The humble chair, such a simple concept, is startlingly diverse in its history of design. The chair is able to convey the evolution of furniture through time, and epitomise the zeitgeist of each era. From the imposing and opulent Baroque seating of the 1600s, to the practical, streamlined and mass manufactured concepts of the Modernist and Mid-century craftsmen, chairs continue to capture the imaginations of collectors.
Most collectors choose to focus on one era, style or designer.
History of chair styles
By the 17th century, as the world moved out of the Renaissance and into modernity, their furniture had to keep up.
In the early 1600s, it was common to have suites of chairs that featured one ‘great chair’ that defined hierarchy. There was a noted move to non-hierarchical suites of chairs as the century wore on.
Upholstery became widespread as designers found their feet and starting to experiment with decoration and comfort.
Caned chairs were introduced in 1670s, became fashionable and a cheap alternative to upholstered.
Chairs with open arms were produced to accommodate the increasingly large dresses of ladies at the time, and mimicked the design on thrones with a high padded back and seat and gilt decoration.
In a time of colonial empire building, there was a desire to express through all utilitarian and decorative objects, the sense of power and grandeur. The Baroque chairs of the French King Louis XIV’s reign were a perfect example of this, dramatic and imposing designs of heavy ornamentation and gilding. Baroque design spread across Europe throughout the century.
The early 18th century saw the Queen Anne style of furniture (1702-1714) popular, simple chairs with wing backs and cushions, lighter and more comfortable than chairs that came before. The style is often referred to as ‘late Baroque’. Most notable, the style saw widespread use of curved cabriole legs carved as the shape of animal legs, in veneration of the French-style.
As the century wore on, chair designers became increasingly creative with upholstery, carving, tapestry scenes, stamped leather, and cabriole legs. The influence of the East, and of Oriental designs became more visible. Chairs with drop-in upholstered seats, known as ‘India-back’ chairs were practical and cheaper to produce. The splat (vertical centrepiece of the back) was often lacquered, known as ‘japanning’.
Rococo furniture rose to prominence between 1730 and 1770. It also shared many characteristics of the Baroque, but rejected the strict regulations that Baroque design employed. The chairs were elegant and ornate, quite theatrical and luxurious, with natural motifs and hand-worked decoration. Often pieces are deliberately non-symmetrical, with many curved forms.
The 18th century also saw the first instance of a style of furniture being named after a craftsman rather than a monarch. Thomas Chippendale revolutionised furniture manufacture, particularly with his publication of the first book of furniture designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.
His contemporary George Hepplewhite’s designs and book The Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide were also hugely influential, re-introducing straight legs and balanced designs of neoclassical style, often inlaid with shields and medallions.
In America, with the establishment of the United States, the Federal style became popular, defined by sharply geometric forms, straight legs, contrasting veneers, and geometric patterns. Patriotic symbols like the eagle were common. This style was championed by the furniture of Duncan Phyfe.
19th century chairs are often classified under the umbrella term of ‘Victorian’, as Victoria’s reign spanned the majority of the century. The era saw several waves of revival styles, and furniture makers turned to the past for ideas. Victorian furniture encompasses the continuation of Rococo, the Gothic Revival, Renaissance revival, and Eastlake styles.
Gothic Revival furniture emulated the Gothic designs of the 12th-16th centuries, a medieval church style that echoed a 19th century fascination with medievalism. Common themes included pointed arches, elaborately carved trefoil and roses, Heraldic motifs and dark wood.
Out of this interest in medievalism also arose the Renaissance revival, employing scrolling decorative forms and the classical Greek motifs that the Renaissance revered.
A significant movement for furniture, including chairs, towards the end of this period was the Arts and Crafts movement. They rejected the industrial mass-production that society was inevitably spiralling towards, and attempted to return to the roots of hand-craft and folk methods. The chairs of the Arts and Crafts movement are rustic and traditional, with medieval and folk styles of decoration.
In the United States, the Colonial revival saw a renewed interest in simple, austere and plain styles that used to be common during America’s time under British rule. This was most highly exemplified by Shaker furniture, developed by the religious sect the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, which focused on minimal, functional ascetic designs.
The 20th century is one of the most popular eras for chair collectors, being abundant with pioneering designs. The advent of mass production during this time means that items were produced in much larger numbers, making vintage examples easier to find, and design principles easier to employ in the home.
As well as the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements having an extensive impact on art, architecture and indeed furniture, one of the most significant periods for the culture and philosophy of furniture design arose with the German Bauhaus movement.
Bauhaus chairs were particularly radical, such as Walter Gropius’ F51 armchair, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, and Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair. These combined the potential for mass production with a stylised clean cut aesthetic, advocating good design for the masses.
Mid-Century modern furniture shared many Bauhaus principles, and is increasingly popular at present, in particular Danish modern furniture. Leading names of this genre included Arne Jacobsen, Borge Morgensen and Hans Wegner. Wegner's JH 501 low backed cane chair became so iconic and imitated, it was known simply as 'The Chair'.
Their counterparts in America included designers such as Charles and Ray Eames. Eames chairs are iconic pieces of 20th century design, reclining lounge chairs often with ottomans, made of curved moulded plywood with leather cushions.
Depression era furniture was made through the 1920s, 30s and 40s, while America and the rest of the world were feeling the effects of the Great Depression. Chairs were made of cheaper wood, using veneer work to place an attractive finish on the top. While this furniture remained unpopular for many years, it is experiencing growing interest among collectors.
Anyone who has ever chosen a chair or set of chairs for their house could be considered a collector, having sought out a particular style.
Collectors of early chairs, all hand-crafted and often unique, will generally tend to have a wide focus of era and design.
It is only the chairs of later periods, when chair designers began to be recognised as artisans, that collectors begin to narrow their focus onto one designer or school in particular.
Designers often worked for manufacturing companies, and the line between whether a design was produced by the craftsperson themself, or by a factory from their prototype, can leave some collectors uncertain as to what is valuable.
The greatest pitfall of chair collecting could be said to be reproductions. Even the long design history of chairs demonstrates how often ‘revivals’ occur, and old motifs are taken up and imitated. With the market so suffused with reproductions, including imitations that are themselves now antique, does a collector focus purely on the genuine original article, or are they satisfied with reverential replicas?
For someone wanting to create a style within their home, reproductions are fantastic, as chairs in the style of any era of history can be picked up relatively cheaply.
However for a collector, sometimes only the genuine original, made by the designer themself or manufactured from the original prototype, will do. The value of these genuine chairs, often iconic designs, can skyrocket.
Chairs, as items of furniture, are not easy or cheap to transport across vast distances. It is sensible to seek examples out locally, in second hand and furniture stores, reclamation yards, and house clearance.