Adam Bowett, The British Chair

May 8, 2015 by CTF Editor

The chair is a universal object of the Western world. Its function is immediately apparent and its use is embedded in Western society and culture. But function and use are only part of the story, for all historic chairs are also direct links to the past, to the craftsmen who made them and the people who sat in them. This collection of one hundred chairs celebrates a wonderful diversity of British chairs, their designers, their makers, and their owners.

The human form imposes obvious constraints on chair design, so chairs of all types and periods share a few basic characteristics. For instance, since the middle of the seventeenth century, almost all British and European chairs have had a seat about 17 inches (42cm) high. This is the height at which an average person sits with his or her feet on the floor. The height of the chair, in turn, determined the height of a table, typically 28–30 inches (70–75cm) since the late seventeenth century. Given the unvarying ergonomic demands of the human form, it is remarkable to witness the variety of chair types and styles made over the centuries. This variety of chair types is also a tribute to the ingenuity and fertility of chair designers and chair makers, as well as a reflection of the changing social and aesthetic priorities of chair owners. For a chair is not just a thing for sitting on; it is an object imbued with meaning in a way that most other furniture is not.

The changing cultural role of chairs has had a profound impact on their use, and the English language has a unique way of conveying the nuances of culture and status in relation to seat furniture, because of the many different names it has for seats. The word ‘chair’ derives from the French chaise, the language of the Norman conquerors of 1066. Hence, chairs were high-status objects for important people, a notion that is explicit in contemporary descriptive terms such as ‘great chair’. In some houses there might be only one such chair, while the rest of the seats were stools. The word ‘stool’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon stol, originally meaning any chair or seat (as it still does in modern German). But Anglo-Saxon was the language of the medieval underdog, and so the word ‘stool’ was applied to low-status seats without backs or arms. The head of the household therefore used a chair, but his family and servants sat on stools.

Further nuances of status were conveyed by variations in decoration, by the quality or type of upholstery, and by size. The householder’s wife and daughters, for instance, might sit in ‘low’, ‘little’, or ‘ladies’ chairs, clearly better than stools, but not so important as a great chair. As late as 1700, chairs without arms were called backstools, a term that described both their armless form and their status relative to a chair with arms. At the opposite end of the scale were chairs of estate or thrones, which were the grandest chairs of all, larger and more richly decorated than any other. Chairs of estate were reserved for monarchs, great nobles, and prelates. Although these hierarchic distinctions have now almost completely disappeared, we nevertheless retain vestiges of old usage in modern words such as ‘chairman’, denoting the titular head of an organisation.

The history of chair design is also the history of domestic comfort. A plain board will make a seat, but a seat with a back or, better still, with a back and arms begins to afford comfort. But comfort comes at a price, and in earlier times the mere possession of a chair was a sign of ease and, by implication, of relative affluence. As late as the nineteenth century chairs were a luxury in the poorest British homes, which were often furnished only with old chairs acquired second or third hand, or seats crudely made from the cheapest materials. The wooden Windsor chair, which furnished thousands of British homes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was originally devised as a garden chair for the well-todo, and only Victorian industrialisation enabled it to be made cheaply enough for working people to buy.

Upholstery adds comfort but also expense. Until the advent of cheap upholstery materials in the late nineteenth century, upholstery of any kind was disproportionately expensive because of the high cost of cloth. This was not just a matter of cloth for the top cover, but also of featherdown and horsehair, tow, wadding and webbing, fringes, and nails. In medieval times cloth, particularly rich and decorative cloth, was so valuable that fixed upholstery was a rarity. Cloth was a movable luxury, and in the form of cushions and covers it could be carried with its owner from house to house and applied to whatever wooden seat was available. The act of nailing cloth to a frame was therefore quite a statement, and the earliest British chairs with surviving original upholstery, which date from the mid-sixteenth century, are of the folding, portable type—too valuable, in other words, to leave sitting around.

The increasing incidence of upholstery in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries testifies to a number of things: greater disposable wealth, cheaper consumer goods of all kinds, a more settled society, and, always, the desire for comfort. The sofa and the easy chair, two innovations of the late seventeenth century, illustrate these themes perfectly. They were both created with comfort in mind, and both were hugely expensive when first introduced. By 1800, however, sofas and easy chairs (or wing chairs as they are now called) could be found even in middle-class homes. The widespread introduction of the coiled upholstery spring in the early nineteenth century, together with mass-produced cotton and other coverings, ultimately brought upholstered comfort within the reach of all but the poorest. In the twentieth-first century almost nobody sits on plain wooden seats, and every home has its cushioned three-piece suite.

Construction has a significant impact on chair design. Primitive or hedgerow chairs were made by unskilled workmen with a minimum of tools, and the result was usually both crude and uncomfortable. In skilled hands, however, ‘primitive’ construction could achieve real sophistication. The unique style of a Windsor chair arises directly from its structure, using the seat as the principal structural member into which all other parts are fixed. This is not joinery, nor is it turnery, although a lathe was often used. It has more in common with wheelwright’s work than any other trade.

A chair made by a turner looked different from one made by a joiner because of the different tools and methods used to work the wood. The speed and simplicity of the turner’s work allowed a high output, but the range of designs he could produce was limited. The joiner had a much greater number and variety of tools capable of accurately shaping wood and jointing it precisely. A joined chair was therefore a more sophisticated object, visually related by its structure to a host of other household objects also produced by the joiner—beds, tables, cupboards, doors, fireplaces, and panelling. As chair design moved away from the boxy formality of the early seventeenth century towards the more curvaceous forms of the late seventeenth century baroque, so the joiner combined with the turner and the carver to create highly wrought frames for rich upholstery. Chair-making thus became a trade in itself, distinct both from routine joinery and from cabinet-making. Thomas Sheraton remarked: ‘Chair-making is a branch generally confined to itself . . . it requires a particular turn in the handling of shapes, to make them agreeable and easy’.

In stylistic terms British chairs developed within the wider context of European art and design—and France, in particular—was highly influential. The plain British backstool was derived from French chairs of the early seventeenth century, and the later seventeenth century horsebone or scrolled-leg chair was a development of a fashionable fauteuil that emerged in Paris in the 1670s. But Britain also made some original contributions to European chair design; the cane chair, developed in London in the 1660s, achieved enormous popularity in Continental Europe and North America, and London’s cane-chair makers claimed that about one-third of their production was exported. Although this may be an exaggeration, there is no doubting the cane chair’s success as a British innovation—in some European countries they were known simply as ‘English chairs’. Another highly significant British design, created in the early eighteenth century, was the chair we now know as the Queen Anne chair, more properly called the ‘banister-back’ or ‘India-back’ chair. This was a synthesis of British, French, and Chinese elements that combined strength, simplicity, elegance, and comfort in one harmonious whole. It was widely copied in Europe and North America, and Queen Anne chairs are still made today.

With the advent of the Gothic Revival in the early nineteenth century Britain moved to the forefront of European art and design. In the eighteenth century ‘Gothic’ had been merely a decorative concept, a variation on the more common French and Chinese styles of the mid-century rococo, but in the nineteenth century it became a national passion, underpinned by a strong religious and moral philosophy. Although much Gothic Revival furniture was derivative, the best was revolutionary and, ironically, entirely modern in its robust simplicity. The Reformed Gothic style championed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852) laid the foundation for the Arts and Crafts movement of the later nineteenth century, perhaps the most influential British design school of all. Arts and Crafts, together with its predecessors the Gothic Revival and the Aesthetic Movement, transformed attitudes and ideas both in Britain and abroad, and produced genuine innovation. This happened because furniture design was taken out of the hands of furniture-makers and given to professional architects and designers, men such as Christopher Dresser (1834–1904), E.W. Godwin (1833–1886), Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928), and Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857–1941). Unconstrained by traditional approaches to materials and construction, these visionaries created radical new forms that paved the way for Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and even Modernism.

Arts and Crafts had two faces, one radical and the other traditional. For some practitioners ‘Craft’ was more important than ‘Art’; they believed that only through a return to traditional crafts skills, using traditional materials, could a true revolution in design be achieved. The Cotswold School regarded truth to materials and construction as fundamental to good design. One of its chief sources of inspiration was the vernacular furniture of the British countryside, especially the simple rush-seated chairs made by local chair-makers.

The critical and commercial success of the Cotswold style spawned a host of imitators, with the consequence that alongside genuinely talented and original designers such as Ernest Gimson (1864–1919) and Voysey there arose a host of copyists who sentimentalised furniture design into a maudlin pastiche of Olde England. Amazingly, some are still working successfully today, but a clumsy, ugly chair remains ugly and clumsy, even if handmade, and adding a carved mouse does not make it any more attractive.

Some twentieth-century Arts and Crafts designers attempted to marry the high production standards and vernacular style of the Cotswold School with the new possibilities of the machine age. Ambrose Heal (1872-1959) and Gordon Russell (1892-1980) both had considerable success in this vein, but in the aftermath of the industrialised slaughter of the First World War their designs seemed, to some, sentimental and regressive. To anyone who admired Marcel Breuer’s (1902-1981) Wassily Chair, Gerrit Rietveld’s (1888-1965) Red-Blue Chair, or Mies van der Rohe’s (1886-1969) Barcelona Chair, Russell’s ladder-backs simply looked quaint.

Surely, the more profound legacy of the Arts & Crafts movement came from its radical face, from the nineteenth century architects and designers for whom aesthetics were more important than craft. Beginning in the early 1880’s, new art forms, inspired by nature, emerged in Britain and spawned a style we call Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau is now considered a transitional period between the largely revival and traditional nineteenth century styles and the modernist designs of the twentieth century.

In the second half of the twentieth century tubular steel, aluminium, moulded wood, fibreglass, and plastic dominated fashionable chair design. Working in wood seemed wilfully retardataire. British designers such as Robin Day (1915-2010) responded to the new age with great success, and more than twenty million of his metal and polypropelene stacking chairs have been made. There were some, however, who refused to sign up to the Modernist agenda and who, furthermore, thought that wood’s full potential had yet to be realised. John Makepeace (b.1939) was one of those, and since the 1970s he has been pushing the boundaries of wooden chair design. With each new chair he causes us to reconsider the structural and aesthetic properties of wood without losing sight of the ergonomic essentials of the form. Makepeace’s chairs combine imaginative design, superlative craftsmanship, and technical innovation; he is the most prominent of today’s furniture designers and makers taking British chair-making into the twenty-first century.