with varying influence on the public (Crantz 1998). Artistic movements of the early 1900s have been variously adapted by contemporary designers both as a retrospective and to meet the demands of consumers, whose interests cover styles across the decades. The other side of the picture still portrays a “non-aesthetic aesthetic” of chair ergonomics, or design that favors function over form, to the physiological benefit of the consumer (de Dampierre 2006).

Somewhere in the middle of social theory and ergonomics exists the ideal chair. But when the wide array of applicable theories and artistic sensibilities combine with a world of distinct cultural aesthetics, the perfect chair is as individual as the person designing it. It could be an ergonomically perfect model designed for a day of productivity in the office, or a simple barstool, efficient in design but fully functional and serving a specific purpose implicit in its name. Meanwhile, outlets such as Ikea and World Market display chairs at the opposite ends of the design spectrum, from the stylish but inexpensive manufactured chair to the fairly traded, hand-crafted artisan imports from around the world.

Finally, one chair, perhaps, has outdone them all: the ubiquitous one-piece polypropylene plastic chair, that three-sixteenth-of-an-inch “resin chair” which is manufactured around the world and shows up in virtually every imaginable setting. At first glance, it is a practical, tacky piece that is more an after-thought than an object of attention. But as even the Smithsonian Institute has avowed, the resin chair is inextricably tied to the history of chairs, incorporating the postwar pursuit of progressive design with ease of manufacture, portability, and basic comfort (Gosnell 2004).

-- Posted November 11, 2008

References

Crantz, Galen: 1998. The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

de Dampierre, Florence. 2006. Chairs: A History. New York, NY: Abrams.

Gosnell, Marianna. “Everybody Take a Seat.” Smithsonian Magazine. July 2004.

Jewell, Elizabeth J. and Frank Abate, eds. 2001. The New Oxford American Dictionary. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.