The Big Chair: Status and Luxury While We Sit - Part 2 The Big Chair: Status and Luxury While We Sit - Part 2

Note: We discussed the upholsterer's art in part 1. Designers created furniture that surrounded the sitter with softness and tranquility. In the 19th century, rounded corners replaced square stuffing, and wood disappeared under layers of patterned textiles, tassels and ruffles.

During the second half of the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement called for decreased padding and upholstery in fashionable furniture. Nevertheless, customers continued to buy heavily upholstered and padded furniture, and by the mid 1920s, furniture manufacturers began to use new materials along with the traditional coil springs.

Today, factories have replaced crafts shops, and assembly lines mold foam rubber and polyurethane into desired shapes for cushions, which are in turn supported by latex tapes and cords. Then they cover them with synthetic, sometimes elasticized, fabrics.

Of course, upholstery and padding are not the only devices for achieving comfort in a chair. The shape of the chair affects comfort as well. The first chair considered "easy" was the wing chair, which first appeared in the late 17th century. Also called the grandfather chair or saddle-cheek chair, it is a tall-backed, heavily upholstered chair with armrests and wings, or lugs, projecting between the back and arms to protect against drafts. These were also considered easy chairs because the backs sometimes allowed the sitter to form an angle of more than 90 degrees between his spine and his thighbones. Also, if the sitter dozed off, he wouldn't muss his wig as his head rested comfortably on one of the wings. Except for the legs and stretchers, which were beautifully carved and turned, the chairs were completely covered with upholstery. The design concept of wings on which to rest one's head has been adapted by some airlines for passenger seating.

Rocking chairs are proof that a well-designed easy chair does not have to soft to be comfortable. They allow us to shift position in a gentle, soothing motion. An example is the Boston Rocker, which is simply a Windsor chair with rockers. Developed around 1840 in New England, it has a wood seat that curved down in front and up in the rear. The curved pieces were separate pieces of wood added to the flat part of the seat. Its arms followed the curve of the seat, and the back had six to nine spindles or slats topped by a large crest rail. The spindles of Windsor chairs support the spine and move with the sitter's changes in position.

Another popular rocker was originally designed and manufactured by the Shakers in the 19th Century. The Shakers were an American religious community that was founded in Britain and came to North America during the Revolutionary War. The Shakers, who believed in self-sufficiency, built their own homes and furniture. They also manufactured furniture for sale, and the design of the Shaker rocker reflects one of their religious tenets: Beauty rests on utility. As designers, their work embodies a highly refined elegance that anticipated Functionalists in modern furniture. President Kennedy, who suffered from chronic back pain from a war injury, used this kind of chair at the recommendation of his doctor.

By the late 1860s, Americans were enjoying the platform or spring rocker. This type of rocker in which the chair rocks on springs mounted on an immobile base, or platform was a popular kind of furniture called Patented Furniture. Platform rockers had been patented and were in production by the late 1860s, and the form continued to be popular into the early 20th century. Some owners thought the platform rocker to be superior to the ordinary rocking chair, which often creaked in an unseemly way, crept across the floor, and sometimes tripped passersby with its extended rockers. They fell out of favor with consumers in the early twentieth century.

Another popular 19th century rocker that we find in many contemporary homes is the bentwood rocker. Many chairs, including the Windsor, used bentwood in its construction. In the early 19th century, Samuel Gragg patented a bentwood chair in the USA. Later, Henry Thonet, a German designer, started using bentwood rods to construct the frames of chairs and other furniture. Thonet's work is in many museums, and designs derived from Thonet's work are found in contemporary furniture stores. This example, from the 1903-04 catalog of Spier's and Pond' s of London, is a "gentleman's bentwood rocker with caned seat and back."

Combining forms and materials in the Windsor and upholstered chairs is the 19th century Morris Chair, named for William Morris, the English poet, painter, polemicist, and craftsman. Morris pioneered in the production of light, functional furniture of a traditional, rural type. The Morris chair has padded armrests and detachable cushions on the seat and back. The wooden structure of the chair often included turned spindles. In the United States, the back was frequently hinged at the bottom, allowing the sitter to adjust the slant past ninety degrees to his own degree of comfort.

The search for the right easy chair goes on to other shapes and materials.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Design

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