“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” So suggested poet T.S. Eliot, composer Igor Stravinsky, and innovator Steve Jobs (among other powerhouses through history). And so suggests the enduring appeal of the iconic Klismos chair, whose inward curving “band” back and dramatically splayed legs has been stolen and modified by design lovers through the ages.
The Klismos chair was a hugely popular form in ancient Greece and is even well represented in innumerable vase paintings. It was the chair for the fashion-conscious Greek. Its curved back provided comfort and support and the sabre legs—referencing the curve of a sabre sword—added an element of refinement over a straight leg.
The chair form disappeared for centuries until making a grand comeback in the Neoclassical period after the discovery of the city of Pompeii in 1748. For half a century thereafter, anything referencing the ancient world was all the rage. Designers of the day retained the classic Klismos shape but added creature comforts such as leather cushions and castors to ease movement around the salon. For added emphasis, some chairs had front edges featuring a carved Greek Key design (this basically screamed Greek revival in its day), just to be sure everyone knew the piece was decidedly Greek and therefore decidedly fashionable.
The Klismos pops up again in elegant, exaggerated form during the Art Deco period of the 1920s and ’30s. New York-based Interior designer Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings imagined the Klismos with almost impossibly splayed, skinny legs, and Swedish architect Carl Bergsten extended the band back to an extreme. Even the self-conscious and forward-thinking mid-century modern designers were unable to shed the form; several chairs maintain a band back and saber legs (even if arms were added and only the back legs splayed). The Klismos was revived again by 1980s design icon Angelo Donghia in not one, but two forms: the first squat and comfortably upholstered, the other perched on a modern metal outline of the saber leg. Even West Elm got in on the trend, producing two inexpensive, simplified versions in recent years.
Of course, this type of reinvention is not unique to the Klismos. The classic medallion-back French Louis XVI chair of the mid-18th century (and Marie Antoinette fame) has also propagated through the centuries. One of the freshest reboots is Philippe Starck’s Ghost Chair, a simplified form created from a single piece of injection-molded plastic. The chair became hugely popular upon its release in 2002 and is now hailed as a postmodern icon.
The moral of the story? It’s simple: Despite our never-ending quest for the new and the now, it seems impossible to fully shake history. And why should a designer not look to the successes of the past? These forms clearly transcend fashion and speak to our collective aesthetic—and perhaps even something about our humanity. So lovers of the ancient and antique can rejoice, for these forms will be with us for some time to come.