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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Now I Sit Me Down

From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History

Witold Rybczynski

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




I own a creaky old wooden office chair that swivels, tilts, and rolls. I bought it in a flea market more than thirty years ago to use as a writing chair or, rather, as a typing chair, for at that time I used a Hermes portable. My first computer was an Osborne, followed by a succession of PCs, each more powerful and more versatile than its predecessor. Now I write on a Mac. The Osborne is stored in an attic cupboard, although I’m not sure why I hang on to it. Valore sentimentale, the Italians would say. My Osborne has a monochrome screen the size of a postcard, uses an obscure computer language, stores information on plastic floppies, and runs obsolete software. In other words, it is twenty-three pounds of useless junk. On the other hand, my old office chair is still usable. It’s a so-called banker’s chair, with a scooped seat, curved arms, and a contoured back, a design that first appeared in Edwardian England. You won’t find other artifacts from that period in my home—no antimacassars or spittoons, no gasoliers or Victrolas—yet my banker’s chair continues to do its job.

A chair can be a living link to the past. Even the distant past. I would feel odd wearing a Greek chiton, and I wouldn’t know how to consult the sibyl of the oracle at Delphi, but like Achilles and Odysseus I can sit on a klismos, the ancient Greek chair. The one I recently used wasn’t a precious antique but came from JCPenney. That’s not unusual. Ours may be a digital age, but we continue to manufacture and use period chairs: wing chairs, rocking chairs, Windsor chairs.

There is good reason to copy the klismos—you have to jump ahead more than two thousand years to the English cabriole of the eighteenth century to find a chair of equal elegance. Other candidates might include a Louis XV armchair, the fin de siècle Viennese café chair, and the mid-century modern Eames chair. And there are many lesser useful chairs: club chairs, reclining chairs, deck chairs.

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. Chairs can be whimsical or blandly practical, luxurious or simple, a frill or a necessity. My short history chronicles many changes in chair design, but unlike communications equipment, transportation technology, and weaponry, which have become more efficient, faster, and deadlier over time, chairs do not necessarily get “better”; some models persist unchanged for centuries. On the other hand, chair design is not static. Change is caused by the availability of new materials, by new social conditions, by new production methods, and by new uses. It is also caused by new fashions as well as the desire for novelty, and periodically by spurts of the inventive human imagination, which is never satisfied to leave “well enough” alone.

As chairmaking evolved from individual craftsmen, to guilds, and finally to industrial production, the responsibility for design shifted. Since the nineteenth century, many chairs have been designed by architects. This was largely a result of the Arts and Crafts movement, in which architects designed furnishings, wallpapers, lamps, even table services, to complement their interiors. Like a building, a chair combines artistry and function. Unlike a building, however, a chair’s fate is at the mercy of its users. A building may turn out to be unpopular or impractical, but once it is built we are stuck with it—demolition is only rarely an option. A chair, on the other hand, is different; if it is disliked it will be set aside, manufacturers will discontinue making it, and it will soon be forgotten. But if it garners favor, it—or rather its design—can survive for centuries. Banker’s chairs continue to be made today, as are bentwood café chairs, and many Danish Modern chairs. Unlike most consumer goods, chair models can have a long life; some never go out of fashion. Or, like the JCPenney klismos, they reappear to function just as their original makers intended.

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This book is not a conventional design history; it is as much a chronicle of human behavior as of human artifacts. The first chapter traces the evolution of the simplest sitting implement—the stool—and shows how every period copies or adapts what came before, all the way back to pharaonic Egypt. Next, an overview of domestic furniture reminds us that there are many kinds of chairs because there are so many different reasons to sit. This leads to a theme that is a constant in my story: the chair is a practical tool, but it can also be an aesthetic object—cherished, admired, even collected. Finally, there is nothing natural about sitting on chairs—after all, many societies prefer to sit on the floor. Why do we sit up on chairs? The story of how the ancient Chinese switched from floor-sitting to chair-sitting sheds light on this matter.

The middle portion of the book traces the story of the chair from prehistoric times to the present day. It does not attempt to be comprehensive but touches on the high points: the progression of the simple side chair from a glorified stool to the refined British cabriole chair; the golden age of sitting furniture in Louis XV’s France; the appearance of exemplary folk models such as the English Windsor chair and the American rocker; the saga of Michael Thonet, who invented the long-lasting bentwood café chair; the advent of the modern designer, whose work was separated—for the first time—from actual chairmaking; the mid-century Danish Modern movement, which combined traditional craftsmanship with factory production. Individuals make an appearance: Thomas Chippendale, author of influential furniture handbooks; the ébéniste Jean-François Oeben, who raised furniture-making to a fine art; the first designers, such as the turn-of-the-century Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann; the Bauhaus maven Marcel Breuer; Charles and Ray Eames, who pioneered chairs in new materials; and the Danish master Hans Wegner. These individuals are a reminder that chairs often involve invention as well as artistry, and that new solutions are produced not only by circumstances but also by creative minds.

The final chapters explore special chairs. Chairs that fold—safari chairs, director’s chairs, lawn chairs—are so ubiquitous that they are almost invisible, yet portability and chairs emerged hand in hand in ancient Egypt and dynastic China. Knockdown furniture was developed simply for ease of transport but has ended up as a marketing phenomenon. We think of swings as children’s playthings, but swinging seats likewise have ancient roots and have persisted in the form of porch swings and gliders. Finally, chairs on wheels, whether for infants or invalids, demonstrate how human ingenuity can adapt an everyday object to special uses.

While we continue to use chairs based on historical models—chaises longues, easy chairs, rocking chairs—two dissimilar chairs represent our period’s particular, one might say peculiar, contribution: the recliner and the ergonomic task chair. While one is used mainly for watching television and the other for desk work, both are based on a systematic study of the human body and represent new solutions to age-old problems: people come in different sizes, and comfortable sitting requires that we are able to easily alter our position. In both chairs mechanical adjustability provides an answer.

Chairs are affected by—and reflect—changes in technology, materials, and economic and social conditions, yet they remain intimately connected to peculiarities of the human body—after all, we sit on them. At the same time, chairs communicate a lot about our attitudes—toward comfort, toward status, toward our physical surroundings. They are inanimate objects, but they speak to us. What they say is the subject of this book.


Copyright © 2016 by Witold Rybczynski