The Humble Chair...

15-10-2011

For this (rather extended) entry, I have chosen to discuss the humble chair; a necessity of design and civilisation, and the most comonplace piece of furniture in any home. It is an object that has provided us with service for thousands of years, raising us up from the ground and away from the dirt. It has also traditionally been used in visual culture to identify the king among his court; from the great seated Pharoahs guarding the temple of Rameses II, to the throne of Solomon and our own Coronation throne at Westminster, and from medieval manuscript illumination to Ingre's portrait of the necessarily seated Napoleon.

The examples I will talk about below may be a little more modest, but they communicate fundamental principles about their respective designs and intended uses. In English furniture design especially, extant examples of early chairs demonstrate that structural integrity was an overriding factor of their form, and any embellishments or decoration would be worked into or applied on top of, the fundamentals of their supporting skeleton.

A late Jacobean Wainscot armchair with detail carved into the top rail and panelled back. Circa 1670

We call the structural elements of chairs 'stiles' and 'rails'; the stiles being the vertical supporting elements, and the rails the horizontal. The Wainscot armchair above (termed Wainscot because of its panelled back) has a tangible box-like and cubic construction that unites both elements so as to create the strongest possible structure. The stiles of the legs, and the rails of the stretchers, seat, and backrest, are all prominent.

If we look at a slightly later style, such as a mid-eighteenth-century Gainsborough armchair (below), we can see immediately how the visible structure of the chair has been diffused within the design.

A mid-eighteenth-century mahogany Gainsborough armchair with curving cabriole legs. Circa 1740

This stylistic change is most noticeable in the concealment of the seat rails under upholstery, and the elegantly curving legs that are now completely detached from the upright stiles that so characterised the previous example. Instead, comfort and sinuousness have become its dominant features.

In the last two examples, advancements in design and construction are paired with an interest in looking back at earlier civilisations for visual styles that could be copied and emulated. In these cases, it is the visual language of the Egyptian and Greek empires.

Two of a set of twelve Regency period dining chairs, illustrating a side chair and a carver. Circa 1820

These dining chairs are characterised by sweeping sabre legs and strongly drawn curving profiles, as well as finely carved detailing. The X-frame window seats below have throne-like stature, and a planted strength of form and design reminiscent of carved stone motifs found in ancient Greek architecture.

A pair of Empire period X-frame window seats inlaid with tulipwood, with original ormolu mounts. Circa 1880

These changing interests are not confined to furniture design. In fact, they represent part of an entire cultural shift towards the example of the classical civilisations, which were held up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as pinnacles of early democracy, widespread education and learning, and artistic beauty.

So in a short leap we've got from Egypt to Europe and across two thousand years of rather paraphrased history. Above all other objects in the home, it is the chair that has encapsulated such continuity of design and civilisation, as well as its many differences and advancements. Even today, most modern designers are remembered through their chair designs, from Le Corbusier's chaise longue to the Eames recliner. All of them are indebted to the humble chair for its endless fascination and modest beauty.

 

Matthew Reeves

Author: Matthew Reeves