No piece of antique or vintage furniture conveys as much personality and says as much about its owner as a chair, whether it’s a side chair in a hallway, a set of matching chairs in the dining room, or a unique rocking chair on the front porch.

The chair is as old as recorded history itself. The ancient Egyptians had stools, and even wooden folding chairs, with leather seats and fine joinery techniques. The Greeks and Romans came up with chair designs that are still in use today. And in China, fine woodworking and increasingly sophisticated joinery was the norm. The wooden chairs of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were especially beautiful, with curved pieces carved from a single piece of wood to avoid seams.

At around the same time in Europe, Renaissance craftsmen were producing chairs with open arms and seats to accommodate the billowing women’s fashions of the day. Hard, wooden seats were still the rule, but upholstery was gaining in popularity.

By the 17th century, the chair was becoming something of a small throne, with open arms and legs (called a fanteuil in France), a high padded back (the arms and seat were often also padded), and lots of gilt wood. Wing chairs first appeared in France; intricately carved wooden chairs featuring cane backs and seats made their debut in the Netherlands.

With a taller back, designers turned their collective attention to the chair’s splat, the vertical piece that runs up the center. Woodworkers used the splat for carving, while artisans used it as a canvas for japanning, which was a European variation on Asian lacquerwork.

Chair designers went positively crazy in 18th century England and France. Chair backs featured elaborate scenes stitched into tapestries or stamped into leather. Chair legs were given a cabriole shape, resembling the hind leg of an animal, whose knees were ornately decorated and whose feet often ended in a claw clasping a ball. Upholstered armchairs were on the rise, thanks to the arrival on the scene of a London furniture designer named Thomas Chippendale.

Indeed, 18th-century England produced much of the furniture vocabulary that we still use today. Relatively simple Queen Anne side chairs, wing chairs, and armchairs were popular ...

Meanwhile, in the Colonies, Pilgrim chairs and William and Mary chairs sported lots of turned arms and legs (the sausage style was especially popular), as well as spindle backs. There were even chairs with wainscot. Queen Anne and Chippendale chairs in walnut, cherry, and maple echoed the prevailing winds in England. As America gained its independence, a newfound interest in classicism morphed into the Federal style, championed by furniture maker Duncan Phyfe.

The 19th century brought Victorian furniture to American shores, but there were indigenous designs, too. Chief among them were the Shakers, whose ladder-back, cane-seat rockers are contemporary classics. Windsor chairs were a British invention, but dispensing with the splat and building a low-back Windsor was a purely stateside contribution to the form.

Another 19th-century style of note was Biedermeier of Germany. Biedermeier chairs combined the klismos-style legs of the ancient Greeks with mahogany veneers and caned seats. It was also the century of Thonet, whose bentwood furniture designs have changed little in the 150 years since they were first introduced, and Stickley, whose Mission Oak chairs were a hallmark of the budding Arts and Crafts movement that greeted the 20th century.

Chairs evolved yet again with the arrival of Art Deco. Now manufacturing processes permitted designers to shape woods and materials to fit the prevailing aesthetic. Key designers included Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Maurice Jallot, who produced chairs upholstered in leather and fine fabric accented by exotic hardwoods.

Molded laminates, steel framing, and chrome also begin to enter the vernacular, as designers from Finland’s Alvar Aalto to the Bauhaus’s Marcel Breuer moved furniture design from Streamline Moderne to pure Modern. Other pre-war designers include Ludwig Mies van de Rohe, Jean Prouvé, and Eileen Gray, whose Bibendum chair is a cocoon of padded rings on a base of chrome-plated steel.

At mid-century, the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Ray Eames produced chairs of molded plywood and fiberglass for the Herman Miller Furniture Company. Some of these chairs were mounted to static metal legs, others were fitted to be compact rockers. A few years later, Scandinavian Arne Jacobsen designed the Series 7 Chair, whose single piece of molded plywood on a steel-tube base is a wonder of economy and style.

But perhaps the most influential chair designer of the mid-century-modern period was Hans Wegner. His JH 501, a low-backed teak-and-cane number, was so iconic (and imitated), it became known simply as The Chair.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Chipstone

Chipstone

This beautiful site showcases the collection of Stanley and Polly Stone of Fox Point, Wisconsin, consisting of earl… [read review or visit site]

EamesCollector.com

EamesCollector.com

Steven Cabella's personal homage to Charles and Ray Eames. This site is as clean and visually appealing as the Eame… [read review or visit site]

Work of Charles and Ray Eames

Work of Charles and Ray Eames

This Library of Congress microsite is an overview of the postwar modern design work of Charles (1907-78) and Ray (1… [read review or visit site]

Herman Miller Consortium Collection

Herman Miller Consortium Collection

This website showcases several hundred pieces of furniture, held by thirteen museums, that were designed for Herman… [read review or visit site]

Modernism

Modernism

This archived overview produced by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts offers thumbnail sketches of the design moveme… [read review or visit site]

Buffalo Architecture and History

Buffalo Architecture and History

Chuck LaChiusa's wonderful guide to the architecture and history of Buffalo, NY, also happens to host an impressive… [read review or visit site]

Kentucky Online Arts Resource

Kentucky Online Arts Resource

This huge online database from the Speed Art Museum is a rich trove of beautiful photos and reference information o… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Matching Set: Plycraft Chairs Bentwood & Padded Mid CenturyEames Herman Miller Fiberglass Chair With Walnut Dowel Base From $1 No Reserve!Pr. Important 18th C Antique Chinese Silk Brocade Textile Chair Covers QianlongPair Mid-century Modern Herman Miller Seafoam Green Side Shell Fiberglass ChairHerman Miller La Fonda Eames Shell ChairVintage Leather Charles Eames Herman Miller Soft Pad Chair Mid-century Modern Nr18th C Black Small Child Wooden Wood Make Do Chair In Linsey Woolsey FabricMid Century Danish Modern Craft Assoc Adrian Pearsall Sofa & Matching Chair!!!Antique Victorian Silver Plate Napkin Ring, Middletown Co. Figural Chair, 'emma'Solid Sterling Silver Miniature Music Chair Pin Cushion (blue Cushion)Lollipop Oak Platform Rocker By George Hunzinger (1835–1898) Arts & Crafts !Theo A Kochs Barber ChairOriginal Vitra Verner Panton Chair In RedAntique Child's Barber Chair4 Eero Saarinen 1960's Knoll Label Swivel Dining Chairs Mid Century Modern Antique Barber ChairEmil J. Paidar Headrest, "the Radiap" Barber Chair Part5 Herman Miller Eames Fiberglass Shell Chairs Mcm Orange As Is- Repair 1970sVintage 8 Chair Seats Needlepoint ~ Floral DesignsVintage Industrial Drafting Bar/kitchen Stool Chair Metal/wood Adjustable HeightPrimitive Wood Rocking Chair Crackle Country Farmhouse DecorRare Vintage Adrian Pearsall High Back Lounge Chair, With Ottoman!Vintage Mcm Charles Eames Orange Herman Miller Fiberglass Side Shell ChairAntique Chinese Red Silk Chair Cover- Hand Embroidered Couched Gold & Silk Work2 ~ Rare Original Storkline Furniture Co. Us Military Wwii Wood Folding Chairs Great Antiqueyouth Rocking Chair With Carpetbag Backing And SeatAntique Barber Booster ChairBrown Leather Tubular Chrome Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair Mcm Knoll Studio Two ~ Fabulous Vintage Hand Embroidered Chair Backs/panel ~raised Embroidery Collection Old Copper Carving Buddha Sit Dragon Chair Wealth Auspicious Statues23777: Kittinger Colonial Williamsburg Deep Burgundy Leather Mahogany Wing ChairAntique 1920's Theo-a-kocks Barber ChairHarry Bertoia, Diamond Chair2 Vintage Eames/ Herman Miller Black Dat-1 Fiberglass Arm Chair -swivels & Tilts2 Matching Vintage 1960's Mid Century Chairs Floral Upholstered Lounge Chairs 1960's Vintage Blue Rex Stroll O Chair Vintage Danish Teak Sewing Chair - Excellent !!!Pair Matching Vintage Empire Chairs OriginalVintage Herman Miller Eames Fiberglass Shell Chair FeetVintage Solid Silver + Straw Chair Miniature - Dollhouse - Stamped - Italian12 Antique French Henri Ii Style Caned Oak Dining Chairs C. 1890 Retail $2000 Paidar Barber Chair Headrest Eastlake Settee 4 Piece Set Red Velvet Parlor Furniture Chairs And CouchVintage Solid Silver Chair Miniature - Stamped - Dollhouse - Italian MadeCollectible Handwork Copper Carve Buddha Sit Dragon Chair Exorcism Lucky StatuesChair Gothic Antique Dark Mahogany. C12pics4size. Ships Greyhound $79 Place Bids 50s Original Box Instructions Babee Tenda, Child's Safety Chair And Play Table.Drexel - 8 Blond Wood Chairs Dg1007 Local Pickup Or Send Your ShipperVintage Mahogany Wood Swivel Office Desk ChairRare Vintage Danish Slatted Folding ChairsVintage Ironrite Health Chair Herman H. Sperlich Early One Wood Seat And BackAntique Ornate Cast Iron Item W/ Name Klimes From Stove?barber Chair? Register?French American Antique Art Deco Nouveau Club Chair Circa 1920 Ny Mahogany CigarBelmont Electric Barber Chair - Perfect ConditionPair Ethan Allen Georgian Court Cherry Dining Room Side ChairsVintage Upholstered Desk Office Chair Naugahyde Wood Banker Lawyer BarristerAntique Bow Back Chair For A Secretary Desk Early Hand Made Wooden Child's Rocking Chair - Amish?Herman Miller Aluminum Chair BaseVintage Antique Dark Wood Wooden Windsor Style Back Arm Chair