Brief history of church seating design and its future

The earliest churches in England had no fixed seating. In some there were stone benches however predominantly they had no seating.

Seating was increasingly introduced throughout the middle ages, and after the Reformation with more focus on long sermons from the pulpit. Simply formed benches were introduced to which backrests and end panels were subsequently added. Over time these became more decorative and sophisticated until churches became fully occupied with pews.

By the Jacobean period pews had higher backs and sides for in order to create a more comfort and privacy. From the end of the sixteenth century rights to a particular pew could be acquired through rent or allegiance to a church. Pews were often locked to restrict access only to their owners. Personal Bibles and prayerbooks could be stored securely. Galleries were introduced to provide additional ‘free’ seating. During the nineteenth century many churches were entirely re -seated with pews. These Pews became more generic in design and could be fitted in standard lengths and dimensions.

The trend for use of fixed pews within churches began to change after the WWII, most notably at the new Coventry Cathedral. Here wooden chairs designed by Gordon Russell provided flexibility in seating layout and could be stacked and stored to provide more open spaces allowing for a wider range of activities encompassing the arts, communities and worship. The design of the Coventry chair is sympathetic to the interior of the cathedral and the traditional use of wood, however at London’s St Pauls Cathedral, the need for even greater flexibility dictated the use a chair that was highly portable, light, compact and most importantly stack with extreme efficiency. The 40/4 chair designed by David Rowlands met this brief and despite its chrome frame and modern bent ply ‘Scandinavian’ appearance does not compete with the majesty of St Paul’s classical architecture. Well designed stacking chairs with a clean modern aesthetic and which allow ‘ high density stacking’ provide churches the opportunity to vastly increase the scope of church activities often allowing these buildings to have a new life as the centre of community life. Sensitivity to the design and history of historic churches will become paramount as pews are removed and replaced with modern chairs. Church chair design therefore deserves to be taken seriously and promoted as a specific furniture design genre that allow discourse, development of best practice, guidelines and the attainment of excellence in craft and design that compliment the history and beauty of Churches as well as breathing new life into these facilities.