The story of the chair is the story of our lives.
You might think that seating is essentially ergonomic: made to fit our shape, and to reflect our bodies, with arms and legs and back. And yet that basic style has taken on so many forms over the centuries, that every form tells a new chapter in our human story.And so the history of this most basic piece of furniture is also the history of ourselves.The chair is always marked by three basic elements: appearance, comfort and the necessity that it be fit for purpose. Just as the latest fashion trends may turn into classics or disappear into the mists of time, so it is with the history of the chair.
The chair: from ceremony to comfort
It wasn't until the early 1700s that a new desire for comfortable furnishings became widespread. Before that, in the time of Louis X, "I" struts were used to strengthen the legs, while backs were high and flat and the seats left feet dangling in mid air, showing the preference for solidity over comfort. Then, with the lavish ascendency of Louis XIV to the throne, this solid style took on opulence too. Carved, gilded decorations mirrored the splendour of court life, while elaborate folding chairs were used to indicate the rank and order of precedence imposed by etiquette. Although the Regency began to show a softening of line and less fussy decoration, it wasn't until the furniture styles of Louis XV that the increasing desire for comfort and intimacy gave rise to new forms.
The softening of forms in the 18th century.
As room sizes decreased, new, more modern lifestyles became the norm. And as technical advances in joinery were made, in the first half of the 18th century, so the search for more lightweight and ergonomic chairs began. It's a search that continues to this day. In the salons, conversation became part of a refined lifestyle. New forms of seating multiplied, bringing new names and new forms, curves and counter-curves, reflecting a society where women dictated current taste. So we get the "la bergère" or "shepherdess chair" (an upholstered armchair), "la marquise" (a large armchair, big enough for almost two), "la duchesse" (an extended lounge chair for reclining) and "le canapé à l'ottomane" (a Turkish-inspired couch).
Legs became curved, armrests became wider and were set back to accommodate the wide, hooped skirts of the ladies. Those advances in joinery also played an important role in the softening of seating forms. The back and the seat formed one continuous, undulating line and the backs of cabriolet chairs were curved to fit the curves of the spine. The search for comfort and softness can clearly be seen in "la bergère", a wide armchair with a deep cushion, upholstered sides and padded armrests. Chairs known as "volantes", (literally, "flying chairs") could be moved around with ease. As proportions decreased, houses were characterized by a new arrangement of smaller rooms (such as the cabinet, the boudoir and Marie Antoinette's "cabinet de la Méridienne" at Versailles) and by a less sombre decorative style. Marble and stucco were replaced by carved wooden panelling.Under Louis XVI seating changed little. Only the shape of the legs and back would alter, becoming rectilinear as classical styles returned. Couches, divans, sofas and ottomans, banquettes and daybeds became increasingly popular, following the fashion for exoticism and the Turkish influence on decorating styles.
Bourgeois-style comfort and luxury.
Although the Empire period saw a return of upright, highly formal chairs, the styles of the Restoration, Louis-Philippe and the Napoleon I, saw the birth of modern comfort, as demonstrated by the ergonomic form of the "fauteuil Voltaire", and seating designed to accommodate the spine. In the 1840s, the use of the spring brought a new comfort to the seating of the second Empire and saw the rise of the upholsterer's art. Heavy fabrics were favoured with fringing and tassles that tended to hide the frame and the legs. Great upholstery became synonymous with great luxury for the newly-wealthy bourgeoisie. New forms appeared, reflecting a society that liked both to be seen and to entertain. So we see the appearance of the pouffe, the "confidante", the s-shaped form of which allowed for intimate conversation between two people, and its three-seater version known as "l'indiscret". The "borne-jardinière", a circular sofa allowing several people to converse, tells of the central place occupied, both literally and figuratively, by seating designed for conversation.
Functionalism: function dictates the form.
This important movement, which began with Viollet-le-Duc, has come down through the centuries to the time of Le Corbusier, via the Bauhaus and De Stijl. It decrees that function should give rise to form. Ornament, seen as unnecessary or a means of disguising the poverty of form, was forbidden. Heavy fabrics, upholstery and elaborately carved wooden designs were also rejected, as architects and designers turned to light, industrial materials and clean geometrical lines. Two chairs typify these new design principles: the 'Red and Blue Chair' (1917-1918) and the 'Wassily Chair' (1925). The 'Red and Blue Chair', designed by Gerrit Rietveld, has all the principles of the Dutch De Stijl group: pure geometrical beauty and overlapping, coloured planes inspired by the work of another member of the group, the artist Mondrian. With the 'Wassily Chair', designer Marcel Breuer wanted something "detached, floating, as if outlined in space". It was, Bauhaus-style, "a machine for sitting in", with a tubular structure, inspired by bicycle handlebars, over which a sheet of canvas was stretched. Because it used industrial materials, the cost was also modest. Functionalism had a social dimension, and produced a series of chairs that were accessible to all, portable or stackable, such as the stools of the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. These chairs, in the tradition of Thonet's bentwood furniture, combined an organic use of shaped, laminated Scandinavian pine and space-saving principles.
The international style of the 1960s and anti-design of the 1970s.
The 60s and 70s marked a break with functionalist purity. Young Italian designers invented new playful and evocative shapes, such as the 'Sacco Beanbag' (1968), designed to adapt to any morphology, or the 'Joe Sofa', by Jonathan de Pas, in the shape of a giant baseball mitt. his sofa was a milestone as it ushered in inflatable furniture that was not only light but also temporary. It represented a technical, functional and aesthetic innovation. Another, more radical, trend saw the disappearance of the chair altogether, with the "conversation pit". First designed by Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard for the Miller House in 1958 in Columbus, Indiana, it was hollowed out of raised flooring in the middle of the living room and involved the removal of seating and tables in favour of cushions and built-in cupboards.
This freed up a large floor area and promoted a more informal style of socializing, where everyone was on the same level, literally floor level. This was a total break with traditional seating, where power and prestige were allocated according to strict seating etiquette.
So what have we inherited from the past and what are today's trends? In our post-modern age, seating draws on many sources. We've broken with both 1970s radicalism and from functionalist purity. The Garouste and Bonetti 'Barbarian chair' (1981) combined wrought iron and animal hides laced into the frame and is a statement of intent to return to a kind of primitive splendour. Another landmark piece from that time is the 'Costes' chair by Philippe Starck (1982). With its curved backrest and chestnut finish, it harks back to the enveloping forms which were the very essence of Art Deco.
Trends in the world of seating today.
"La Bergère" and "la marquise" remain popular because they demonstrate a perfect balance between the softness of the seat and a slenderness of form. Contemporary coverings and new patterns bring them up to date without detracting from their comfort. Likewise, the lightness of the medallion chair makes it a popular choice for the modern home, when covered in new fabrics it symbolize French elegance. Starck's 'Louis Ghost' medallion carver chair is, as its name suggests, a ghostly homage to the style of Louis XVI. That style is instantly identifiable, but unlike its predecessors, it's stackable and moulded in one piece from translucent polycarbonate, evoking the transparence of crystal. The comfort and decorative appeal of upholstery has also put it back at centre stage with Napoleon I inspired pouffes, Chesterfield sofas and padded chaises-longues. Sets of furniture in one particular style are no longer à la mode in our living rooms. Today we like to mix and match items of different styles, and the new with the vintage. We look for a secret connection between items and their forms and functions, such as the curves of a Louis XV chair and the slender form of a Jean Prouvé chair.
Functionalism toned down.
Modern furniture-making, like the production of prototypes, remains faithful to the guiding principles of rational functionalism. In our modern, often rather cramped homes, seating needs to be multi- functional and to take up a minimum of space. Hence the taste for convertible items, such as stools and pouffes that can also be used as occasional tables, for storage or as bedside tables. When it comes to stackable, space-saving chairs, the 'Ant' by Arne Jacobsen (1952) is the most imitated of designs. The most beautiful of chair designs use corian, tempered steel or polycarbonate to enhance the great beauty of the materials and structures.
Minimalism tinged with ecology.
Minimalism is a recent trend which draws on a variety of sources from Japanese style and the principles of Feng Shui to the clean lines of Scandinavian design and Italian Arte Povera. In the 21st century, we're looking for simple shapes, clean lines and basic or untreated materials. As for soft furnishings, the first choice is always for natural fabrics and for linen above all, particularly crushed or washed linen for armchairs, sofas and floor cushions. Natural, unvarnished basketry is also much in demand, such as woven rattan, kubu and water hyacinth. Such natural materials can be used both for indoor and outdoor furniture. And still today, the three-legged stool stands out with its basic, rustic nature. We mustn't forget the bench: the school bench, canteen, kitchen or even the monastic bench. Made of solid wood or industrial materials, elongated, rectilinear or curvilinear, a bench puts each guest on an equal footing. The very essence of where we are today.