I just love “Chairman Tut,” a sculpture by the artist Larry Morris because it speaks to the creative process (often born of discomfort!) and also illustrates that chairs may well be one of man’s greatest inventions—certainly a vast improvement over nature’s chairs, such as the logs, tree stumps and rocks used by our early ancestors. In his book “Now I Sit Me Down,” which is an appreciation of the chair and its 5,000-year history, architect Witold Rybczynski notes, “The way we choose to sit, and what we choose to sit on, says a lot about us: our values, our tastes, the things we hold dear.”
Consider these seven facts about the fascinating history of the chair:
- Seating styles differ around the world. More than 100 distinct seating postures have been identified worldwide. For example, some cultures have a strong preference for squatting, kneeling or sitting on mats on the floor. In China, chair backs often have a 45-degree angle, as opposed to Western chairs with straight backs or slight reclines. Each of these culturally dictated postures has informed the development of chair styles as well as our muscles—which is why people used to floor-sitting may choose to sit on trains and other seats in their customary cross-legged position, while chair-sitters quickly become uncomfortable that way.
- The “seat” of power was exactly that. Throughout history, chairs have symbolized status. The very first chairs were thrones in Ancient Rome and Egypt, reserved for kings, pharaohs, emperors and high priests. These thrones typically were elevated, placing their occupants above the commoners, both literally and figuratively, and lounging divans became common in aristocratic homes. A type of folding chair, called a curule seat, first used in Ancient Rome around 494 BC, was reserved for the most important members of society. Its short-lived Greek counterpart, the klismos chair, was used mostly by philosophers, scholars and artisans. In medieval Europe, ornate chairs were associated with royalty and nobility; commoners used stools and benches (as we still see with church pews).
- The Renaissance gave us the modern chair. Credit for the modern-day chair goes to a Renaissance cabinet maker named Giuseppe Gaetano Descalzi, from Chiavari, Italy. The “Chiavari” was probably the first chair commonly seen outside the homes of aristocrats. Its design reflected the period’s changing costumes and furnishings, with distinctive styles soon emerging in France and England.
- What do the office chair and the Declaration of Independence have in common? According to the Chair Institute, Thomas Jefferson may have invented the first swivel chair and drafted the Declaration of Independence from his one-of-a-kind invention.
- Evolution led to the common office chair in more ways than one. Charles Darwin, famous for the theory of evolution, put rolling casters on a captain-style desk chair (straight-backed with armrests) so he could reach his experiments and notes from a seated position. His design was adopted by Otto von Bismarck to make Parliament employees in Germany more efficient and productive. Stratification in the workplace has long been symbolized by chairs, as typified by the executive, manager and secretary chairs seen in offices since the 1960s. These are gradually giving way to the ergonomic and egalitarian Aeron office chair patented by Herman Miller, with a tilt mechanism that lets the neck, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles pivot naturally.
- Plastic unites the world. The monobloc plastic chair, mass-produced and sold cheaply, has taken its seat as the most widely used chair on the planet. According to Rybczynski, these plastic chairs symbolize the homogenizing effect of globalization (manufacturers everywhere use essentially the same plastic-molding equipment from developed countries), but they also lend themselves to local innovation in the way of cultural motifs and decorated backs.
- We’ve turned into softies. Recent decades have ushered in more comfortable chairs than any time in history, giving us the made-for-TV-watching recliner and flexible polyurethane foam-cushioned chair seats and backs. An even more recent innovation is the use of foam in upholstered chairs that is certified through the CertiPUR-US® program, ensuring that the foam meets rigorous standards for content, emissions and durability.
Perhaps most ironically, sitting has become so inviting that we now have something called a Fitbit to remind us we are sitting too much and need to get back on our feet. It seems we truly have come full circle!