The chair a piece of furniture that has a seat, legs, and a backrest and that sometimes has arms. It is usually designed to seat one person and is generally light enough to be moved about easily. Chairs are among the oldest pieces of household furniture. No other article of furniture has more uses or a greater variety of designs. Through the centuries the changing styles of chairs have reflected the fashions of the times and have varied according to social and economic conditions.
Although chairs have existed for many centuries, they did not come into general use until the 16th century. From the time of ancient Egypt through the European Renaissance, chairs were universally regarded as a symbol of authority. They were used by lords and dignitaries, and the ordinary person sat on a stool or bench. This association of the chair with authority has been retained in governmental and administrative procedures, where remarks are said to be addressed to the chair. Similarly, a chairman is one who officiates at meetings. A professorship at a university is also frequently referred to as a chair.
The oldest known chairs are Egyptian, and a number of them were preserved in ancient tombs. Egyptian chairs were generally low and sometimes had curved backs to fit the human body. Many of them were of wood, the most common material used in making chairs, and others were of metal or ivory. Some were lavishly decorated with ivory and gold and had feet shaped like those of lions and bulls. Modern knowledge of Greek chairs is limited to references in literature and to vase paintings or sculptured reliefs, since no wooden furniture of ancient Greece has survived. One of the Greek chair types, with curved legs crossed in the shape of an X, was adapted by the Romans to a form they called the curule chair. It was used by senators and other Roman officials.
Through the Middle Ages, chairs continued to be a sign of authority. Medieval manors and castles usually contained only two or three chairs. The lord's chair was frequently a large, canopied, high-backed seat, often attached to the wall or on a dais. During the Renaissance, chairs came into widespread use, and lighter and more graceful models were developed. The Dante style of chair in Italy, adorned with intricate carvings and rich fabrics, was inspired by the Roman curule chair. Renaissance chairs were made more comfortable by the addition of cushions, pads, and leather.
The French were the first really to emphasize the quality of comfort in chairs. Upholstery became the fashion in the 17th century, and somewhat later, during the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774), springs began to be used. By this time, French designers had already abandoned oak, the heavy and unwieldy wood in use until the 17th century. They preferred lighter woods that enabled them to produce graceful and delicate forms, decorated with elaborate carvings and scrolls and upholstered in luxurious fabrics. Many French designs were introduced to England after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. During Queen Anne's reign (1702-1714), English craftsmen adopted the gracefully curved cabriole leg and claw-and-ball foot, which were to dominate English chair design for the next 60 years.
During the 18th century, Europe's greatest period of chairmaking, there were many innovations in chair design. Chairs created by the famous cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale were wider, lower, and more comfortable than earlier varieties. Chippendale introduced the openwork back and pierced slats, using mahogany, a hard, rich wood. A trend toward simplicity and lightness was established somewhat later in the century by the graceful and uncluttered designs of Robert Adam, George Hepplewhite, and Thomas Sheraton.
Most American chairs were adaptations of English styles. One of the most popular of these was the Windsor chair, a simple wooden structure with a spindle back. Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854), an American cabinetmaker, established a native school of furniture design. Although he occasionally borrowed ideas from Adam and Hepplewhite, he became known for the excellent proportions, elegant curves inspired by Grecian forms, and simple, well-placed ornaments of his furniture. America's unique contribution to the development of the chair is the rocker. It is believed to have been invented by Benjamin Franklin.
In contemporary chairs, emphasis has been placed on simplicity and functionalism. Through the use of such materials as molded plywood, bent metal tubing, foam rubber, and plastic, new and striking effects have been achieved. Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto, Charles Eames, and Eero Saarinen have been among the pioneers in modern chair design.