A Reflection of Personality
By Robin Jay
A chair is not just a chair – it’s a reflection of your personality, not unlike your choice of shoes, ties or dinner plates. Do you know what the chairs in your home say about you? Trite you say? Not so. Just ask designer and furniture historian Florence de Dampierre, author of Chairs: A History. “Chairs have a social history. They represent the way people live and historical events,” de Dampierre told the New York Social Diary. “For example, during the Empire period, 90 percent of men were wearing pants and swords and boots, and that’s why furniture was designed in that way.”
A chair is one of the few objects that can tell an eloquent historic tale. What else but a chair could trace trends in aesthetics, ergonomics, cultural growth, social status and technology?
The Origin of Chairs
Interestingly, chairs with backs weren’t historically a piece of the ordinary domicile. For many thousand years, chairs represented a symbol of dignity and authority, such as with thrones for kings, or armchairs for leaders in the British House of Commons, where the term “chairman” derived. Not until the 16th century did chairs become commonplace in lieu of stools or benches.
Historians trace early evidence of chairs to ancient Egypt, where artisans crafted them with ivory and ebony and wood gilded by hand. They say Egyptians thought building chairs with representations of nature – like the legs of creatures – would help keep the universe free of chaos. The belief became intrinsic among Egyptian chair makers throughout time. A well-preserved armchair was discovered inside a tomb in the Valley of the Kings that was nearly identical in detail to the chairs built after Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt.
Left to right: The Fendi Casa Crystal Chair; Colombostile Esmeralda Arm Chair; Proust Geometrica; Theodora, part of SICIS NEXT ART Collection[print_gllr id=2403]
Curators at The Design Museum in London feel the historic value of chairs is so important that their repertoire includes an exhibit called A Century of Chairs. According to their experts, until the mid-19th century, chairs were made by hand. But then, new industrialists like Michael Thonet in Austria tinkered with production technologies to make large quantities of quality furniture quickly (try saying that 10 times fast!). Historians credit Thonet as the mass-production pioneer of simple bentwood chairs – the first chairs to furnish homes for both factory workers and aristocrats.
Chairs that Rock
By 1860, thanks in part to the popularity of the Arts and Crafts movement, the increased middle- and upper-class affection for rustic styles made the sale of rocking chairs soar. By the early turn-of-the-century, one in 20 chairs sold by Thonet was a rocking chair.
The War Impact
During World War II, developments in chair design came to a halt. However, in 1944, designers caught on to wartime advances in defense industry production processes and harnessed them to create products for consumers – like the aluminum Navy Chair innovated by Charles and Ray Eames. After the traumatic impact of WWII, consumers pined for warmer, natural materials, like wood and fabric. By the1960s, however, designers rejected the organic modernism of the 1950s and began toying with bright colors and fluid shapes made available by using plastics.
By the 1990s, the post-modern exuberance faded and led to a furniture approach geared toward purpose. Many people were working longer hours, and more often with computers, trends that inspired furniture maker Herman Miller to develop a new office chair “for the person who sits in it longer than he or she should.”
Seeking to uncover modern-day trends in chair design, South Florida Opulence found one thing is for sure – there are no more rules. Whether functional or fanciful, chairs today come in all shapes and sizes – some of which are disguised not to resemble a chair at all. Now that speaks volumes. We hope you enjoy the brief tour we provide here.