What Are We Sitting On? - A Brief History of Chair Design

What Are We Sitting On? - A Brief History of Chair Design

A brief history of sofas and chairs

As you read this, you are probably sitting comfortably on a chair or sofa. You are fortunate to enjoy such luxury as it took humans around 195,000 years to invent the chair! If you are a little short on time, fear not, because we are beginning our story just 5,000 years ago!

Tree stumps and sofas for the dead

Early humans didn’t do as much sitting around as we do. They were far too busy hunting for food and would simply take a pew on a tree stump when they needed to. Chairs as we would recognise them today were first crafted in Ancient Egypt. Sadly, most citizens never had the opportunity to sit on them as those early chairs were thrones reserved for Pharaohs and high priests. Sofas also originated in Egypt. Indeed, the word sofa is derived from suffah, the Arabic for bench.

The evolution of what we sit on - Infographic EZLiving Furniture

From rocks to egg pods, the major shifts in how we make ourslelves comfortable.

The earliest known upholstered sofas were discovered in Ancient Egyptian tombs where they were placed to provide comfort for Pharaohs in the afterlife. How extraordinary that the finest luxuries were reserved for the dead. 

When chairs were always uncomfortable

Stone bench amphitheatre

Not very comfortable stone benches: Photo by Briana Tozour on Unsplash

The Romans were partial to a sofa too. Wealthy Romans rather enjoyed lounging on furniture which resembled what we now know as a chaise longue or chaise lounge. Lower class plebeians were still enduring stone benches.  From the 6th century BC, Greek amphitheatres featured bench seating for ordinary folk which was far from comfortable.  This idea was later copied by the Romans who used benches in the iconic Coliseum. 

From the 5th century BC, Roman public officials rested their posteriors on wooden Carule chairs. These were deliberately designed to be uncomfortable! The idea was that officials were expected to carry out their duties in an efficient and timely manner. More comfy chairs might have tempted them to dawdle. 

Gentlemen and scholars

Similar to the Klismos design, a modern version from EZ Living Furniture

Modern design has moved on quite a bit since the Klismos chair.

Around 500BC, philosophers and scholars in Greece benefited from Klismos chairs, which were also fashioned from wood. These boasted curved backs and tapered legs which curved outwards. Klismos chairs were revived in western Europe during the late 18th century. It is possible to see echoes of these pieces in many modern dining chairs.

The Dark Ages

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe entered what is known as the Dark Ages. This was a era in which art and design entered a lengthy period of decline. The sofa ceased to exist in any form other than a bench for 1,000 years. Medieval furniture tended to reflect the prevailing Christian emphasis on asceticism and the virtues of discomfort! It wasn’t until the Late 16th century that craftsmen began to reinvent chairs and sofas. 

Renaissance furniture

As weatherproof housing began to emerge across the continent, so craftsmen began creating more intricate and comfortable chairs and sofas. The Renaissance saw a revival in artistic endeavour which resulted in beautiful pieces of furniture. Comfort was still a secondary issue and any upholstered seating was stuffed only with horsehair, hay or even dried moss. 

Modern benches from the Ottowa range at EZ Living Furniture

Benches nowadays are still very much like their early predessors, only more comfortable.

Sofas remained similar to the early bench-like settles. (The term settee is derived from the Old English word Setl). They were reasonably common in the homes of the affluent and were quite regal in appearance.

When homes were draughty and damp, fabric wall hangings were used to trap water and shield rooms from the cold draughts. As housing improved, artisans began to find new ways to utilise those decorative fabrics and these were applied to furniture. Italian craftsmen saw the need for backrests and arms and this inspired new looks for chairs. Sofas with comfortable cushions began to appear.

A new era of furniture design and production

Furniture crafting began to flourish in the 17th century, particularly in France where extravagant Baroque styles proliferated in the homes of the nobility. Ornate pieces known as double chairs were created and these were the forerunners of the sofas that we benefit from today.

Lord Phillip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), was believed to have commissioned a sofa which would allow him to sit upright and in comfort while not creasing his clothing. Lord Stanhope was a trendsetter and the new design, which was dubbed the Chesterfield, was copied extensively. It was a departure from the Queen Anne chair of the day which featured a high back. The look remains popular and has been reworked over the years to showcase new colours and fabrics.

How the Chesterfield has evolved- Newport from EZ Living Furniture

One of the most recognised and copied designs, the Chesterfield took the world by storm.

By the 1800s, leading furniture makers including Thomas Chippendale began to record their designs and produced pattern books. Chippendale favoured deep seats and his designs were both elegant and functional. His sofas were upholstered with luxurious materials and offered a good level of comfort.

In 1807, Italian designer Guiseppe Gaetano Descalzi was commissioned to design a Persian Empire-style chair but crafted from lighter, less expensive materials. The resulting Chiavari Chair marked the beginning of the modern dining chair.

Thomas Jefferson has been credited with inventing the swivel chair and is believed to have signed the Declaration of Independence while sitting on one. Charles Darwin is said to have invented the office chair. He was tired of having to get up to check his experiments and so had wheels added to his chair! A decade later, Otto Van Bismarck tried to increase the efficiency of government workers by giving them chairs with wheels. These pieces led directly to the production of the office chairs that we see today.

A swivel chair from EZ Living Furniture

Thomas Jefferson would be impressed with how his swivel chair has evolved.

Sofas had remained statement pieces for the rich. But the industrial Revolution delivered cheaper textiles, steel springing, greater mechanisation, the sewing machine and the beginnings of mass production. Less expensive chairs and sofas which were also comfortable became available to the masses.

From Victoriana to modernist movements

Victorian furniture tended to reference the past with revivals of Gothic, Renaissance and Rococo styles. Dissatisfied with the opulence of these pieces, the designers of the Arts and Crafts movement then returned to clean lines and geometric shapes while shunning ornamentation. Charles Rennie Mackintosh utilised exaggerated heights and rectilinear patterns to imbue his pieces with considerable drama.

Sofas eventually became commonplace in ordinary households. While mass produced furniture was initially far from aesthetically pleasing, a series of artistic movements would soon leave their mark on modern furniture design. 

The Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s featured opulent pieces boasting stepped profiles and contrasting materials which were largely inspired by Ancient Egypt. Then, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair of 1929 found elegance in simplicity. Less was certainly more with this chair which was inspired by Ancient Rome but which was crafted from steel and leather.

A new version of the popular Eames chair - from EZ Living Furniture

Charels Eames designed chairs that still look great today

Outstanding designers such as Le Corbusier and Charles Eames revolutionised modern chairs and sofas. The new looks, including the iconic Eames Chair, were beautiful yet highly functional. Pieces were designed with mass production and affordability in mind. New materials including plastics eliminated the need for the joints seen in traditional furniture. 

Meanwhile, improvements in leather tanning and foam engineering were quickly transforming the humble sofa. Couches were within the budgets of the working classes and soon, ordinary households featured corner sofas, sofa beds, recliner chairs and power reclining sofas.

Chairs and sofas in the 21st century

These days, chairs and sofas are comfortable but also practical for daily life. In addition, they are expressions of personal style. Diverse looks honour the history of furniture design from the thrones of Ancient Egypt to the exciting artistic developments of the 20th century.  

Modern sofas from the Como range at EZ Living Furniture

It's safe to say we have come along way from sitting on stone benches!

From bedroom chairs to nursing chairs and from highchairs to rocking chairs, you benefit from amazing choices and ones that are within your budget. Stylish furniture is no longer the preserve of the nobility. Even modest apartments feature rooms lifted by stunning leather sofas, colourful accents chairs and chic carvers. The tub chair, club chair, lounge chair and fireside chair have all been re-imagined in order to complement 21st century homes.  

Why not explore the stylish furniture collections at EZ Living to discover the pieces that will transform your home? With looks honouring the past and reflecting the latest trends, our collections give you exciting choices. You can enhance your home with colour, texture, fine design and stunning new ideas. However, those new ideas are inexorably linked to and influenced by everything that came before. For pouffe think tree stump and for chaise think Roman day bed!