Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Short History of Chairs Part II - Kings and Queens usher in a Renaissance

After the fall of the Roman Empire chairs became almost nonexistent from the everyday lives of most westerners… but they were not quite extinct however as chairs never disappeared from the church. While parishioners were relegated to pews or benches, priests and bishops typically had chairs on the altar. As the church grew richer, the ornateness of those “chairs” increased and by the middle of the 2nd millennia they could have easily been confused with thrones. But of course thrones need kings or queens or the close proximity thereof…

The 15th century brought about a settling of Europe into population centers and kingdoms and a rise of nobility. The simultaneous rise of wealth helped bring about a revival of home furnishings in general and chairs in particular. Chairs made a strong comeback as increasingly larger homes required more chairs with distinct functions. Ornamentation, sophistication, and quality of construction also increased.

As the kings and queens of Europe enjoyed increasing wealth, they began to look longingly upon the beauty of the altar chairs the church had maintained and began to demand increasingly ornate thrones. Indeed, thrones, as so much with royalty, were intended to communicate about the king or queen’s proximity to God and their relation to the people. As such, over time the thrones in capitals across Europe became increasingly magnificent and majestic. These could be ornate as is this Venetian throne on the left or as intimidating as the throne on the right made for Napoleon.

As the royal thrones inspired the rest of the nobility to seek chairs of own, they in turn inspired others and over time chairs became increasingly common at all levels of society. This diffusion of the culture of chairs was greatly aided by an increase in manufacturing capacity and affordability. As a result chairs not only became more common, they took on distinct looks and functions such dining chairs vs. accent chairs vs. Bergère chairs.

Possibly the single most important and dynamic period of European furniture design took place under the reigns of three French kings of the 17th and 18th centuries. The first was Louis XIV, who took the throne in 1643 but didn't take control of the government until 1661.  He believed that furnishings and décor should be a tool to showcase the majesty and grace of the monarchy. As a result, furniture from this period (~1660 – 1720) is among the most elegant and ornate in history. The chair’s lines are typically straight, the backs upright and the shape rectangular. The chairs were usually richly upholstered and the woods were often gilded.

Soon after the turn of the century Louis XV ascended the throne and furniture styles changed rather dramatically. This period (~1700 – 1750) showcased a less rigid style, with curved and angled arms and legs along with rounded seats and backs. Under Louis XV furniture began to adapt to the needs and comfort of users, particularly women, whose wide dresses could make sitting very difficult on the rigid, squared chairs of Louis XIV. (You'll notice a slight overlap of these two periods.  That's because these styles evolved organically and sometimes pieces seem to fit in more than one period.)

Finally we have the period inspired by Louis XVI (~1750-1800) which would push back against some of the changes that evolved under his predecessor. Gone were the Rocaille flourishes that had become common as a more restrained style came to the fore. Straight lines were back, and while curves were not abandoned entirely, a more subtle, slightly neoclassical rigidity appeared as legs would often be carved in the style of ancient columns and embellishments were slightly subdued.

The stunning evolution of chairs that would occur under the three successive French kings would result in a European style and grace that would last through much of the 19th century. This apex of design included everything from the sumptuous mid 18th century English Rococo style of Robert Adam and Thomas Chippendale to ornately decorated exquisite workmanship of 19th century France’s Napoleon III style with a cornucopia of elegance in between. Chairs were no longer just functional; they became works of art unto themselves. Today we look at the narrow straight lines of the English Neoclassical style and see elegance. We look at the more curved and inviting lines of the French Neoclassical style and see grace. Later we see the broad, expansive Louis-Philippe style chairs and we see warmth and comfort, followed by the majesty inherent in the intricacy of the Napoleon III style.

The 20th century brought a continuing evolution of chairs, from component and assembly line manufacturing to art deco styling to the ergonomic functionality. Today chairs are as a common part of our lives as is fresh water or canned food, but it’s interesting to remember that for most of human history chairs simply didn’t exist for the average person… although you have to wonder if King Tut would have exchanged his stern formal throne for a recliner or Herman Miller office chair.

French Embroidered Armchair circa 1780 

Throne of Napoleon III 

A Pair of Italian Venetian Style Painted and Gilded Wooden Armchairs

English Walnut Armchair, circa 1680

18th Century Italian Dark Wood Carved Armchair

A Pair of 19th Century Louis XVI Style Oval Back Armchairs

Late 19th Century French Side Chair

A Pair of French Vintage Painted Wood Armchairs

French Louis Philippe Period Armchair

A Pair of Large Swedish Rococo Style Painted Wood Armchairs

Gilded and Upholstered 18th Century Armchair Designed by Robert Adam and Made by Thomas Chippendale

The Chair of Saint Peter in the Vatican

A Set of Six 20th Century Venetian Style Painted Wood Dining Room Chairs

A Pair of 19th Century French Louis XVI Style Wingback Chairs

A Stunning Blue Upholstered Louis XVI Armchair 

Pair of Italian Late 19th Century Upholstered Red and Gold Camelback Armchairs

A Pair of French Louis XVI Style Oval Back Chairs From the Early 20th Century

Early 19th Century French Gilded Armchair

A Pair of Italian 1920's Upholstered Chairs with Original Paint and Traces of Silver Gilt

An Italian Painted and Gilt Lacquer Throne Armchair

A Pair of Late 19th Century Italian Oval Back Painted and Gilded Wood Side Chairs

A Pair of Italian 19th Century Walnut Wood Armchairs with Cabriole Legs

Chairs in the Napoleon III Apartments in the Louvre

A Pair of Mid 20th Century Italian Venetian Style Painted and Gilded Chairs