In Europe, chairs were relatively uncommon until the 17th century. Before that time, kings, queens, and even clergymen enjoyed elaborate thrones, but, for commoners, chair backs were considered a luxury. Regular folk had to make due with stools and benches at mealtime.
Even in 17th-century America, houses had only a few chairs, reserved for the most senior members of the family. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that homes in America had a separate dining room, which would necessitate a nice dining set with a table and matching chairs.
As the French monarchy of the 1600s and 1700s grew increasingly self-indulgent and frivolous, French chairs became symbols of royal excess and vehicles for flaunting material wealth. During the Baroque and Rococo eras, the French nobility brought in the finest artisans from all over Europe to hand-carve fanciful furniture designs, often gilded, with ornate embellishments that swooped and swirled.
These particular influences spread across Europe and eventually to the American colonies in 1690, when heavy, sturdy, rectilinear chairs were abandoned in favor of William and Mary style chairs, a version of the Baroque style named after English royalty. These richly embellished chairs, with tall, narrow backs, featured caned or leather-upholstered seats, scrolling Spanish feet, and cresting rails carved with scrolls or spirals set on turned stiles.
Rococo came to the United States around 1725 in the Queen Anne style, named after the late ruler. This style emphasized great delicacy and sophistication, as the chairs had down-curving, yoke-shaped top rails, solid vase-shaped splats, and horseshoe-shaped seats. Thanks to French innovations, these chairs also sported curved cabriole legs, inspired by animal hind quarters, which looked elegant and also supported the seat without stretchers.
Taking inspiration from London cabinet-maker Thomas Chippendale, American Rococo chairs got even more airy and ornamental with claw-and-ball feet, carved pierced splats, and yoke-shaped top rails with upturned ears. Another popular Chippendale chair called the ladder-back had a series of scrolled horizontal slats on the back.
Families in the U.S. that were less well-to-do were more likely to have simpler, less-embellished versions of Queen Anne and Chippendale chairs, which were still hand-crafted by ...
One of the most enduring chairs from this period is the Windsor chair, a country chair based on an English design. These cage-like, all-wood chairs are made of turned or whittled spindles, contained by a curving or straight rail on seats shaped to fit the body. The Shaker religious sect also produced high-quality country furniture like Windsor chairs, whose sparse design emphasized function.
After the American Revolution, the florid excesses of Rococo Europe were rejected for a Neoclassical style, which was also favored by Napoleon. These Federal style chairs had backs shaped like ovals or shields with splats carved into a classical motif like urns or feathers. Federal style also included a heavier chair modeled after Egyptian klismos, with a thick, curved top rail and one carved horizontal slat.
During the Victorian era, as manufacturing technologies progressed by leaps and bounds, factories churned out dining chairs that were mostly throwbacks to previous styles. Around 1840, Gothic Revival style chairs were carved with quartrefoils and trefoils, with cathedral-type embellishments like rose window patterns and pointed arches incorporated into the backs.
Meanwhile, Rococo Revival chairs, inspired by Louis XV, featured those curved cabriole legs and upholstered seats and backs with rails featuring roses, leaves, grapes, scrolls, and shells carved in high relief. Renaissance Revival chairs had straighter lines and motifs taken from Louis XVI’s Neoclassicism, which employed architectural elements like columns and arches even though they served no structural purpose.
The 19th century wasn’t totally devoid of creativity, though. German designer Michael Thonet revolutionized chair design in 1830 when he figured out how to bend light, strong wood into curved shapes. With this new technique, he made his simple, lightweight bentwood dining chairs with comfortable, elegantly arching backs. These chairs are still popular around dining tables today. Some artists also made chairs of bark-covered tree stumps, branches, and even animal horn in response to industrialization, while designers influenced by the late-century Art Nouveau movement produced hand-crafted furnishings with more sleek, naturalistic lines.
By the dawn of the 20th century, a full-on rebellion against mass-produced furniture was underway. Led in the U.S. by furniture maker Gustav Stickley, who also published an influential magazine called “The Craftsman,” the Arts & Crafts movement advocated for simpler, hand-crafted furniture.
The most popular of these styles was known as Mission style, based on the furnishings of old Franciscan missions in California. Its rectilinear Mission dining chairs, usually made of oak, were constructed with mortise and tenon joints and featured a series of flat vertical or horizontal bands on the back. Ironically, Mission style furniture was so popular that shoddy versions were soon cheaply manufactured.
With the help of Stickley and his brothers, architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed high-quality Mission style chairs, with high backs made of vertical wooden spindles. He said he liked to come up with his own furniture for his houses because he believed that the interior of the home could affect his clients’ well-being, prompting the House Beautiful movement. The tall Mission style dining chairs he created for his own Oak Park home in 1895 were intended to create a cozy room-within-a-room effect when positioned around the table.
In the 1920s, the Arts & Crafts movement gave way to the Art Deco style coming from France, which favored dramatically streamlined geometric forms. The Bauhaus school took the commentary on industrialization one step further, making chairs out of tubular steel and other factory-made materials.
By the middle of the century, Americans were focused on the future, as they furnished their homes with Space Age-looking dining chairs in bright molded fiberglass. Husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames were responsible for some of the most innovative chair designs of this era, if not the century as a whole.
The Eames’ first chair design in 1945 was a sleek, modern child’s chair, made out of molded birch plywood—only 5,000 of these were produced. The adult version of this chair, known as the Lounge Chair Wood, featured molded plywood that curved to the body and was produced in a limited run of 1,000 by Evans Products before the couple teamed up with Herman Miller. While at Miller, the Eames team put their curved plywood seat and back on a metal frame to create the Dining Chair Metal. This model sold at a rate of 2,000 per month.
Perhaps the Eames’ most famous design, though, is their molded fiberglass chairs, which resembled futuristic eggshells and came in a rainbow of colors. The most sought-after of these were produced from 1950 to 1953 and labeled “Miller-Zenith” on their undersides.
On the other side of the pond, Danish designers, influenced by early innovator Kaare Klint, were coming up with their own Danish Modern takes on the streamlined Modernist style. Hans Wegner and others made delicate curved-back chairs out of woods like teak, his most famous being the Round Chair, also known as “The Chair.” In the ’50s, Arne Jacobsen created his Ant Chair and Model 3107 as riffs on the Dining Chair Metal, while his upholstered Egg Chair was clearly a more luxe spin on the Eames’ molded fiberglass models.