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A fascinating chronicle of the history of chairs

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December 7th, 2016
Modern-day plastic chair.
Modern-day plastic chair.

Chances are you are sitting on a chair as you read this edition of the Tribune. Perhaps it’s a plush recliner or a comfortable rocker. Maybe you’re cocooned within a generous wing chair or wedged into a beanbag chair.

Chairs might be the most ubiquitous objects of modern life. Arranged around tables in restaurants, lined up against walls in waiting rooms, and bolted to floors in airports—chairs are everywhere. If you have ever stopped to consider the story behind the endless variations of things we sit upon, Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History by Witold Rybczynski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a must read.

An emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Rybczynski traces the history of the humble chair—from the modest stool first used in ancient Egypt to the contemporary chair design that defines the twenty-first century. As Rybczynski says in the book’s introduction, “Chairs are fascinating because they address both physiology and fashion. They represent an effort to balance multiple concerns: artistry, status, gravity, construction, and—not least—comfort.” 

The first chairs

Before there were chairs, people squatted, or knelt, or folded their legs to the side, or sat cross-legged, or assumed one of about 96 other sitting positions identified by anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes. It’s interesting to note that how people sat was entirely cultural. 

Rybczynski points out that the people of Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America favored deep squatting, while the people of Japan, Korea, and Eurasia preferred kneeling. 

Stools were most likely used during the Bronze Age (around 3000 BC), but not much is known about their design or construction. Therefore, Rybczynski starts his story with a 5000-year-old folding stool from Egypt.

Like most good ideas, the Egyptian stool was copied. The ancient Greeks adapted it into what’s known as the Klisomos. The Chinese followed suit, calling their model the hu chuang, which translates to “barbarian bed.” As testament to the idea that good design lives forever, that same folding stool is still available. Used mostly by campers, you can find it in the outdoors department of your local J. C. Penney store.  

The American chair

The ample supply of fine hardwoods in the American Colonies, combined with a demand for high-quality furniture made Boston and later Philadelphia thriving centers for fine craftsmanship. This led to America’s first contribution to the history of the chair—the rocker. 

“We don’t know exactly who the furniture maker was who had the idea, but we are sure it occurred somewhere in the late 1700s in colonial America,” says Rybczynski. “The rocker became extremely popular. It became a sort of craze. Every American home had at least one rocking chair.”

Europeans visiting the colonies marveled at the new design. One British visitor described rockers as “wooden narcotics.” 

“Rockers never lost popularity,” says Rybczynski. “They are a part of our history and they endure today. John F. Kennedy, who had back problems, was told by his doctor that a rocker would help, so he had rocking chairs in the White House, the Oval Office, and even on Air Force One. He used them a lot. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln was sitting in a rocking chair when he was assassinated at Ford’s Theater.” 

Design of the time

“Certain chairs represent their time,” says Rybczynski. “When you think of a Windsor chair, you think of Benjamin Franklin, the signers of the Declaration and George Washington, who had about 20 Windsor chairs in his house. Whereas the wing chair takes you back to King George in England.”

Is there a chair that represents the twenty-first century? Rybczynski asked historians, furniture makers, and architects and the answer surprised him…just as it will probably surprise you. 

It is not an expensive museum piece, nor is it something that most Americans would consider iconic. It is “the furniture equivalent of flip flops”—the cheap molded plastic chair you probably have on your patio or balcony. “It’s the sort of thing you see at Home Depot,” says Rybczynski. “I was a bit surprised because I hadn’t thought of that, but they were right. It is a completely new type of chair.”

The key to this chair’s importance lies in its construction and functionality. “It’s one piece of plastic that is molded in a machine and it comes out completely finished,” says Rybczynski. 

Interestingly, the chair of the twenty-first century is a product of the plastics industry, not the furniture industry. It is also available everywhere on the planet. 

“The more I researched it, I realized that globalization is the biggest phenomenon of our time, and that chair is part of that trend,” says Rybczynski. “It’s also not degradable, which is also of our time.”

Now I Sit Me Down includes chapters about “the Henry Ford of chairs,” the golden age of chair design, and the complex engineering that went into today’s adjustable office chairs. Find a comfy reading chair, sit back, and enjoy!

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