Chairs have changed so much over the history of design, that sometimes it’s difficult to see their relation to one another. They can look like different species, undeserving of a common label. A cal-style bar stool looks less like a an antique English leather armchair than a dog looks like a human. But the practical purpose of giving your legs a rest unites that diverse caste of objects we call chairs. And they’re united also by common breakdown of their anatomy—backs, seats, legs, and arm supports. With that in mind, we’ve put together a guide to antique and vintage chairs arranged by their component parts:
Before the 12th century, chair designers didn’t see the need to provide something to lean against. When it came to sitting, plain wooden stools pretty much did the trick. But sometime during the Gothic period they began to add backs. These were plain and straight at first, but back-design would become an art in itself during the Renaissance when furniture makers began to carve or stitch intricate geometric and floral patterns and even Biblical scenes across them. Elaborate ornamentation continued to carry the day across the 18th and 19th centuries as well—albeit through style transformations from rococo to neoclassical to Victorian. The 20th century rang in an ear of less elaborate but more varied back designs: there was the willow chair with its cage-like wicker stalks, the 1940s womb chair—a marriage of comfort and practicality—with its back angled at the ideal ergonomic degree, and the minimalist metal net of the Charles and Ray Eames’ wire chair.
You could say that the seat is the very thing that makes a chair a chair. But that’s not to say all seats are created equal. In fact, they’re as variable as any other part. Early chair seats were plain and wooden, rigid and uncomfortable. But the Renaissance and its flair for decoration brought about a revolution in comfort as well. Seats began to be cushioned with needlework and leather. They grew gradually less cushy and more practical during the 19th and 20th centuries. Michael Thonet’s “bistro chair,” invented in 1859, was a triumph of pragmatism that is still being produced today. Twentieth-century seat designs are generally of a piece with the diverse modernist movements—practical, but not the extent that edgy artistry is forfeited. The Eames brothers’ La Chaise is an extreme example of this; looking like an abstract sculpture of a leaf or a wisp of clouds, it still doesn’t fail to provide a comfortable place to rest your bottom.
In the era of the stool, chairs were typically three-legged. But the innovation of the back came with the addition of an extra ground support. And the ensuing centuries brought about the same changes in decoration of the legs as occurred with the back: Practical beginnings, a long middle period of increasingly extravagant embellishments, and a final return to their streamlined roots. This last period of practicality was, of course, marked by greater variation in style—from the long, elegant curves of certain minimalist Biedermeier chair legs to the understated stumps of Art Deco fauteuils. Many 20th century designs found creative ways to keep the seat off the ground without relying on legs. The 1934 Zig Zag makes use of a clever cantilever concept to support the sitter. The 406 Cantilevered armchair is another study in this concept, its “legs” resembling the prosthetics of Paralympic runners.
The Arm Supports
Arm supports are the wild card of chair design. Simply put—some chairs have them and some do not. In the long years stretching from the Renaissance to the Victorian period, they tended to be as decorative as the rest of the chair—sometimes featuring a scroll design or the hand-carved forms of maidens. But modernism and related movements gave them a more discreet nature and sometimes did away with them entirely, as in the 1950s Antony chair and the 1960s Series 7 chair. In a number of Eames brothers’ designs—like the DAR chair and the RAR rocking chair—the “arms” are just a slightly indented continuation of the back.