Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History

Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History

by Witold Rybczynski


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Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History by Witold Rybczynski

Have you ever wondered where rocking chairs came from, or why cheap plastic chairs are suddenly everywhere?

In Now I Sit Me Down, the distinguished architect and writer Witold Rybczynski chronicles the history of the chair from the folding stools of pharaonic Egypt to the ubiquitous stackable monobloc chairs of today. He tells the stories of the inventor of the bentwood chair, Michael Thonet, and of the creators of the first molded-plywood chair, Charles and Ray Eames. He reveals the history of chairs to be a social history—of different ways of sitting, of changing manners and attitudes, and of varying tastes. The history of chairs is the history of who we are. We learn how the ancient Chinese switched from sitting on the floor to sitting in a chair, and how the iconic chair of Middle America—the Barcalounger—traces its roots back to the Bauhaus. Rybczynski weaves a rich tapestry that draws on art and design history, personal experience, and historical accounts. And he pairs these stories with his own delightful hand-drawn illustrations: colonial rockers and English cabrioles, languorous chaise longues, and no-nonsense ergonomic task chairs—they're all here.

The famous Danish furniture designer Hans Wegner once remarked, "A chair is only finished when someone sits in it." As Rybczynski tells it, the way we choose to sit and what we choose to sit on speak volumes about our values, our tastes, and the things we hold dear.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374223212
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/23/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,216,297
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Witold Rybczynski is a writer and an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of How Architecture Works and Mysteries of the Mall and has written about architecture and design for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. Among his award-winning books are Home,The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He is the winner of the 2007 Vincent Scully Prize and the 2014 Design Mind Award from the National Design Awards. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia.

Read an Excerpt

Now I Sit Me Down

From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History

By Witold Rybczynski

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Witold Rybczynski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71335-5


A Tool for Sitting

François Boucher is best known for his idealized paintings of beguiling odalisques and cavorting maidens, and for his languorous portraits of his patroness Madame de Pompadour, but my favorite Boucher is a domestic scene. A pair of women is sitting by a window in a small but elegant room, the boudoir of a Parisian apartment. A servant wearing an apron has just finished pouring hot chocolate from a pewter pot; you can see the steam rising from the cups. He probably brought the drink from a nearby shop, for bunched carelessly on the mantelpiece is the napkin in which the pot was wrapped. The lady of the house, a delicate beauty wearing a morning gown and a makeup cape, is offering a spoonful to her little son. Her companion, a young nursemaid, is holding a baby girl. It is a charming depiction of an intimate family moment — the embodiment of bourgeois domesticity.

Boucher painted Le déjeuner in 1739. He regularly used his wife, Marie-Jeanne, and their children Juste-Nathan and Elisabeth-Victoire as models, and the setting is likely his own home. The room embodies tasteful but not luxurious comfort, and delights in visual effects. The large pier glass set into the paneling above the fireplace reflects a doorway and a divided portiere, or door curtain, a common feature of fashionable homes. The walls are decorated with sea-green crackle-painted paneling and gilded rocaille moldings. The pale morning light pours in through the tall window, but one can imagine the room in the evening, flickering candlelight multiplied by the gilded moldings and the mirror. The rocaille decoration, the chinoiseries, and the shapely mirror frame signal the advent of rococo taste — a new fashion. The decor was likely designed by Boucher himself, for, in addition to being a successful painter, he was also an accomplished decorator.

The boudoir is full of stuff: a delicate red-and-black lacquered tea-table, a gilded console table, a pair of candle sconces, an ormolu wall clock, oriental knickknacks, porcelain cups and saucers. "In effect, the only tokens of history continually available to our senses are the desirable things made by men," observed the Yale art historian George Kubler in his classic The Shape of Time. "Of course, to say that man-made things are desirable is redundant," he continued, "because man's native inertia is overcome only by desire, and nothing gets made unless it is desirable." It was Kubler's thesis that desirable things not only mark the shape of time — in his happy phrase — but whether they are an opera by Rameau, a play by Molière, or a painting by Boucher, they also provide us with a window on the past.

Boucher documented a time when visual delight was combined with practicality. The eighteenth century excelled in furniture, and while the two caned side chairs in the painting are plain by the luxurious standards of the time, they look comfortable and the caning makes them light enough to be easily moved — the furniture arrangement near the window looks like a last-minute improvisation: "Let's have our chocolate over here."

The Humble Stool

Boucher's little boy, who is holding a pull toy in the shape of a little horse — another desirable thing — is sitting on a low stool. Actually, it is a repose-pied, an upholstered footstool, but it serves him perfectly well as a seat. Stools are the simplest form of sitting furniture. There are several in our home: a counter-height stool in the kitchen, a low stool in the bathroom, and a pair in the dressing room. The stool in my study has been piled high with books for months, but that doesn't matter — it's only a stool. Stools probably first saw the light of day as flat slabs of wood with three pegged legs; three because floors were uneven. Simple stools existed — and exist — in all rural cultures; they are easy to make and serve a variety of uses, from peeling potatoes to milking cows.

In seventeenth-century England, the first everyday chairs were called "backstools," because they were stools into which a straight board had been inset to support the sitter's back. Backstools continued to be used throughout the eighteenth century in rural Europe and America, their lack of comfort made up for by the simplicity of their construction. Such primitive chairs were descendants of the fifteenth-century sgabello, a fancy backstool found in the palazzi of Italian noblemen, whose coat of arms often adorned the carved backpiece. A simplified version called a stabelle can still be found in homes and country inns in present-day Alpine regions of Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.

A particular version of the stool that has survived over the centuries is the folding camp stool. Today, such stools are used mainly by fishermen, campers, and weekend painters, but before their adoption as portable seats for recreation, they served a different purpose. Folding campaign stools appear in many Civil War photographs of military encampments. A century earlier, at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, George Washington ordered eighteen folding stools from a Philadelphia upholsterer for his headquarters; one of these stools is on display at the Smithsonian.

The folding camp stool in the L.L. Bean catalog is virtually identical to Washington's stool except that it is made of aluminum tubes and ballistic nylon instead of wood and leather. The ingenious design has persisted because it is hard to improve. Lightweight and easily portable, with intersecting legs that fold flat when not in use but are stable when unfolded, the X-frame ensures that the fabric seat remains taut no matter the weight of the sitter. The design inspired the form of the starkly elegant stool that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed for the German pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. The leather cushion is supported by straps stretched between polished stainless steel X-frames, although the crossed legs do not fold. In addition to four stools, the pavilion contained two chairs of similar design that were reserved for King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugénie of Spain when they formally opened the building.

The furniture arrangement in the Barcelona pavilion followed historical precedent: Napoleon Bonaparte's throne room at the Château de Fontainebleau has two rows of upholstered X-frame stools, or taborets, but only one chair — the emperor's throne. The striking contrast between Napoleon's throne and the lesser stools is a reminder that status and sitting furniture are never far apart. Throughout history, grander, taller, more impressive chairs have been a mark of distinction, and their use has been a privilege reserved for the select few.

Napoleon's furniture maker modeled the taboret on the Renaissance scissors chair, whose legs were a series of intersecting curved wooden frames that extended up to support armrests. Sometimes the chair was foldable, sometimes not; sometimes it had a flat backrest. Renaissance scissors chairs were beautifully carved, often with expensive inlays of ivory, metal, and boxwood, and were reserved for nobility. When Andrea Mantegna painted The Court of Gonzaga, in the 1470s, he showed the Gonzaga family and courtiers gathered on an outdoor terrace. Only the marquis and his wife are seated, everyone else is standing. Her chair is hidden by her voluminous dress, but his scissors chair, covered in embroidered velvet, is plainly visible, as is a puppy lying contentedly between its curved legs. More than four centuries later, when Jacob Ezekiel sculpted the American financier Anthony J. Drexel, he portrayed the international banker and patron of the arts as a latter-day Medici by placing him on a Renaissance scissors chair.

"Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time," observed Kubler, who distinguished between replicas, which were simply copies of earlier devices, and variants, which were modifications. The scissors chair was a replica of the medieval faldstool. Meaning literally "folding chair," this X-frame portable throne accompanied kings, bishops, and other dignitaries on their frequent travels. Faldstools are mentioned several times in the Song of Roland; one of ivory, another — belonging to Charlemagne — of solid gold. The oldest surviving faldstool, which belonged to the seventh-century Merovingian king Dagobert, is made of cast bronze. The faldstool was a replica of the ancient Roman sella curulis, a ceremonial folding stool used by consuls, senators, and high magistrates. The curule was elaborately decorated and carved and was sometimes provided with arms, but it must have been uncomfortable if used for long periods for it had no back, a feature said to be intended to discourage overlong deliberation.

The curule was a variant of the folding stool used by Roman military commanders in the field — a badge of rank as well as a seat. The Romans copied this stool from the Greeks. Stools (diphroi), both folding and four-legged, were a common feature of Greek life and were used by all strata of society — even the gods in the Parthenon frieze sit on stools. A vase painting from the fifth century B.C. shows a woman with a parasol sitting on a folding stool, apparently taking part in a picnic. A mural in the Minoan Palace of Knossos on Crete, dating from the fifteenth century B.C., portrays several young men seated on folding stools, drinking wine. When the archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered the mural, he christened it the Camp Stool Fresco.

No actual Greek or Minoan folding stools have survived, but fragments of ancient folding stools have been found in funerary barrows in Germany and Sweden, and an intact Bronze Age folding stool was unearthed in an archaeological dig in Guldhoj, Denmark. The X-frame is ash wood and a fragment of the seat is otter skin. Scholars have debated if this stool is a Scandinavian invention, or if, like the folding stools of the Greeks and Minoans, it was a cultural import — a replica. If it was the latter, it traveled a great distance, because, as far as we know, the folding stool appeared first in pharaonic Egypt.

I visit the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where I find two wall paintings that portray men on folding stools. One is from the tomb of a high official and shows him supervising workers on his estate. The other, also from the tomb of a government functionary, depicts a group of young army recruits sitting on folding stools waiting to have their hair shorn. Evidently, the Egyptians used folding stools as everyday outdoor seats — not so different from today's camp stools — and they do not appear to have been badges of rank; many wall paintings depict stools being used by workers and artisans. On the other hand, an actual folding stool that is displayed in another of the Met galleries was clearly a luxury item: the frame is elaborately carved in the form of long-billed birds and is made of wood inlaid with ebony and ivory. This stool dates from the eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom (1550–1295 B.C.).

One of the wall paintings that catches my eye shows a carpenter sitting on a stool, using a bow-drill, with an adze and square close to hand. He is building a chair. There are many examples of Egyptian chairs at the Met, with and without arms, often beautifully carved, usually with woven cane seats, sometimes with seat cushions, occasionally combined with footstools. Unlike stools, chairs appear to have been reserved for the exclusive use of important personages. During the early Middle Kingdom, an unusual type of chair emerged with a backrest only a few inches high, just enough to support the pelvis and sacrum, leaving the back free to find its own angle of repose. None of these chairs has survived, but judging from graphic evidence it appears that the backrest may have been padded. This kind of seat appears in scores of statues, reliefs, and wall paintings of pharaohs, royalty, and other dignitaries. Indeed, the Egyptian hieroglyph for "revered person" depicted a noble seated in a chair. The chair man.

My Chairs

I don't consider myself a collector, but I estimate that over a lifetime I've owned more than sixty chairs. A recent acquisition is a side chair that my wife, Shirley, and I bought last year in a consignment shop. Dating from the early 1900s and vaguely Arts and Crafts in style, it has a delicate tiger oak frame and a caned seat. It is a classic side chair: the front legs are straight, the rear legs are splayed and extend up to form the back, which is slightly angled. The legs are reinforced by delicate stretchers. The chair is pretty to look at but is rarely sat on for it serves as our "bedroom chair," that is, it's where we hang our clothes at night. The twentieth-century Danish furniture designer Hans Wegner once designed a three-legged chair especially for this purpose — not a chair used as a clothes hanger but a clothes valet designed like a chair. The top rail is shaped like a coat hanger to receive a jacket, and when lifted the hinged seat serves as a place to hang one's trousers — and reveals a small tray for keys and change. And you can still sit down to lace your shoes.

Chairs are used in so many different ways. The chairs in my study are handy places to stack books. Chairs are always useful when you have to reach something on a high shelf. Henri Matisse once painted his assistant in his Nice studio using a side chair as an improvised easel. The Morning Session shows her working on a canvas that is leaning against the chairback; she has placed her palette on the seat. The easel-chair and the chair she is sitting on will probably soon be used for lunch.

A dining chair is the simplest of chairs. It must be the right height for a table, and it must accommodate a person sitting erect for a limited period of time; it doesn't need much padding, and arms are optional. A dining chair needs to be light enough to be easily pulled up to the table as you sit down — and pushed away as you get up. In the past, dining chairs in grand homes were heavy because there was a footman available to slide the chair under the sitters (waiters in expensive restaurants still provide this service). Our bentwood dining chairs are very light. They're not all in the dining room, there are a couple in the breakfast room and a couple in the sunroom, and they get moved around a lot, depending on how many guests there are for dinner.

I've built a dining table and several desks over the years, including the worktable on which I'm writing this. The maple-veneer plywood top is supported by a maple apron and tapered legs. Its Shaker-like simplicity has less to do with design philosophy than with my limited carpentry skills. While I have occasionally turned my hand to stools and benches, I've never built a chair. "The chair is a very difficult object," Mies van der Rohe once observed. "Everyone who has ever tried to make one knows that." A chair requires strong joints — dovetail, mortise and tenon, finger — and it has to be light enough to move and strong enough to carry a couple of hundred pounds. A well-built chair will support a person tilting back on its two rear legs — although my wife scolds me whenever I do this. Most important, a chair has to be comfortable. It has to allow movement and also provide support in all the right places, which requires subtle curves and carefully shaped slats and rails.

The chair in which I spend the most time is the chair I sit on while writing. A desk chair is more demanding than a dining chair because it has to accommodate a variety of postures: sitting upright to type, leaning forward to consult a book, leaning back to think about what to write next. A desk chair also has to be comfortable for longer periods of time, but not too comfortable — after all, it's a work chair. Thomas Jefferson, who was interested in furniture, had a swivel desk chair when he was secretary of state. "Who has not heard from the Secretary of the praises of his wonderful Whirlgig Chair, which had the miraculous quality of allowing the person seated in it to turn his head without moving his tail?" wrote one observer.

Jefferson certainly qualified as a chair collector. When he returned from his five-year stint as minister to France, he brought back no fewer than fifty-seven chairs. These included side chairs and upholstered easy chairs. The last made ideal reading chairs, for the invention of upholstery in France and England coincides with the rise in popularity of reading for pleasure. A good reading chair must be comfortable, above all, and its design should allow the relaxed reader to become fully absorbed in the printed page. My own favorite is a wing chair. The upholstered seat, back, and sides create not only physical comfort but also the feeling of being in a secluded little retreat. Jefferson's cosy reading chair, which stood in his library at Monticello, was a barrel-shaped easy chair upholstered in red leather.


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Table of Contents

Introduction 3

1 A Tool for Sitting 9

2 If You Sit on It, Can It Still Be Art? 25

3 Sitting Up 39

4 A Chair on the Side 57

5 A Golden Age 69

6 Sack-backs and Rockers 87

7 The Henry Ford or Chairs 101

8 By Design 117

9 Great Dane 139

10 Fold and Knockdown, Swing and Roll 157

11 Human Engineering 179

12 Our Time 199

Notes on Sources 221

Acknowledgments 229

Index 231

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