Living in the post-La-Z-Boy era, the concept that chairs once indicated your social class—and were far from comfy—might seem a little ludicrous. But in many ways, the story of how chairs developed throughout history mirrors that of the United States, reflecting this nation's development through the lenses of technology, industry, sociology, and politics.
Early America, like its chair designs, derived from Great Britain and eventually evolved thanks to the work of many underrecognized and underrepresented people. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress and candidate for the presidential nominee of a major party said, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."
While it can be uncomfortable to look back at America's history, using the study of the forms and function of chair design over time as markers, we can more clearly see how events shaped our current world.
Using Robert Charles Bishop's "Centuries and styles of the American chair, 1640-1970" and news articles, Living Spaces dove into the story of five chairs whose design and trajectory represent the story of America, from Colonial to contemporary.
For Native Americans and the British colonists who invaded what is now known as the United States of America in 1607, chairs were a rarity, according to Bishop.
As colonists first established footholds in Massachusetts and Connecticut, laborers used stools, whereas "great chairs," like the Wainscot, were used as a sign of authority and were only within the grasp of the higher classes, like the wealthy political and spiritual leaders.
The American Wainscot chair was a prototype of an English version and was more architectural than comfortable. It had a flat, wooden seat and ornately carved back paneling. At the time, oak was a go-to material.
The number of colonists grew into the millions in 1776, from about 104 British settlers initially. Also increasing was resentment toward the British crown, which was still taxing colonists, but denying them representation in government. That year, Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence—a document that would plant the seed for an America free of British interference—in a Windsor chair.
At the time, Windsor chairs were what Bishop called "the universal chair of the 18th century." Jefferson and many other Founding Fathers used the chairs. In 1787, the war had been won, and Benjamin Franklin and other members of the Continental Congress sat in these chairs to write the Constitution outlining the design of the new nation.
Despite its birth in England, the Windsor form was streamlined and perfected in its colony, America, according to the Spruce Crafts. Gone was the elaborate design on the chair back; its spindles were also more slender than English designs. Some models featured a continuous arm, and the chair arms and the back rim are one single, bent wood piece. With its sturdy design and simple spindle back, the chair continues to evoke connotations of simplicity and reliability and is widely popular today.
After the states were united, by 1861, the Civil War erupted between the North and South over the abolition of slavery and support for an agrarian economy (based on slave labor) versus industrialization. An era of Reconstruction came and went from 1863 to 1877.
In the meantime, America continued to emerge as an industrial giant with new technologies like the steam engine, machine tools, and the factory system, enabling American manufacturers' mass production of Michael Thonet's bentwood chair from 1851.
First developed by Thonet in Boppard, Germany, and then Vienna, Austria, these chairs were made in parts, shipped to their destinations, and assembled with screws. The curves of the chair—made with steamed and bent wood—were eye-catching and more affordable than artisan-made seating.
By the 1880s, factory-manufactured chairs like these finally made it common for each family member to have their own chair at dinner. Thonet's legacy can be still be seen in every bistro chair at the simplest cafes to the highest-rated restaurants.
By the 1950s, Americans had emerged from the Great Depression and two World Wars with a robust industrial infrastructure. World War II, in particular, helped bolster the urgency around production. Already the world's largest manufacturer, America's industrial production doubled in size in response to the war, according to PBS.
The country's industrial system also inspired Ray and Charles Eames, who realized that the way to provide seating for the most people at a reasonable price would be through manufacturing. The duo developed a machine that could mold plywood, intending to apply it to furniture design.
As the war gradually made clear the need for a splint used by the military, the couple pivoted the application of their machine, honing a shaped plywood production process that would churn out some 150,000 splints, according to the Eames Institute.
Their research and consequent machinery would lay the groundwork for the firm's famed designs, shaping the midcentury look and feel, including the Eames molded plywood lounge chairs and dining chairs. Stripped of design, streamlined, and focused on function, Eames chairs were versatile and could fit in any room in the modern home.
World War II was the catalyst for many leaps in ergonomic technology, from cockpit design to the way work happened in factories. Still, it wasn't until furniture manufacturer Herman Miller invited William Stumpf to apply his decades of research on ergonomics was introduced to a larger audience.
Miller's collaboration with Stumpf resulted in the Ergon chair, first manufactured in 1976. The chair, which used a height-adjustable seat and molded foam for comfort and posture support, followed President Nixon's push for workplace safety with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act passed in 1970. The agency would also look into ergonomics to create a healthy workplace environment, among many issues.
Stumpf would later partner with Donald Chadwick to develop what is now a famed office chair, the Aeron Chair, which debuted in 1994. The mesh-backed chair was markedly customizable to a person's body, able to recline or lean forward. It also featured lumbar support and was sold in three sizes—small, medium, and large—for various body types.
Though first developed for older people, the chair's weird look soon became a signifier of its out-of-the-box engineering and found a market with Silicon Valley dwellers in the dot-com boom. In today's hybrid and work-from-home environment, workers aspire to these chairs that promise supreme comfort.
Additional writing and story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Kristen Wegrzyn.