The Seat of Culture

By staff December 1, 2001

The legendary designer Billy Baldwin distilled interior design to its basic elements: "Something to sit upon, put upon, and gaze upon." True, but there's often more to interior design than meets the eye. Consider, for example, the chair, which was celebrated this fall in a Sarasota fundraiser.

More about that later; let's begin our examination of this ubiquitous object with a look at its history. The chair probably dates to cave times, when our ancestors discovered it was more restful to sit on a contoured rock than to squat on the ground. From there, human craving for comfort progressed pretty rapidly, and along the way design came into play. As techniques for making chairs both durable and pretty evolved, the chair became an object of desire as well as a place to place one's derrière. Along the way, the chair also became a reliable way to read a culture.

Susan Soros, who heads the leading American school of decorative arts, the Bard Graduate Center in New York, agrees that chairs can function as sociological shorthand. "Give me a chair, and I'll tell you something about the society that produced it," she tells students.

The Egyptians and Chinese experimented with richly carved and extravagantly ornamented chairs, including some with detachable side poles, which made the chair mobile. From there it was just a short jump to the throne, says Sarasota-based art historian and museum curator Mark Ormond. "The concept of a chair being reserved just for the powerful was important, because furniture could confer prestige. Usually, when the leader sits on the throne everyone else in the room must stand." Language still mirrors the power inherent in such a chair-for example, the "chairman of the board" and the "chairperson" of a committee who leads the group.

The Romans were fond of the long and narrow chaise, which invited them to recline while eating and orgying. The more restrained English and French brought elegant straight-back chairs to a table for fine dining. And chair design signaled a new era in civilization in 18th-century France, when convivial aristocrats began to group chairs in a room for conversation and modern social life-and good gossip-were born.

Sterner societies were not so apt to group their chairs, however. The American colonists lined chairs up against a wall like soldiers and brought them out into various parts of a room only when needed for sewing or reading. Stoic 19th-century Shakers, religious craftspeople who made simple functional chairs admired today for their purity of line, hung their chairs on wall pegs when not in use.

In the late 19th century, William Morris, a British artist and founder of The Arts & Crafts Movement, devised a recliner (called the Morris Chair) in manly wood and comfy leather. Interior designers today consider this a mixed blessing. The prominence of the recliner in modern American homes has plagued designers charged with a man's mandate to "keep the recliner and work around it" and his wife's will to "throw the damn thing out" when redecorating. Lately, a young American designer named Mitchell Gold has come to the rescue with recliner designs both stylish and comfortable.

Up until the Second World War, most chairs were wood or upholstery stuffed with horsehair. But, starting in the '40s, modern design geniuses such as Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier, Harry Bertoia, George Nelson, and Isamu Noguchi brought industrial materials to the design of chairs. Aluminum, chrome, plastic, wire mesh, molded plywood, foam and even fiberglass were used to fashion mass-produced, machine-made chairs that had genuine flair and were so inexpensive that everybody could own them.

Art historian Ormond admits to having 25 chairs in his compact home. At his computer, he sits in a Jacobean revival solid wood chair that dates from the early 1900s. "It has a straight back and a comfortable seat, which is important because I have back problems," he says. "The Europeans developed the concept of lumbar support, and that is something most people today require in a good chair." But Ormond admits that his favorite chair is the famous Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair. "I just love to look at it," he says. "And I'm particularly fond of wood and cane chairs, especially in Florida, because the air circulation through the cane makes them cool. My dining room chairs are Bentwood cane and wood dating from about 1910. I bought them right here in Sarasota."

Robb & Stucky sells roughly 5,000 chairs a year in Sarasota. The big favorite is the Isenhour club swivel chair. The store sold about 115 last year. Also popular is a line of stressless chairs. They're those contemporary-looking chairs that sit on a wooden platform.

If there is a defining feature about chairs in this first part of the 21st century, it's their size. Chairs have mushroomed. Designers say chairs expanded in girth to maintain proper scale and proportion to America's bigger rooms and higher ceilings. (Of course, Americans have also expanded in height and girth in the last 100 years, but perhaps the designers are too tactful to point that out.) One of the most popular chairs nationally is the chair-and-a-half with its matching ottoman. Lushly upholstered in chenille or cushy velvet, this chair is wide enough for a mom and child to read together or for two lovers to snuggle. Century Furniture makes a luxury line of them.

La-Z-Boy manufactures a chair-and-a-half that converts into a spare bed for guests, making it a useful option in a small apartment. Both Tommy Bahama and Ralph Lauren Home excel in big, clubby, comfortable chairs made of leather, wicker, rattan, and dark woods. They are relaxed and transitional in styling, which means they go with just about anything and never look dated.

Contrasting to the trend toward bigger chairs is the fad for collecting child-size chairs or miniature chairs (we're talking three to five inches here). Tiny chairs viewed as sculptural objects don't take up much room and make an impressive artistic statement. Mix and match all styles and periods and line them up on a mantelpiece or kitchen shelf. Handmade originals that date from earlier centuries command high prices and are rare. But the marketplace is full of well-designed reproductions, and new ones that can be had for just a few dollars.

Serious furniture designers and even architects love to create new chairs. Think of architect Frank Gehry's curvy cardboard chairs that were deemed a classic long before he even started on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. And Frank Lloyd Wright frequently insisted on designing chairs that harmonized with the architecture of the homes he planned. He didn't trust anyone's taste as much as his own. Today, most of the best and most innovative chairs come out of Milan, Italy. Scandinavia and France are also considered important.

Want to take a time tour of chairs without leaving Sarasota? For America's mid-century modern classics, check out Jack Vinales on Pineapple Avenue in Sarasota. Other chairs of all periods, sizes and shapes regularly dot the showrooms of secondhand emporiums such as the Woman's Exchange, across from Vinales', or Curtis Brothers on 12th Street in Sarasota. These places are pre-owned chair heaven, displaying everything from Chippendale to shabby chic to bamboo island style. Take it home to leave as-is or do what Martha Stewart and Rachel Ashwell always suggest-paint it white.

Cashing in on the enduring popularity of the chair, Sarasota County got behind a "chairity" event this season. Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center (SPAARC) had great success in September when a committee asked about 50 artists to create original chairs. The works of art were placed in store windows around town so people could admire them-and bid on them-over a period of weeks. The funds raised from the auction will support a number of SPAARC's efforts.

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