Have a Seat
By Patrick F. Cannon
I see it as my mission in life to think about things that would never occur to anyone else. For example, I just sat down at my desk and began typing on my laptop. Sat down at my desk on my office chair. Now, I know how the chair got there. I bought it at an office supply store. But what of chairs as things? Why do we have them? Where did they come from? Have you never wondered who made the first chair, and why?
People interested in such questions might well begin exhaustive researches in the collections of famous libraries and universities around the world; or simply Google “chair” and have done with it. I am in the enviable position of having a veritable archive in my own memory, in a brain that has soaked up most of the world’s knowledge in the course of a life of constant study.
Let me suggest first of all that there are really only three kinds of chairs: easy, hard, and those designed by artists and architects. As this last category is fairly recent, let me get it out of the way first. Such chairs are notable for being both expensive and uncomfortable. Italian designers in particular seem dedicated to the proposition that a proper chair must be an object of great sculptural beauty first. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to discover a way to actually sit on one. To these great artists, it is the idea of the chair that is important, not its utility. Bravissimo, I say!
Architects, it must be said, do intend their chair designs to be sittable, if barely. The legendary German architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – famous for his dictum that “less is more” – designed his famous Barcelona chair for a German exhibit at the 1929 world’s fair in that city. It has a simple, elegant design, favored by the kind of people who put abstract paintings on their white walls. It works best as an object, since getting in and out of it is something of a chore. But then, what can you expect for a mere $5,760?
Another great architect who has advanced the art of chair making is the by now ubiquitous Frank Gehry, he of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain, the Disney concert hall in Los Angeles and the Pritzker Pavilion in our own Chicago. Before his architecture became fashionable, and he thus had a lot of free time on his hands, the avuncular Gehry designed a chair made out of cardboard. The idea, one supposes, was to make a cheap and (maybe) comfortable chair for the masses. To prove his point, you can buy one now for a mere $5,900. It would go well with your Barcelona chair and Jackson Pollack painting, and set you back far less than a cardboard Brillo box by Andy Warhol.
(Although a bit larger than a chair, one could also complete ones ensemble with a bright red Kiss Sofa, said to be based on Marilyn Monroe’s lips. It can be had for only $7,400, but really should be complemented by a Mark Rothko color field painting in blue. Sitting on it would make real the famous admonition.)
Lest I be accused of favoritism, as I have written a bit about his architecture, I must point out that Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie period (1900-1915) high-backed dining chairs are notorious for their discomfort. Even the great man himself refused to sit upon them, and eventually blamed their design on one of his minions, Walter Burley Griffin as I recall.
But back to history. Cave men, at least from the evidence of their drawings, had no chairs. They sat upon the earth or whatever surface was handy. From looking carefully at surviving bas reliefs, it would seem that the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites had a place to sit, even if only for the king and his ilk. The Greeks mostly sat on what looks like benches or bleachers, as did the early Romans. The Egyptians are a different story, if one is to believe Cecil B. DeMille, well known for the historical accuracy of his movies. If you’ve seen his classic “Ten Commandments,” you’ll remember Pharaoh Ramses, played by the eerily Egyptian-looking Yul Brynner, sitting upon a gaudy throne as he ordered the slaughter of the innocents.
It is to King Arthur that we owe the famous round table and chairs, now beloved of banquet halls around the world. Most illustrations I have seen show chairs of goodly heft, with Lions heads carved at the end of the arms. This chair form proved remarkably durable, since kings and other nabobs adopted somewhat larger versions for their thrones and the lower orders tended to emulate the furniture of their betters.
Chairs finally become less hefty in the 18th Century Georgian era due mainly to the legendary Thomas Chippendale. Basing his designs on Chinese models, his chair backs had delicate designs, although the seats were large enough for the hefty bums of the era. Originals are quite expensive, but beware of forgeries advertised on E-Bay. By the way, Tom was something of an eccentric, given to dancing around in the nude clothed only in a formal collar and black tie.
Perhaps the most famous chair of the modern era is the Barcalounger reclining chair. Many a poet has mused while dozing off in its embrace. As it can be had with motorized reclining, it is the perfect marriage of art and science. Perhaps some day it might sprout wings and fly one to heavenly bliss!
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon