Chairs hold a special place in the history of design: they embody a synthesis of creativity, functionality, art and engineering. Some have even taken on cult status, and become art objects in themselves. Let’s take a look at the 10 most influential and iconic chairs throughout history.
The History of Chair Designs
Chairs are known from Ancient Egypt and have been widespread in the Western world from the Greeks and Romans onwards. They were in common use in China from the twelfth century, and were used by the Aztecs. In Sub-Saharan Africa, chairs were not in use before introduced by Europeans. A wealth of depictions of chairs of various types has survived, from stools, benches, chairs, and thrones, both in the form of art and from extant examples preserved thanks to the dry environment of the tombs. Interestingly, it’s worth noting that these ancient chairs were built to stand much lower than modern examples, sometimes only 10 inches (25 cm) at the seat.
Archeologists have found evidence of their use as early as the 2nd Dynasty of Egypt of the Early Dynastic Period. An example of a 2nd Dynasty depiction of a chair, or perhaps more aptly a throne, is shown in the statuette of Pharaoh Nynetjer (c.2785-2742 BC) in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. Egyptian chairs were constructed with a variety of materials with wood often as the base material. For extra comfort, seats could be outfitted with cordage, as well as covered with cloth or leather. Luxurious examples included rich iconography (with a popular feature being the legs of the chair terminating as the paws of a beast) and costly materials, such as ebony, gold gilt, or inlays of precious gems, ivory, and vibrantly colored glass. Examples that attest to the heights of ancient Egyptian craftsmanship include the thrones of King Tutankhamun.
In Europe, it was owing in great measure to the Renaissance that the chair ceased to be a mark of high office, and became the customary companion of whoever could afford to buy it. Once the idea of privilege faded the chair speedily came into general use. We find almost at once began to reflect the fashions of the hour. No piece of furniture has ever been so close an index to sumptuary changes. It has varied in size, shape and sturdiness with the fashion not only of women’s dress but of men’s also. Thus the chair which was not, even with its arms purposely suppressed, too ample during the several reigns of some form or other of hoops and farthingale, became monstrous when these protuberances disappeared. Again, the costly laced coats of the dandy of the 18th and early 19th centuries were so threatened by the ordinary form of seat that a “conversation chair” was devised, which enabled the buck and the ruffler to sit with his face to the back, his valuable tails hanging unimpeded over the front. The early chair almost invariably had arms, and it was not until towards the close of the 16th century that the smaller form grew common.
The majority of the chairs of all countries until the middle of the 17th century were of timber (the commonest survival is oak)without upholstery, and when it became customary to cushion them, leather was sometimes employed; subsequently velvet and silk were extensively used, and at a later period cheaper and often more durable materials. . In Abraham Bosse’s engraving (illustration, left), a stylish Parisian musical party of about 1630 have pulled their low chairs (called “backstools” in contemporary England) away from the tapestry-hung walls where they were normally lined up. The padded back panels were covered with needlework panels to suit the tapestries, or in other settings with leather, plain or tooled. Plain cloth across the back hid the wooden framing. Stools with column legs complement the set, but aren’t en suite. In seventeenth century France the bergère chair became fashionable among the nobility and was often made of walnut. Leather was not infrequently used even for the costly and elaborate chairs of the faldstool form—occasionally sheathed in thin plates of silver—which Venice sent all over Europe. To this day, indeed, leather is one of the most frequently employed materials for chair covering. The outstanding characteristic of most chairs until the middle of the 17th century was massiveness and solidity. Being usually made of oak, they were of considerable weight, and it was not until the introduction of the handsome Louis XIII chairs with cane backs and seats that either weight or solidity was reduced.
Although English furniture derives so extensively from foreign and especially French and Italian models, the earlier forms of English chairs owed but little to exotic influences. This was especially the case down to the end of the Tudor period, after which France began to set her mark upon the British chair. The squat variety, with heavy and sombre back, carved like a piece of panelling, gave place to a taller, more slender, and more elegant form, in which the framework only was carved, and attempts were made at ornament in new directions. In the late 1760s in Paris the first Parisian neoclassical chairs were made, even before the accession of Louis XVI, whose name is attached to the first phases of the style. Straight tapering fluted legs joined by a block at the seat rail and architectural mouldings, characterize the style, in which each element is a discrete entity. Louis Delanois, Jean-Claude Sené and Georges Jacob were three leading chairmakers in the 1770s and 80s. The art nouveau school produced chairs of simplicity. The Arts and Crafts movement produced heavy, straight lined, minimally ornamented chairs. One of the most famous of those chairs is the Michael Thonet bentwood No. 14 chair (bistro chair), created in 1859. It has revolutionized the industry and is still being produced today.The 20th century saw an increasing use of technology in chair construction with such things as all-metal folding chairs, metal-legged chairs, the Slumber Chair, moulded plastic chairs and ergonomic chairs, recliner chairs (easy chair), butterfly chair, beanbag chairs, the egg or pod chair, plywood and laminate wood chairs, and massage chairs. Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen also designed chairs to match the design of their buildings.
The 10 Most Iconic Chairs
1. Verner Panton Stacking Chair
The groundbreaking first single-form, single-material injection-molded chair that even stacks. Put it in any room, anywhere—it’s never failed to look great. Designed around 1960 but not in full-scale production until 1968, it reeks of the Swinging ’60s in all the right ways. Look closely at how Panton engineered it to keep its structural integrity. The Panton Chair is a classic in the history of furniture design. Conceived by Verner Panton in 1959, the chair was developed for serial production in collaboration with Vitra (1967). It was the first all-plastic chair made in one piece with a cantilever design. Since its introduction to the market, it has advanced through several production phases. Only since 1999 has it been possible to manufacture the chair in accordance with its original conception – out of durable, dyed-through plastic with a lustrous matt finish.
Panton made a series of sketches and design drawings for the Panton Chair in the 1950s. In 1960, he created his first model, a plaster-cast, in collaboration with Dansk Akrylteknik. In the mid-1960s, he met Willi Fehlbaum from the furniture manufacturer Vitra who, unlike many other producers, was fascinated with the drawings of his legless chair in plastic rather than wood, the favoured material of the times. Working closely with Fehlbaum, Panton produced a cold-pressed model using polyester strengthened with fibreglass. For the first time, an entire chair had been designed in one piece, without any legs. It became known as a free-swinger. The first rather heavy model, which required substantial finishing work, was subsequently improved and adapted to industrial production using thermoplastic polystyrene which led to a marked reduction in cost. In 1968, Vitra initiated serial production of the final version which was sold by the Herman Miller Furniture Company. The material used was Baydur, a high-resilience polyurethane foam produced by Bayer in Leverkusen, Germany. It was offered in several colors.
The comfort of this chair results from the combination of a cantilever structure with an anthropomorphic shape and a slightly flexible material. It can be used individually or in groups and is suited for indoor and outdoor environments. The Panton Chair has received numerous international design awards and is represented in the collections of many prominent museums. Due to its expressive form, it has become an icon of the twentieth century.
2. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe “Barcelona”
The Rolex and Rolls-Royce of 20th-century chairs. The Barcelona Chair achieves the serenity of line and the refinement of proportions and materials characteristic of Mies van der Rohe’s highly disciplined architecture. It is supported on each side by two chrome-plated, flat steel bars. Seen from the side, the single curve of the bar forming the chair’s back and front legs crosses the S-curve of the bar forming the seat and back legs, making an intersection of the two. This simple shape derives from a long history of precedents, from ancient Egyptian folding stools to nineteenth-century neoclassical seating. The cantilevered seat and the back of the original chairs were upholstered in white kid leather with welt and button details.
Mies van der Rohe designed this chair for his German Pavilion at the Barcelona Exposition of 1929. The Pavilion was the site of the inaugural ceremony for the German exhibits at the exposition, and the Spanish king was to preside. It had to be an “important chair, a very elegant chair,” according to the architect. “The government was to receive a king. . . . The chair had to be . . . monumental. In those circumstances, you just couldn’t use a kitchen chair.” Although only two Barcelona chairs were made for the German Pavilion, the design was put into production and became so popular that, with the exception of one sixteen-year period, it has been manufactured since 1929.
3. Le Corbusier “Grand Confort”
Co-designed by Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, the Grand Confort is just a clever way to contain some cushions in an open frame. Or a “cushion basket,” as Corbu himself referred to it. With its chrome exoskeleton, the plush classic is the ultimate time-tripper: It channels the ’30s and the ’70s and whenever else people desired a pure and comfortable distillation of the International Style.
Most of us remember him as an architect, many admire his designs, yet few regard Le Corbusier in the way in which he saw himself: as an artist. But Jean-Louis Cohen, the author of Le Corbusier Le Grand, certainly does. “From the first exhibition of his paintings at the Galerie Thomas in Paris, in 1918, Le Corbusier never ceased throughout his life to insist on being recognized as an artist,” he writes in the new paperback version of Le Corbusier Le Grand. “In purely quantitative terms, his output as an artist was substantial. He made more than four hundred paintings, eight thousand drawings, twenty-seven cartoons for tapestries, and forty four sculptures.”
He declared that painting, which he did every morning, was the ‘secret laboratory’ in which he worked out many of the forms for his architectural projects, but he endeavoured to make it an autonomous activity, and until 1930 he even signed his canvases with his original name Charles Edouard Jeanneret rather than his assumed one Le Corbusier. Some of these works were simple landscapes or watercolours of classic buildings; others took on the early styles of Modernism; and other still, such as the picture above served as plans for much better-known works. In this case, his Grand Confort chair.
Perriand and Le Corbusier worked on these drawings over the following two years, refining the designs, which he dubbed – “machines for sitting in”, echoing his more famous line, “A house is a machine to live in.” The most famous finished product is, of course, the Grand Confort line of cube-like club chairs, that Le Corbusier and Perriand debuted at the 1929 Salon d’Automne in Paris. Today, the Grand Confort still makes for a handsome inclusion in a modern lounge, yet there’s real beauty too, in this early, surpringly colourful sketch.
4. Thonet “209”
One of the most crucial innovations in the time line of the modern chair is the invention of a process that allowed wood to be bent with steam. The importance of the curvilinear furniture masterminded and made by Michael Thonet and his company at the turn of the 20th century cannot be underestimated. Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos, among others, designed for Thonet, but the 209 armchair is the icon for modernists. Back when Le Corbusier was doing his avant-garde early architecture, what did he choose to put in almost all of his buildings? A Thonet 209 armchair. It was the only chair he felt was as modern as his architecture, and it still beguiles us to this day.
Thonet, which was founded by Philipp Thonet’s great, great grandfather Michael Thonet in 1819, first produced the 209 chair at the turn of the 20th century. After the death of the founder Michael, his sons created new work processes and developed new machines to further develop designs and manufacture innovative new pieces of furniture. The design of the 209 Pure Materials Armchair with Wickerwork so impressed the Swiss architect Le Corbusier that he based many of his buildings on its form. Traditionally, the 209 chair is made from beech with a rattan seat. Thonet also produces a version of the chair with a padded seat and this year has been experimenting with upholstering it with a new material by flooring company Bolon. The chair, while getting updated constantly, is a timeless classic that has become a staple of French bistros.
5. Eero Saarinen “Tulip”
A tectonic design shift occurred overnight when Saarinen revealed his attempt at a single-material, single-form chair, which blew up the notion that a chair had to stand on four posts. He had finally solved his long desire to clean up, as he called it, the “slum of legs.” The result was epic and also as majestically fluid and beautiful as, well, a tulip.
Saarinen had hoped to produce the chair as a one piece unit made entirely of fiberglass, but this material was not able to support the base, and prototypes were prone to breakage. As a result, the base of the tulip chair is of cast aluminum with a rilsan-coated finish to match the upper shell, giving the appearance of a single unit. The upper shell is molded fiberglass, with a reinforced, plastic bonded finish. The upholstered foam cushion is removable with Velcro fastening. Saarinen was awarded a patent for the Tulip chair in 1960. he use of fiberglass was very innovative at the time, and the material provided a lot of flexibility with formal expression. This allowed Saarinen to achieve a fluently organic piece. Its overall form is evocative of a flower that seems to grow out of the ground. To emphasize the unity of the piece, both the base and the shell are finished in a similar way.
6. Marcel Breuer “B32/Cesca”
Two important milestones in the history of modern furniture are Breuer’s profoundly influential chairs: the Wassily and the B32/Cesca. Fascinated by bicycle handlebars, Breuer and Mart Stam used non-reinforced tubular steel to pretty much invent the 20th-century modern chair. Though the Wassily is more sculptural, more abstract and complicated, the B32/Cesca was the real game changer: It offered a comfortable bounce and seemed to float a human being on air. As if all that weren’t enough, Breuer also designed the former Whitney Museum in New York, now known in respect as the Met Breuer. The B32 side chair was designed by Marcel Breuer for Thonet in 1927.These original Thonet chairs are made of chrome-plated tubular steel, black lacquered bentwood and cane. For this design, Breuer was inspired by the cantilever chair of Mart Stam, who designed it already in 1926.The first producer of the B32 was Thonet, starting in 1927.Later in the 1950s, Gavina also started making them with Breuer’s blessing and participation. Gavina was the first to name the chair the “Cesca,” after Breuer’s daughter, Francesca.
There is no question that the Knoll version of this chair is of obviously better quality than many, though not all, of the many knock-offs. Knoll “Cesca” chairs which lack a label cannot be easily identified with certainty by someone who has not had the experience of handling many “Cescas”, genuine and not, over the years. But there are details to look out for, which mark a better “Cesca” from a lesser one. Although, at this point, the original chairs are quite expensive. It may make more sense for most to just go with a good quality knock off.
7. Charles & Ray Eames “Lounge & Ottoman” and “LCW”
Lounge & Ottoman: If you really look, you’ll see it’s simply a luxurious progression of their earlier bent-plywood experiments—but with leather inserts and padding, swivels and tilts, sort of like a catcher’s mitt inside a plywood shell. The Eames Lounge now epitomizes sexy midcentury executive style, masculinity, and comfort. The most collectible models are, like this one, vintage rosewood. Charles and Ray Eames had ideas about making a better world, one in which things were designed to bring greater pleasure to our lives. Their iconic Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman (1956) began with a desire to create a chair with “the warm, receptive look of a well-used first baseman’s mitt.” The result embodies what it really means to lounge. In continuous production since its introduction, this set is widely considered one of the most significant designs of the 20th century. Combining soft, inviting leather, mohair, or fabric with the sleek form of molded wood, the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman is the culmination of the Eameses’ efforts to create a club chair using the molded plywood technology they pioneered in the ’40s. Even today, each piece is assembled by hand to ensure the highest level of quality and craftsmanship, and you’ll be pleased to discover the set gets even better with use and age.
LCW: For sheer historical importance, the LCW (Lounge Chair Wood) and its variations have to make the cut. They were the results of Years of experimentation that came out of the Eameses’ research into developing a machine (nicknamed the “Kazam” as in “Alakazam—like magic!”) that could mold plywood into compound forms. Their invention was first used during World War II for creating clever lightweight leg splints for the battlefield—and eventually, after the war, for their famed plywood chair, which is now a true icon of 20th-century design.
Designed by Charles Eames and first manufactured by the Evans Molded Plywood Division, the chair has long gained classic status. The techniques used to make these unique chairs had been developed during the war years and was evident in the Eames Splint, made for and utilized by the US Navy. The Eames LCW Plywood Chair is constructed of five layers of plywood, glued and heated using a specialist machine, in order to bend the wood into the form of the design. By 1946, four plywood adult chairs had been developed for market release as well as the child’s nested chair. The Eames LCW Side Chair had a dining height sister chair (DCW) and the two were replicated with metal bases in the DCM and LCM. The group as a whole would soon become known as the ‘Eames Chairs’ and was marketed as such through the early 50’s. The LCW was a wonderful fusion of five separate molded plywood forms. The support was made up of two curved legs of different sizes and a formed spine. The back rest and seat were then fixed to the support via rubber shock mounts kept largely from view. The result was a chair of visual beauty and something of a revelation for the post war period.
8. Eames Molded Plastic Side Chair
9. Wishbone Chair, Hans Wegner
Considered one of the most famous symbols of Danish furniture design, the CH24 is also known as the Wishbone Chair. Globally admired, its elegant, curved frame is often spotted in the world’s best restaurants and hotels as well as in private homes all over the world. When creating the iconic Wishbone Chair in 1944, Hans Wegner was inspired by a painting of Danish merchants in Ming Chairs. Since then, it’s become a mainstay in stylish dining rooms and offices alike. The Wishbone Chair might look simple, but it actually requires over 100 manufacturing steps.
It has been in continuous production at Carl Hansen & Søn since 1950, coveted by generations for its simplicity, organic shape and timelessness. Seemingly, the universal appeal of the Wishbone Chair is its ability to become part of any home, anywhere. The combination of solid wood and the hand-woven paper cord seat is a physical manifestation of Carl Hansen & Søn’s philosophy: the finest craftsmanship and quality materials imbued with a unique story. From 1943 to 1945, Wegner designed a series of chairs inspired by the thrones of Chinese Emperors. The 1949 CH24 chair is the most recent and precise example of this inspiration. The chair became known as the ‘Wishbone’ thanks to its Y-shaped back that not only supports the backrest, but is also comfortable yet minimal – the antithesis of the rigid, heavy backrests of traditional dining chairs.The CH24 also represents a deeply-rooted part of the Carl Hansen & Søn philosophy: the passion for woodwork. Wegner was a cabinetmaker first and a designer second and he had both a persistent curiosity about the potential of materials and a deep respect for wood and its character.
10. Egg Chair, Arne Jacobson
Did you know designer Arne Jacobsen perfected the Egg Chair’s innovative silhouette by experimenting with wire and plaster in his garage? Since then, this sleek style has become the crown jewel of Scandinavian design. Arne Jacobsen designed “The Egg” in 1958, as part of a commission for the SAS Royal Copenhagen Hotel in Denmark. Today, it’s been trademarked as the Egg™ Chair, to differentiate it from the many mid-century lookalikes. It’s still produced in Denmark, by the original manufacturer, Fritz Hansen. Jacobsen’s Egg is a smooth, rounded oval at the back, opening into a winged, organic armchair that nestles the occupant. From certain angles, it certainly has the curve of an egg, but it’s a flexible interpretation of the shape — the chair also owes some of its character to the classic wing-back chair.
Sixty years have passed, and the chair – the original as well as the many knock offs, imitations and hanging variations – is still as popular as ever. In recent decades the Egg Chair has taken on a new role in popular culture, becoming an iconic part of in the reality television series Big Brother as the seat in the much-used diary room, and was even used in a high-end redesign of London and Copenhagen McDonalds branches, according to The New York Times. Its popularity has inevitably been helped by a renewed interest in mid-century furniture design but its ergonomic form and revolutionary shape that hinted at the curves and bubble of the decades to come have ensured it has remained a design classic for over half a century.
While many chairs have played an important role in the history of design, these ten are perhaps the most iconic. Each one innovated with materials and created something entirely new and never seen before. They merge beauty with function, creating a pinnacle of great design.