History of chair filled with dignity

"History is all explained by geography." Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), American poet, novelist and literary critic, "Writers At Work," the Paris Review interviews, First Series (1958)


As with so many things that we take for granted, the phrase "take a seat" has a long history. The seat part, that is. I had never thought much about how long the chair had been around until I was studying for a design exam.

The study materials included history of design and all of the components. For some reason, the chair resonated with me and I was fascinated by its history.

It seems that the first chair similar to the ones we know today was created in Egypt somewhere around the 6th century. Records indicate that it was ornate, with reliefs of religious figures, flowers, birds and animals carved into it.

Prior to that time, folks did sit, but on benches, stools or small chests. When chairs were first "invented," only those considered important had access to them, and for many centuries it was considered an article of state and dignity rather than an article of ordinary use. It was not until the 16th century that it became a common household item.

Because of the elevated status of those who could sit in the chairs, it makes sense that the term "chair" is still used today to indicate authority — those in leadership in government, academics, committees etc.

And just for fun, think about other ways we use chair: on the edge of, scared out of and fell off of. We use it when expressing futile behavior, "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," and when referring to quick changes in people and positions, "musical chairs."

Happily for us, when the chair lost its regal stature, it quickly became a household item. Can you just imagine life without the chair? For heaven’s sake, we want to sit down.

Wikipedia gives us a quick rundown: "The 20th century saw an increasing use of technology in chair construction with such things as all-metal folding chairs, metal-legged chairs, the slumber chair, molded plastic chairs and ergonomic chairs. The recliner became a popular form, at least in part due to radio and television, and later a two-part. The modern movement of the 1960s produced new forms of chairs: the butterfly chair, bean bags and the egg-shaped pod chair. Technological advances led to molded plywood and wood laminate chairs, as well as chairs made of leather or polymers. Mechanical technology incorporated into the chair enabled adjustable chairs, especially for office use. Motors embedded in the chair resulted in massage chairs."

And, as we know, there are as many chair designs today as there are tastes.

For a lot of us, our first memory of a chair may be that of a rocking chair with our grandmothers in it, or maybe dad’s recliner or the small chair at mother’s dressing table. These chairs tend to carry extremely fond memories, and I’ve been in many homes where they still hold places of honor, even after those who originally used them are no longer there.

So when you think about that lowly chair, try to think about it as the historical giant it is — recent or ancient. The next time you take a seat, remember that a chair is not just a chair, it’s history revisited.

Carolyn Muse Grant is a founder and past president of the Architectural & Decorative Arts Society, as well as an interior design consultant/stylist specializing in home staging. Her Inside Spaces column appears weekly in the Home section of the Review-Journal. Send questions to creativemuse@cox.net.

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