Furniture Matters: The Chair

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Chairs exist in a myriad of shapes and styles. You’re probably sitting on one right now, either in the kitchen or at your office. Chairs are ubiquitous and cheap; very few people don’t own at least two chairs for a simple kitchen table. They are the basic stuff of our furnished life. But did you know that chairs used to be reserved for royalty?

The chair: a history

Ordinary people like you and me did not always sit on chairs. In fact, before the 16th century, people sat on benches, chests and stools. “Chairs” were positions of power and respect; take, for example, the terms “chair” for the head of an academic department or “chairman” on boards and committees.

We know of the existence of chairs since at least Ancient Egypt. Chairs were made of precious woods or stone and often gilded or inlaid with gold, silver or precious stones. The height of the chair denoted your position: the higher the seat, the more important the person. The pharaoh had the highest throne of all and would often have to use a stool to rest his feet.

The Chinese democratized the use of chairs and stools as early as the 12th century; after that, very few Chinese, even the poorest, would sit on the floor. In Europe, it took until the Renaissance (15th-16th centuries) until the chair became a common household object.

The Industrial Revolution made chairs cheaper and more easily accessible for working-class families, who could then afford at least one chair per family member. The traditional dining space with a table and chairs enough for everyone was born.

During the 20th century, new industrial techniques and materials let designers create new shapes and styles of chairs. Think of the bean bag, the butterfly chair and the pod chair. Recliners are also a 20th century invention, conceived from the rising popularity of radio and television entertainment.

Chairs: A cultural view

As our history shows, the chair wasn’t always a democratic piece of furniture. Today, chairs  can still denote class and position by their size, material or comfort level. People who can afford first class seating on an airplane get more comfortable chairs than those in the coach. The CEO of a company often has an expensive, ergonomic leather-covered office chair while lower-ranked employees sit on fabric chairs.

Other types of chairs, like thrones, still hold symbolic power in certain countries with a constitutional monarchy, like the UK and Canada. In Canada, the “Speech from the Throne” is a speech given by the Queen’s representative, the Governor General, at the opening of every session of Parliament. This speech sets the tone and objectives of parliamentary discussions for the session in question. No government business can be undertaken until this speech has been given.

In most universities, the head administrator of a department, a fully tenured professor, is still called its “chair”. Professors can also hold “research chairs” when they are named as head researchers in national research associations. The term, them, is one of honor and acknowledgement of contributions to an intellectual field.

Chairs, either physical or symbolic, still hold plenty of cultural meaning, even when the object itself is available, abundant and cheap.

Chairs: A personal view

Chairs are everywhere in our lives. Whether we sit on them for dinner (see Furniture Matters: The Kitchen Table) or working at the office, their are always there to make us comfortable and take us off our feet.

Some of my best memories are sitting on my father’s lap in the living room in his rocking, reclining chair. There, I felt safe and comfortable, loved and protected in my father’s arms. Whenever I see a rocking chair, I spend a few minutes rocking myself back to memory lane.

We often get territorial about our place at the family table: the place we usually sit at quickly becomes “my chair”, “my place”, and we get uncomfortable if someone else sits there.

We use chairs as metaphors for our lives: “sit in my place” can convey the same meaning as “walk in my shoes”. Our metaphorical chair contains the entirety of our identity and of our life in a way that no other piece of furniture does.

What’s your favorite seat in the house? Do you think of your personal identity as your “chair”? Share what the chair means to you in the comments!

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