The history of chairs: translating social authority into furniture
December 3, 2014 1:19 PM   Subscribe

Chairs, they're everywhere these days. They seem simple enough, and they are indeed ancient in general existence. But it was the chest, the bench and the stool that were the ordinary seats used in everyday living, and the number of chairs which have survived from an earlier date is exceedingly limited. In China, chairs brought about a change in posture and display of hierarchy, and into the 17th century England, the chairs in a household reflected the social hierarchy for family and guests. Even into the 1970s, chairs served to mark hierarchy in the workplace, and it took an examination of workplace injuries, turn-overs and general productivity to re-evaluate how chairs were selected for office workers.

Let's take a quick tour of chairs around the world, and throughout time! Chair! Chair! Chair!
posted by filthy light thief (20 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I just listened to 99% Invisible's Edge of your Seat episode! And now, to peruse links!
posted by BrashTech at 1:32 PM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Chairs are still markers of office status to a certain extent. This was back in the day, but I actually had someone at a government consulting firm throw a fit, insisting that I had taken the chair from her office because it had arms on it and only managers got chairs with arms. (She was an interesting person - pretty highly strung and very, very much into her status and power in the office where she did her very abstract white collar job. But it turns out she was married to this enormous bearded neanderthal of a guy who was referred to as "Mountain Mike." The only time I ever saw him he was wearing coveralls . And it was obvious from the dramatic change in her demeanor when he showed up that her home life was very, very different.)

The other big status thing I remember about that job was that computers were still moving into the workplace. For the important manager types with offices around the outer edge of the floor, it was very important that you have the fanciest, most impressive PC on your desk, but that you have no idea how to actually use it. Your time was far too valuable to be spent figuring out how a word processor or an operating system worked. That's what the college students in the cubes in the middle of the room were for. We spent half our time trying to do our jobs and the other half doing grandma-level tech support for the very highly paid knowledge leader experts that ran the show.

Jesus, why do we even care about status in the workplace? It's all such bullshit. Nobody in this country's had a job that actually needed to be done since 1978!
posted by Naberius at 1:33 PM on December 3, 2014 [11 favorites]

So wonderful to see that great principle of chair and chair alike kept alive here.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:33 PM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Anything about ergonomics reminds me of the time that an office I once worked in got everyone, across the board, the same ergonomic chair which turned out to be exactly wrong for my lower back. I needed something that didn't have any give if you tried to lean back, and they couldn't adjust the new chairs so it couldn't. And sure enough, between that and having to move a couple weeks later, my back went out. I mentioned the situation to the massage therapist I saw afterward and she just snorted and said that ergonomic chairs, in her experience, were designed so "one size fits some".

Fortunately the office hadn't gotten rid of the old chairs, so I was able to get one of the oldstyle chairs back a few days later when I told them it was a problem - except it was one of the executive chairs, so I had the best chair in the secretarial pool.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:34 PM on December 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was on Otakon staff the year CHAIR! happened.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:44 PM on December 3, 2014

Some for selling, some for keeping.
posted by Madamina at 1:46 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Even into the 1970s, chairs served to mark hierarchy in the workplace

Into the 1970s? How about into now. Walk into any big corporate office and I will almost assure you that the C-suite folks will not be sitting in the same chairs that their PAs and admins are sitting in, or the drones down in the cube farm get to use. And the chairs in the boardroom will probably be different from in most other conference rooms. There is definitely still a status display.

The gap has narrowed somewhat as computers have infiltrated the higher echelons of corporations—executives now require chairs that they can sit in and type, while in an earlier era they would have used them solely for writing out longhand drafts or more likely given dictation—but if you manage to rate an office with a door, you can generally manage to get yourself a slightly nicer ass-resting device than average, too.

What does seem to be the case though is that there's a sort of moving, aspirational target. In the past, an "executive chair" probably involved something with leather and brass or mahogany trim and arms. (Not the most ergonomic.) That was the case for generations. But now it's not so much about having a certain kind of chair, but about having a newer, nicer, or trendier chair. (The Aeron is out, now those bright-blue ones are in.)

In a lot of big corporations, when you walk into someone's office and they have a really sweet chair, and better yet one of those electric stand-up desks, it's a mark that they Know How To Play The Game. It's like having the stuffed head of a bureaucrat on your wall.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:51 PM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

That John Collignon fellow who created the site about the Collignon folding rocking chairs is so excited about rocking chairs, it's somewhere between delightful and alarming. Not that it isn't interesting! It's all very interesting, thank you for this post.

The "Furniture of ancient Egypt" link appears to have disappeared, unfortunately.

Anything about ergonomics reminds me of this (warning: GIFs).
posted by automatic cabinet at 2:04 PM on December 3, 2014

Weird, that link worked earlier this afternoon. Until it comes back, here it is on
posted by filthy light thief at 2:23 PM on December 3, 2014

cavemen did not have chairs
posted by exogenous at 2:27 PM on December 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Don't forget about "vernacular" furniture like the Welsh stick chair, which has three legs to make it more stable on rough or earthen floors. Practical (and possibly more egalitarian?) furniture like this was probably less likely to be preserved or recorded in paintings.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:19 PM on December 3, 2014

Oh god, the ubiquitous white plastic chairs. When I saw them in Paris about 15 years ago I felt the world was coming to an end.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:49 PM on December 3, 2014

Kadin2048: "There is definitely still a status display."

We had this giant to-do when I was on the school board and the board bought new chairs for the conference room used by administrators and for the board room. All of the then-in-use chairs were from the 60s and 70s, in varying states of repair (often with duct-tape upholstery repairs), and not matched. So new chairs were bought, and they were nice chairs because they get a lot of use (the board room chairs were like $600 each), but this local newspaper reporter went on a fucking CRUSADE about how it was all status display at the expense of the children to buy new chairs after 50 years.

So we explained some more the decision to purchase them at a public meeting after like a dozen people were totally incensed by this guy's articles and castigated us, and I explained how when I was 8 months pregnant, I attempted to stand up from one of the chairs, using the arms of it for balance, and the arms SNAPPED OFF THE CHAIR as it completely collapsed under me. It hurt like fuck and I fell really hard. I had to go to the hospital; when you take a fall that hard when you're pregnant, they make you go get an ultrasound to make sure the baby's okay and I had to be monitored for contractions in case it triggered early labor and everyone was fine but it took forever at the doctor's office and what if I HAD gone into early labor or been really hurt? And what if it hadn't been ME, but an employee or a parent or any one of the dozens of people who use that conference room all day, every day, and they'd brought a lawsuit? What if I hadn't had insurance that covered the hospital visit and observation? So I told the story a little light-heartedly but made the point that the 50-year-old chairs were getting actively dangerous for people to sit in.

The reporter on the crusade reported it as, "One board member bragged that she was so fat she broke the chair" and had some line about "literal fat-cats" and their fat-cat chairs.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:29 PM on December 3, 2014 [18 favorites]

As all of my friends can attest, I am fascinated with chairs. Consider that beyond the fact that the simple item which supports us when we're not quite lying down has been around for so long, the design of each chair within each generation continues to manage to be unique to it's time.

This is where my favourite story starts. Mid century design, Eames and their ilk, coming up with all the shiny, glorious designs that were loved for a few decades and then as all things fade, faded out with time to become "old". These chairs were made, and are now all drifting around our workplaces, homes, trashbins and ebay.

Decades later, all old is new again and they come back into style.

DWR reissues Eames (but not in original fiberglass because that isn't quite so environmentally friendly).
Those who have the originals either toss them, or resell as vintage items.

But the main, amazing difference in 2000, is that China is a superpower, and the Chinese manufacturing market sees that these chairs are loved and bought by millions, and so the Chinese market starts to make knock-offs.
And not just one factory, but hundreds.

If you love chairs like I do, you can see the unique tiny differences that distinguish each knock off from the original. The legs are wrong. The width of the back is wrong. The curvature is not right. Hundreds of factories, all making Eames chairs, all based off that one idea 50 years ago.

But what's even better... remember how DWR didn't make them true to original by skipping fiberglass? Some factories actually make them *more* historically accurate by using fiberglass. Amazing.

The story doesn't end here.

Vitra, the license holder, makes miniature designer chairs. I mean, these things are the size of your wine glass and cost $300+, for a miniature of a designer chair (the knock off of which would cost you LESS than the miniature, mind you). And these things sell, and people collect them, and all is glorious, but its 2014 and we have China, and what is China manufacturing great at? Making small plastic things.

And this is how there is a line of miniature designer chair knock offs. These are not doll house chairs. They are the end product of a long, long line of events, that started with mid-century modern designers coming up with the original ideas decades ago, and finish with a modern manufacturing superpower with a lot of intellectual property freedom.

(I collect all the miniatures and photograph them all over the world and this is my most favourite story of all time.)
posted by olya at 7:47 PM on December 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

posted by The corpse in the library at 8:35 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

corpse, your link is bad. The link, which may have been shortened from "Chair" to "cha," possibly due to interfering superheroes. Did you mean to link to this, with this video? For a moment, it reminded me of Depeche Mode's 'Enjoy the Silence' video, with the king-type Gahan hauling his folding chair around.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:48 PM on December 3, 2014

The Egypt link did not open but I recall tuts chair still had his original name on it which is interesting.

Cool stuff.
posted by clavdivs at 9:02 PM on December 3, 2014

I dunno about status, but playing the corporate game... in the early 90s I was working at an axis-of-evil software corp, and I had horrible, horrible anemia from a combination of ulcers and female problems. But, I had a very specialized niche skill. So my (very large) cube had something a lot like a barcalounge and very carefully hung/tilted CRT monitors, along with an ergo split keyboard for my lap and a giant trackball I scooted with my foot. And a headset for my phone extension. This way I could get my head low enough compared to my heart so I didn't pass out several times a day. And because the anemia made me cold all the time, I had a soft blanket, too.
There I was churning out the edits while semi-horizontally cozied as if I was on a fancy ocean liner deck chair. I was the envy of the division. Even the division head in the c-suite didn't have a sweet setup like mine.
I couldn't headdesk, tho.
posted by Dreidl at 9:28 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it's not among the previous links, Siegfried Giedeon's Mechanization Takes Command offers some insightful history in chapter five: Mechanization encounters human surroundings (furniture).
posted by 0rison at 11:10 AM on December 5, 2014

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