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A chair is never just a chair: A social history of a ubiquitous household item, Part 1

Architect Witold Rybczynski, author of Now I Sit Me Down, explores the social history of chairs, the stories chairs tell, and how they've changed through history in a two-part series. Part one focuses on ancient chairs with a tour through the historical collection of chairs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

There's more to a chair than meets the eye, explains renowned architect Witold Rybcynski

'There's only one way to walk but there's so many different ways of sitting and they're all kind of a compromise,' says architect and writer Witold Rybczynski. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Nahlah Ayed/CBC)
Listen to the full episode53:59

It's deceptively simple, but the humble chair is more than meets the eye.

It combines more than just design and functionality, it tells a complex story of history, modernity, and power. It's a reminder that some things never change while others are entirely ephemeral.

This is exactly why renowned architect Witold Rybczynski has spent so much time considering the chair. From stool to throne, the chair is deeply seated in our culture. 

"A chair can be a living link to the past. Even the distant past. I would feel odd wearing a Greek chiton...but like Achilles and Odysseus I can sit on a klismos, the ancient Greek chair," Rybczynski writes in his book about the history of chairs, Now I Sit Me Down.

He sees the everyday object as having an intimate relationship with the human body with stories to tell throughout the ages. 

The renowned architect and IDEAS' Nahlah Ayed take a tour through the historical collection of chairs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, starting with the oldest known chair in history.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

From ancient Egypt to modern day: the folding stool

Folding stool, Egypt, ca. 1550–1295 B.C. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Witold Rybczynski: It's an extraordinary stool. It's a folding stool. And you can buy these in Canadian Tire.

It's a beautiful invention because it's very light, it's portable you can take it around. Obviously this was in a tomb but such chairs were used by people for all sorts of things.

This is a very beautiful fancy one but there were much simpler ones. And it's the engineering of this chair that's so beautiful because the more weight you put on it the tighter the fabric gets.

Basically we have nothing in common [with ancient Egyptians] and then you see something like this you realize that you had this in common that we still use the way they used it.
 

How a 17th century Chinese armchair inspired innovation

Witold Rybczynski: The Chinese were one of the few cultures that was a floor sitting culture that adopted chairs. There are two chief reasons for that.

17th century Yokeback Armchair, China (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

One is is prosperity. There was a point where the culture just became very prosperous. They figured out how to grow rice properly, they developed trade with India and other distant places.

The other factor was innovation. In traditional cultures, things don't change. There's no reason to change. And if the culture doesn't change then the way your grandparents did things is fine. You don't need to invent anything.

But when a culture is very innovative, especially when things are changing, when people are making more money but they're trying new things, that's when a big shift like sitting in chairs happens and that has huge repercussions.

Chinese women started wearing trousers because they were sitting up on chairs. If you're sitting on the ground you need loose clothing because you're crossing your legs."

"It had repercussions on architecture because if you're sitting on the ground it doesn't make sense to make very high ceilings but once you're sitting up ... the whole scale of the room has changed.
 

The making of a chair: Sgabello backstool 

Chair (Sgabello) ca. 1489–91. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Witold Rybczynski: What we're looking at here is is a back stool. It's a three legged stool with a board inserted to create a back. It's the simplest way that you could turn a stool into essentially a chair. It's a very important point where the stool starts to become something else.

This becomes an object of much more interest because you can carve it, you can put your coat of arms on it, you can do all sorts of things on a stool ... even when it's not being used it becomes this object that communicates to people — that's a big part of furniture. It's when we're in it but also when we're not in it, it's there and it's saying something to us.

Incidentally these chairs are still in use in the Tyrol, in Switzerland, in mountainous areas. These three-legged back stools are quite common still today because it's just a simple chair that somebody who really doesn't have much skill can make.
 

Why Frank Lloyd Wright needed to design furniture

A Frank Lloyd Wright Side Chair from 1904. (Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Witold Rybczynski: This is a living room of the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Minnesota that was transported and rebuilt in the museum and it's furnished. We can see it as as Wright designed it originally back in 1912.

The reason that chairs keep getting redesigned and people keep thinking about designing a chair is Frank Lloyd Wright wanted the chair that fit in this room. And what he saw didn't. So all the furniture that you see here is designed by Wright and it's largely designed for that reason — and he wasn't alone.

At the time that people were trying to rethink architecture and rethink how the home was decorated, or not decorated, it made them think about the furniture too because they needed things that would fit in.
 

Listen to the full conversation: Part One and Part Two

Part two of this series with Witold Rybczynski looks at 20th century chairs at the Design Within Reach store in New York.


* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter. 

** Special thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

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