The Art of Seating

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This article is from Issue 90 of Woodcraft Magazine.

200 Years of American Design

By John Blackford

As in biology, chair design has undergone its share of evolutionary twists and turns, with any particular design carrying stylistic DNA from its forbears while adapting to its specific regional environment.

A traveling exhibit titled The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design presents a fascinating look at the evolution of chairs in our own country over the course of the last couple of centuries.

The exhibit’s 42 chairs are presented chronologically in four groupings. The first reflects the invention and technological development spanning the 1820s to the 1880s. This is followed by the Arts and Crafts movement that continued into the 1930s. The third group represents a period of advanced materials and production that extended through the 1960s. Finally, the show wraps up by exploring the adoption of alternative materials used in various present-day chairs.

The following bit of chair design history, which features a few of my favorites, is only a taste of what the show has to offer. I caught the exhibition just before it closed at The Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA. If you get a chance to see it at a future venue, don’t miss it. It’s likely you’ll never look at chairs the same again.

1820 Designers as illusionists





Fancy Chair 

Philadelphia, PA; unknown maker

One of the earliest chairs in the exhibit, the Fancy Chair could easily be mistaken for a more modern piece—an indication of how far chair design had already progressed by the time American chair makers got to work. The chair was intended to meet the demand of an emerging middle class by imitating costly inlay and carving techniques used in Europe. By painting on wood, American designers created a trompe l’oeil that was more affordable than it appeared. In fact, 200 years ago, the word “fancy” meant something closer to “fantasy,” referring to things born of illusion.

1840 Elegance in simplicity




Shaker Ladderback Rocking Chair

New Lebanon, NY; unknown maker

By the mid-1800s, furniture designers in the Shaker religious community were producing simple but elegant chairs that are still prized today. The Shaker design philosophy is one of prioritization, and the main priority is to be necessary and useful. It is thus not surprising to find that Shakers invented such modern tools as the circular saw, the washing machine, and the flat broom. The underlying principles of Shaker design inspired some of the finest makers of modern furniture, and the Shaker ladderback chairs influenced a generation of modern designers. 

1857 The official arm chair of the House



House of Representatives Chamber Arm Chair

Philadelphia, PA; designed by Thomas Ustick Walter

Like later chair designers Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, the designer of the chairs used by the U.S. House of Representatives was also an architect. In fact, Thomas Ustick Walter is recognized for the construction of the U.S. Capitol in its present form. He designed this Classical Style chair for the House of Representatives in 1857, with two manufacturers producing the 262 chairs needed. The federal shield on each chair features carved oak and olive boughs, representing strength and peace, and the legs have deeply carved laurel leaves. President Lincoln was photographed in one of the chairs by the Mathew Brady Studio in 1863.

1984 a backlash to industrialization


McKinley Arm Chair 

Grand Rapids, MI; designed by David Wolcott Kendall

Anxiety about industrialization may seem a modern concern, but it stretches back to the 1890s. That worry gave rise to the Arts and Crafts movement, which represented not so much a particular style or location, but a preference for hand-crafted items made of natural materials. One adherent, David Wolcott Kendall, helped popularize making furniture of oak, a wood that was plentiful but considered coarse. Kendall’s most popular armchair became known as the “McKinley Chair,” after it was presented to President William McKinley. It became so popular that numerous copies flooded the market, forcing manufacturer Phoenix Furniture Company to secure a patent in 1887.

1938 Furniture reflecting architecture




Johnson Wax Chair

Grand Rapids, MI; designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

In 1936, S.C. Johnson Wax company asked 69-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright to design its corporate headquarters. At the time, Wright was among the most renowned architects of the 20th century. Johnson Wax asked him to design not only the buildings and grounds, but all furniture to be used by employees. Wright’s building design incorporated open space, tapering columns and circular patterns to suggest a cathedral-like effect, and incorporated some of the architectural elements into the design of the office chairs. They were originally to have three legs, with two in front to encourage good posture. However, after Wright himself fell over in one, the design was altered to include four legs, perhaps underscoring the old furniture making axiom “form follows function.” 

1945 Molded plywood meets mass production



Eames Chair

Grand Rapids, MI; designed by Charles and Ray Eames

The Eames Chair, one of the most famous chair designs of the 20th century, was the culmination of over a hundred years of development in using molded plywood for chair design, starting in Germany in 1830. Research during the war years advanced ways to use resin bonding and to form bent and laminated wood. Then, in 1945, husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames developed a process to bend three-dimensional plywood, named LCW (Lounge Chair Wood). The separate seat and back were cushioned by rubber grommets. Until the Eames separated the main parts, bent plywood furniture tended to split.

1971 Cardboard takes a seat



High Stool

Los Angeles, CA; designed by Frank Gehry

Starting in the 1960s, alternative materials began to appear in chair design. Frank Gehry’s minimalistic high stool from 1971 is made from corrugated cardboard, Masonite, and wood. Gehry moved on to a minimalistic “Superlight” chair with brushed aluminum surfaces attached to a simple aluminum frame designed to carry 750 pounds.

Gehry, an architect, got into chair making almost by accident after becoming inspired by qualities in the cardboard he was using to make land contours for architectural models. He eventually perfected 17 designs and filed a patent for making cross-laminated cardboard into furniture. Though his foray was successful, Gehry eventually gave up designing chairs to focus on his architectural work.

2003 Math, music, and multiple materials



Synergistic Synthesis XVII sub b1

Oakland, CA; designed by Kenneth Smythe

San Francisco-based designer, artist, and scientist Kenneth Smythe went Gehry one better in using exotic materials. His “Synergistic Synthesis XVII sub b1” chair is made from Finn birch laminate, Formica ColorCore®, latigo leather, Sunbrella® acrylic, top grain leather, foam rubber, steel, and maple dowels. Smythe’s designs are not only materially extensive, but also often derived from complex evolutionary models of nature. Inspiration for this 2003 chair comes from the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, the music of Frederick Delius, and the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. When graphed, the sequence produces spiral shapes, such as that of the nautilus shell. 

Exhibition Information

The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Florida in collaboration with the Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen Ph.D. Foundation. Thanks to The Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA for help in putting together this article.

Joslyn Art Museum (joslyn.org)
Omaha, Nebraska
June 2, 2019 – September 8, 2019

LSU Museum of Art (lsumoa.org)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
July 9, 2020 – September 27, 2020

Georgia Museum of Art (georgiamuseum.org)
Athens, Georgia
October 17, 2020 - January 3, 2021

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