The Big Chair: Status and Luxury While We Sit - Part 1 The Big Chair: Status and Luxury While We Sit - Part 1

David Dannenbaum

It's my view that people living at the beginning of the 21st century have certain beliefs about chairs. First, we believe we are comfortable while we are sitting if the angle formed by our spine and thighbones exceeds 90 degrees. This is true. Notice your behavior the next time you and your colleagues sit in a conference room for four hours in straight-back chairs. You will find yourself leaning back on the back legs of the chair, so your body forms that.

Second, we believe that, when we sit, we remain quiet and still. Of course, this is not true. We lean back in the chair; we shift our weight from one buttock to the other; we lean on one arm, then the other; we move to the front of the chair when engaged by the speaker and retreat to the back of the chair when we disagree or are bored.

Third, we believe that sitting on chairs is more comfortable than standing or squatting on the ground or floor.

We believe these things, not necessarily because they are true, but because our culture has conditioned us to believe them. This will not appear far-fetched if we consider that a chair is, in essence, a platform, and, as historians tell us, the first chairs were stones or tree stumps. They were not used for relaxation, but were used as symbols of authority. Only tribal leaders were authorized to sit on their platform as their subjects stood waiting for commands.

As our culture evolved and grew complex, we accepted the chair as a way to indicate status. At old royal courts, we knew the social standing of everyone just by observing whether they sat on a chair with arms, on a chair with a back but no arms, or on a humble stool. The chair with the arms was usually located nearest the fire.

Julie Taymore, in her underestimated film Titus, uses the chair as a symbol of rank. And with chilling effect. Saturninus, played by Alan Cummings, sits in the enormous imperial throne as he addresses the Roman Senate. However, the throne is so large, that Saturninus's feet dangle like a boy's in a barber's chair. That design choice revealed that Saturninus was hardly up to the job of Emperor.

In the 21st century, the kind of chair we sit in still indicates our rank. The director's or manager's chair has been an indicator of superiority, and even in democratic parliaments and congresses, the speaker sits on a raised level. In some households, the head of the family sits in the biggest chair - a custom we laughed at many times as we watched Archie Bunker shoo his son-in-law away from that large wing chair, located nearest the television set.

We should also remember that custom does not allow us to sit down in someone else's space until we are asked to.

Our fourth belief is that we are comfortable only while sitting on soft, cushioned surfaces, which is not necessarily true. And which brings us to easy chairs and how they got that way.

We do not know who put the first cushion together, nor when, but someone thought of making the sillers' necks more comfortable by placing a layer of soft matter between the neck and the hard surface they were lying on. Eventually, to give their patrons an increased sense of luxury, artisans stuffed cushions to ease the posteriors of those sitting in chairs made of marble, bronze or wood.

Sometime in the late 16th century, furniture makers put padding and the cushion together and covered them with a decorative outer material that was then tacked to the chair's frame. In the 17th century, craftsmen perfected the basic structural arrangements of upholstery. Narrow strips of fabric or leather webbing were interlaced across a seat frame, and piece of linen was tacked above it. On this base, workmen laid a quantity of horsehair and fastened over it a second piece of linen to keep the horsehair in place. Then they covered the padding with the heavier exterior fabric or leather and nailed the covering to the frame. Backs, and later arms, were treated the same way. In the 17th century, nail heads were considered decorative and were arranged in ornamental patterns. Later, upholstery covered the entire chair, except for the legs and stretchers.

The stuffing usually formed domes in the seats and backs, and upholsterers continued their work this way for about 100 years. In the 18th century, upholsterers began to gather the horsehair and hold it down with long basting stitches. This process could be invisible, but soon it became fashionable to draw these stitches through the outer layer at several points, tying them and decorating the tie points with tufts of silk. Furniture makers noticed that tufted upholstery furthered the chair owner's sense of luxury.

By the 1830's, another development in the search for more comfort appeared in European and American furniture: the helical spring. In this new upholstery, the same interlaced webbing was still used, but it supported a group of springs rather than horsehair. Upholsterers sewed each spring to the webbing, tied them down to the same height, and then tied them to each other resist lateral pressure. Over the springs they laid a piece of canvas and on the canvas a thin layer of horsehair to cushion the sitter from the springs themselves. As before, the decorative exterior material covered all and was attached to the furniture frame.

Coil-spring upholstery caused a change in the tufting technique. Upholsterers replaced silk ribbons with buttons. Before attaching the buttons, they covered them with the same fabric as the seat or back. By the 1850s, craftsmen, ever aware of their clients increasing need for opulent furniture, began to "deep button" their furniture. They placed the springs between the buttons, which they drew downward to create a series of soft, plump indentations. This helped hold the coils in place and maintain the shape of the seat. However, there is more to comfort and status than upholstery.

Next time I'll take up the matter of shape of the big chair.

David Dannenbaum was trained at the University of Texas (BFA) and Florida State University (MFA), but was educated at the Brooklyn Public Library, the Gotham Book Mart, and various museums, flea markets and antique shops in the New York City area. His articles have been published in The New Orleans Review, West Coast Peddler, and Streams of William James. He and his wife live in Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Design

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