The chair, a single movable seat, is most ancient. Most familiar types were known in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; significantly, the names for special types are ancient.
Egyptian remains indicate the use of wooden chairs as well as ivory and metal. The folding type is found in tombs; it was often carved with animal forms and covered with whole skins. Fixed four-legged chairs were significantly carved and painted, animal feet, as of the bull and lion, being common. Greek chairs, evidenced by sculptured reliefs, were of gracefully curved form; the grand type was called thronos. From Rome there are relics of light turned chairs of metal, wood, and ivory elaborately wrought and cushioned with silk pillows. In Rome chair to have been reserved for magistrates and nobles on public occasions. The cathedra was a chair with a back used by women.
In Italy, the Renaissance brought forward the simple chair structure of four posts with arms, less architectural than the wainscot or paneled chair, though scarcely more comfortable. Comfort came with the addition of upholstery, at first loose cushions; later, attached pads with fine fabric or leather covering. The development of ornamentally carved members as seats and stretchers was rapid and significant. Lesser chairs were usually a narrow board or frame; early domestic types of turned frameworks with rush seats were known. Spanish chairs followed the Italian in most respects; the rustic types of crude workmanship probably became common in the 17th century.
France produced the earliest comfortable chairs and the widest variety. The chaire always has had special significance. Under Francis I it begat scaled-down versions with modifications, always toward lightness, producing a simple armchair type at first called chaises à femmes, and finally, a simple portable framework dubbed caquetoire, or gossip chairs. The chaises à vertugadin, like the farthingale chairs of England, were made necessary by the women’s extravagant skirts. Later, the fauteuil, a comfortable chair with arms, developed, utilizing the newly invented upholstered seat. Louis XIV saw the development of magnificent, luxurious chairs, scaled from thrones to simple styles—and by 1700 most of the familiar forms had appeared: fauteuils, bergères, ing chairs, confessionals. During the Régence the lines became flowing, curved; stretchers disappeared; chairs of the Louis XV period are delicate, exceedingly graceful, masterpieces of fluid line. About this time springs were invented, changing the upholstery principle.
In England, progress followed the French example, with local variations. Jacobean chairs were still basically Gothic, and the Renaissance appeared slowly, adding details from Italy, Spain, Flanders. Heavy oak was universal in square box constructions through the Commonwealth, with nothing but sausage turnings to modify the angularity. With the Restoration came Baroque details, spiral turnings, boisterously carved stretchers, and crestings; these were imposing but rarely comfortable. The Dutch William and Mary established the cabriole leg; and Queen Anne’s style shows a wholly new type, Baroque in its wholesale curvature, yet distinctly English. Seat plan, back posts and front legs, splats, and cresting were all curved, yet the curvature was entirely different from the contemporary French chair. For some years the development of the English chair followed this decorated Queen Anne style. Chippendale developed pierced slats, new toprail shapes, and finally the square front-foot after Chinese lines in place of the ubiquitous claw-and-ball cabriole leg. Chippendale chairs are notably wider, lower, more comfortable.
The French influence again became dominant after 1750. Hepplewhite and others literally reproduced the exquisite Rococo shapes. Even the Classic Revival accepted the whole proportion and silhouette, substituting for the sinuous lines a set of sharply rectilinear shapes that we identify as Adam, Louis XVI, etc. This angularity invited new forms; and Sheraton and the other end-of-18th-century designers produced them without limit, borrowing, adapting, distorting every motive from classical times. In their extreme variety, early-19th-century chairs show clearly the frenzied search for novelty. Probably the most significant type was the graceful chair form associated with Duncan Phyfe in Federal American work.
The nineteenth-century began with a proliferation of chair styles and sheer quantity as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Sheraton and the Empire dominated England and the Continent and the colonies. From these came infinite variations, some creditable, but more on the path of debasement that ran right through the century. The most characteristic types of historic models are the balloon-back Victorian Rococo shapes in England and America and France; the semiclassic, such as the Riedermeier in northern Europe and the Directoire derivatives in Italy. The last quarter of the century saw the whole gamut of eclectically inspired innovation, approached from every fashion angle. Upholstery saw the most intensive development in history.
The chair, being insistently a functional engineering object, challenged the reformers from the start. The Morris chair met a demand squarely, whereas the avant-garde three decades later—men such as Charles Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerrit Rietveld — strained theory to achieve art. A truer rationale in the 1920s culminated in Marcel Rreuer’s steel tubing chair and its derivatives; in Mies van der Rohe’s Rarcelona chair; Alvar Aalto’s molded plywood; Charles Eames’s Fiberglas; Eero Saarinen’s shells; Harry Rertoia’s wireframes; Hans Wegner’s wood craftsmanship; the engineered logic of George Nelson. In the United States, this idiom has had the benefit of commercialization by architecturally oriented firms such as Knoll, Risom, and Miller.