The History of the Chair in Britain

March 15, 2018

The chair is a relatively modern phenomenon.

Until the 16th century chairs were status symbols or used in churches. The misericord, the throne, the Klismos are all hierarchical and ecclesiastical symbols. In many respects the development of the chair as a universally consumed piece of furniture in England mirrors the liberalisation of society from feudal to the modern era from Cromwellian times onwards. The art of sitting and socialising or working has therefore developed rapidly over a relatively short period of time to the extent that the chair, its design and production and the habit of sitting, will undoubtedly change as rapidly in the future.

The restoration and the advent of European and London coffee shops produced the need for sitting around tables. Also at this time the Windsor chair was developed. Wheelwrights began to make chairs from the spindles that they were already producing for wheels. The Windsor chair became a fashionable article to have within the houses of merchant classes – a place to rest and read as well as serving as a decorative showpiece. Equally the Windsor chair was popular in the 17th Century as a garden chair, replacing the bench due to its lightness and portability. People could congregate in a pleasure garden, take tea, or listen to music as the chairs could be moved around and stored accordingly. From the vernacularly crafted Windsor chair, the fine art of chair making developed.

In the Georgian era, makers such as Chippendale and Hepplewight developed the simple spindle backed framing of the Windsor into an elegant classical form. They used wood species harvested from the empire such as Mahogany and Teak. In short, the chair became a sophisticated status symbol for the newly forming and wealthy merchant classes. These chairs were still produced by hand by highly skilled craftsmen. However, as the industrial revolution progressed, chairs became manufactured in volume via machine tools. Furniture became more affordable and chairs became ubiquitous within the Victorian home. The patterns of Chippendale and Hepplewight were copied and transformed into factory-manufactured products and in doing so lost much of their charm and desirability. Equally, the need to seat people at the workplace and within the public realm became more important. Theatres, offices, public houses, schools and eateries all needed seating.

Partly in reaction to the mass production of furniture from the mid 19th century onwards, the Arts and Crafts movement sought to promote craftsmanship and handmade furniture. Makers such as Ernest Gimson and Charles Voysey created pieces without decoration and in a time-honoured fashion. At the heart of this furniture design was the concept of simplicity and honesty and a socialist principle of furniture makers being able to share the fruits of their labour in the form of maker’s communes. In this sense the making of a chair had become a symbol of a romantic and utopian idyll, a place where workers could escape from the servitude of the industrial revolution.

In contrast to the idealism of Art and Crafts Movement, the Modernist movement in the early 20th century wanted to celebrate mass production using modern materials such as steel, bentwood and cast aluminium to manufacture chairs. The chair became an icon for the modern era and was a favourite project for the modernist designer and architect. New types of chair such as the swivel office chair and stacking chair helped achieve mobility and efficiency. Iconic designers such as Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen and Mies van der Rohe have all designed chairs that are emblematic of the modernist era. In the post war era, chairs have mirrored other artistic and cultural movements such as Pop, Abstraction and Post Modernism. These developments have been the main influence in British design and as such the Chair has become internationalised without regional or national distinctiveness. Chairs originally designed by Charles Eames in the mid 20th century are present around the globe.

Ironically the act of sitting in many areas is becoming obsolete. Workplaces encourage standing up at counter height desks, music concerts are often standing only and football stadiums are now reverting back to having stand only arenas. The Millennial generation are just as likely to be sitting on beanbags or stools as a traditionally conceived chair. The chair is therefore as much a status symbol – a cultural totem – as it is a practical piece of sitting equipment. Perhaps one of the most iconic and sensational photos of the 20th century is of Christine Keeler sitting, apparently naked, on a stacking chair designed by Arne Jacobsen. The chair has become as famous as the image itself.