According to writer Graham Blackburn, “the simple definition of a chair as a movable seat, with a back, for a single person gives no indication of the truly vast range of objects that qualify under this description.” The word “chair” is derived from the latin word “cathedra.” This is because the chair used to signify the seat of a religious ruler, like the throne pictured here.
In fact, in earlier history, chairs (especially with backs) were a privilege only enjoyed by the wealthy. The exclusivity of the privilege is exemplified by the design of the Roman senate house. All of the senators typically sat on pew-like benches facing toward the one chair. This was only used by the top man. When the republic became an autocracy with the rise of Julius Caesar many were outraged by the improvements made to that one chair. Those who resented the fall of the republic saw the backed chair as a symbol of tyranny, as with a throne. In fact, seating arrangements denote a hierarchy of power even to this day. For instance, in many households it is tradition for the head of household to sit at the head of the table. It is likely that this tradition hearkens back to the days when only pharaohs and kings were allowed to sit on chairs in the formal areas of their domicile. This speaks to a direct relationship between the physical elevation of the sitter and his (or her) social position within the community.
Over time, the construction of chairs began to evolve. An early iteration was known as the “curule.” The x-shaped design of the “curule” is reminiscent of today’s folding lawn chair and marked one of the first designs that were available to the more common man. The “curule” was also an invention of the Roman empire. Prior to its advent, poor people often made do with crude stools or just sat on the ground.
Prior to the 17th century chairs were a purely utilitarian affair. Besides the aforementioned thrones that were coveted by the upper-class, improvements on the chair were virtually unknown. However, in the 17th century, new innovations to the chair began to emerge. Among the most notable of these innovations was the addition of upholstery. This improvement unveils the first consideration of comfort to the common chair. It was also in the 17th century that we begin to see craftsmen taking notice of versatility. Walnut became the most common medium for wood working at this time and, as a result, chairs began to be more lightweight and manageable.
The next evolution of the chair comes from the French. With the artistic revival of virtually every art form the chair also became more revolutionary. The French were the first to design chairs designed for activity beyond dining. A whole line of chairs, which were often lightweight and magnificently upholstered, were built during this era prior to the 18th century. Sleeping chairs, love seats, wing chairs, and desk chairs all became more common place. Furthermore, arms began to be a more usual feature.
In the 18th century, prior to the industrial revolution, we begin to see the last of the highly crafted chair. The demands of mass production that arrived in the following centuries heralded a plethora of new designs. One of the most revolutionary designs was the predecessor of the modern “La-Z-Boy.” The rocking chair was created to combat the most prevalent structural weakness in chair design until then. Anyone who has tipped back too far on a solid back chair is familiar with this design vulnerability; the joint between the back legs and the seat.
Mass marketing began in the 19th century and, with it, an interest in design revival. The windsor chair, which was previously popular in Great Britain, became in vogue in the United States and mass production of this style was the response to this demand. These constitute a great deal of the chairs which are considered antique today, since enough of them were made to still be in existence now. Among the other popular designs following the industrial revolution is the Morris Chair. This is a low-sitting affair with an adjustable moving back that is usually accompanied by a footstool.
With all of the different types of chairs available today it is difficult to imagine a time when it was a privilege to sit off the floor. While most chairs that populate our homes in the modern era are mass produced, chairs are still a favorite project for wood and metal crafts people. And, while nearly every American takes the use of a chair for granted now, the allure of the “best seat in the house” still exists. Children fight to be closer to the television, elderly people cling to their old rockers with nostalgic tenacity, and it is still considered an honor to be offered the head seat at any dining occasion. Perhaps the longevity of these traditions reveal a need that everyone can relate to: to put up one’s feet and simply relax.