Each of us has wondered about the fundamental inventions in our society that we simply can’t imagine life without at least once. Who invented these things and when? Did someone say, “let’s make a seat for one person that has four legs for support and a rest for the back – we’ll call it a chair,” or were they always around?
If we talk about the concept that the chair represents, i.e., an object for sitting or resting, obviously the answer would be that chairs are as old as humans – and they were “invented” when the first humans realized it’s more comfortable to rest on a raised surface than on the ground.
It’s more interesting to think about the universal design that’s accepted as a typical chair. Who invented the one-person seat with four legs and back support? Or better yet, who invented the comfortable office chair with lumbar support? These are the questions we’ll try to answer.
So, for all the curious minds, let’s take a nice stroll down memory lane and talk about the history of chairs.
The History of the Chair
Who Invented the Chair?
The good news is that historians agree that we can thank Ancient Egyptians for inventing the chair we know and love today.
More specifically, our story begins around the 2600s BCE during the Early Dynastic Period (3100 – 2686 BCE). To put it simply, the first chair was invented around 5000 years ago. We do not have a specific name associated with the chair’s invention, but someone in Ancient Egypt came up with the design that would become such an integral part of human life.
Historians are a bit hazy on the origin of chairs but all the surviving chairs from the ancient times, from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and all the way to medieval Europe almost exclusively belonged to royalty and nobility.
Does this mean that the ordinary people back then did not use chairs? This is a mystery that we have no way of solving. Some historians claim that chairs became more common during the Renaissance and common people mainly sat on stools or stones until then.
On the other hand, it’s equally possible that the chairs of royalty and nobility were preserved because they were of higher quality, more durable, and simply more valuable. For instance, one of the oldest chairs in the world, still preserved today, is that of queen Hetepheres I from the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt (c. 2600 BC). It is exhibited in Cairo in the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.
Origins of the Name
Another exciting aspect of the history of chairs is the name. Why do we call chairs “chairs”?
We now know that the Ancient Egyptians were the ones who invented the chairs, but did they create the name “chair” too?
Unfortunately, we don’t know what word the Ancient Egyptians used for chairs, but it’s not chairs. The Ancient Egyptian language is considered part of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is similar to Akkadian, Arabic, and Hebrew, which is quite different from the Indo-European language family that includes English and French.
And, yet the word for chair comes from an English word “chaere,” which is tied to the Old-French word “chaiere.” These words originate from the Latin word “cathedra,” meaning chair, seat, or throne.
Fun Fact: It is believed that the word cathedra, i.e., seat, gave rise to the term for cathedrals because they were places where bishops had seats. This, along with the fact that chaiere in medieval Europe used to mean “seat of office or authority,” supports the theory that modern chairs were invented as a luxury for the elites.
Fortunately for all of us, chairs did not stay a luxury item for long, and their use spread like wildfire worldwide, reflecting the changes in time, cultures, and classes. Today, we have hundreds of thousands of chair types and styles. Let’s see how chairs evolved throughout history.
The Evolution of the Chair Through Time
People used stools, rocks, or other objects to sit or rest before the chairs were invented. Three-legged, one-person chairs and stools were already in use when the first four-legged armchairs appeared.
Chairs In Ancient Times
We know from persevered chairs found in the tombs of Queen Hetepheres I and King Tutankhamen that these early chairs were of excellent quality, made from wood, gold, and silver with exquisite detail carvings of flowers and animals. However, the exact design of the chairs depends on the time period and culture. Here’s everything we know from early texts, paintings, and found artifacts.
Ancient Egypt Chairs
Paintings in tombs reveal that Ancient Egyptians had sophisticated furniture pieces, including chairs, chests, stools, and beds. These illustrations are typically a representation of what the wealthy people used, and some evidence of chairs used by peasants shows that there was an immense class difference in chair style and design.
Common Egyptians used simple objects such as three or four-legged low stools covered with wool or leather. In contrast, the elites used four-legged wooden chairs with seats made of animal skins, woven leather strips, or durable plant materials. Their chairs were painted and carved in different patterns and designs. One characteristic was the animal carvings on the chair’s leg.
Fun Fact: It is believed that a person’s status was associated with the quality and height of their chair, and higher and taller chairs were an indicator of high rank and power. The ruling family usually had chairs made with precious materials such as gold and ivory. They featured elaborate carvings of scenes, inlays, and animals.
Ancient Mesopotamian Chairs
In Ancient Mesopotamia, chairs were made from wood and reed, and other low-quality materials. Sumerians used timber and mahaleb cherry wood to make chairs.
The wealthy people in Mesopotamia usually had chairs padded with felt, rushes, and leather upholstery. There’s also evidence that the most powerful and influential families had chairs inlaid or overlaid with gemstones, ivory, and faience. Many were also painted in bright colors, with animal carvings, and cast bronze or carved bone ornaments.
However, these descriptions are mostly associated with the Akkadian Empire because common people in Ancient Mesopotamia didn’t have chairs.
Interestingly, as time passed and the use of chairs became more widespread, people began to radically experiment with chair styles. By the time the Roman Empire was in its glory, we can see that chairs were yet another way through which people expressed their cultural identity.
The official chair of Romans was almost always one without back support. They were called sella, and both the poor and rich people used them (at least in their basic form). That being said, the emperors’ sellas were made from bronze and precious woods and decorated with ivory, silver, and a gold leaf. The most characteristic chair of the Roman period was the sella curulis – a folding chair with bronze legs.
In Greece, city rulers sat on thrones, which is where the word originated. Statues and paintings from that time show Gods, such as Zeus, sitting in elaborate thrones made from metal, gold, precious stones, gems, and ivory. Other more famous chair types in Ancient Greece were the klismos – chairs with an outward curved backrest and an inward curved legs, and the diphros stools – simple and portable backless chairs with four crossed, turned legs.
Fun Fact: Many of the names of Roman and Greek chair types are not associated with any known chair form. So, there’s a big probability that Romans and Greeks used unique chair forms that are lost today.
Ancient Chinese Chairs
It’s assumed that Chinese people had transitioned from floor-sitting to chair-sitting by the 12th century. Like the other Ancient Empires, chairs were mostly used by wealthy people and royals.
Chairs were designed and built according to three distinct traditional Chinese furniture design techniques dating back as early as 1000 BC. These are the frame and panel woodworking techniques, yoke and rack, and bamboo construction techniques.
Regardless of the techniques used, the chairs were very plain and simplistic in style and design. Even the luxurious chairs were made from simple polished wood. Sometimes they were covered in lacquer partially or entirely (Song Dynasty).
Early Chinese chair styles evolved independently from the West, evident by the lack of soft materials or covers. Cushions, textiles, and other upholstery forms were influenced by the West and introduced into Chinese culture very late in history ( the 18th century).
Technically, Renaissance is not an ancient period in time but rather the symbol of a new era after the Middle Ages. However, since it represents the dawn of innovation and predates the modern-day chair styles, we believe it’s a great transition point that glues together the history of chairs.
So, what happened during the Renaissance period?
Where we last left off our story, different Dynasties and Empires had found a way to mark their cultural influence and unique greatness through the furniture they used. At the beginning of the Renaissance, different cultures could still be distinguished their furniture styles, but as the spirit of the Renaissance spread through Europe, a more unified and dominant technique took over – carving.
Chairs built during the Renaissance were massive, numerous, and divergent in styles. The most recognizable chair styles from the Renaissance are the Savonarola chair – a sella curulis-form of chairs, and the high-back chairs or thrones that the kings and queens used. Leather, silk, and velvet cushions made the chairs more comfortable. In fact, high-back chairs are still seen as status objects, and often preferred by executives for their grandiose looks.
Another remarkable chair style from the Renaissance still relevant and produced today is the Dante chair. It’s also known as the X-chair or the scissors chair because of the way the legs are crossed. And, while it’s a symbol of antique and vintage design, you can still find simplistic, modern designs of the Dante chair today.
Beyond the Renaissance
Finally, after the Renaissance, with the Age of Enlightenment and Romanticism, chairs became a symbol of leisure, comfort, and privilege. A lot of emphasis was put on the aesthetics of the chair.
During the Age of Enlightenment, we also saw the beginning of a novel type of furnishing – the office furniture, where people made desks and chairs for work. However, chairs were still not mass-produced, and these office chairs were throne-like in style – very different from the modern office chair we all know and love today.
So, as we continue to branch out with more and more chair forms being invented worldwide, we get to an interesting question: When were some of the most famous chair styles in use today invented?
Modern Day Chairs
Today, we have more chair types, styles, and designs than we can imagine. We have small and portable chairs, wooden chairs, soft and comfortable upholstery chairs, large gaming chairs with dozens of gadgets and attachments, as well as medical, lumbar support chairs. People do not look at chairs as a luxury item but as a bare necessity for every aspect of life – eating, work, watching TV, going to a restaurant with friends, and more.
However, some iconic and trendy chair designs are almost universal. For instance, while there are many different office chairs, the design always features a padded chair seat with back support and casters to roll and swivel.
Here are three of the most iconic chair types and styles today and how they made their way into the world.
The Vienna Chair
As the name suggests, the Vienna chair originated in Vienna, thanks to Michael Thonet, a pioneer in furniture design. He was well known in Europe for his novel and unique technique that allowed him to bend wood into curves – now known as bentwood. This technique permitted Thonet to experiment and produce beautiful and organic shapes with wood that were unseen before.
In the 1850s, Thonet founded a furniture company and started mass-producing his designs, which was history in the making. He was the first one to actually mass-produce furniture. The first piece of furniture he mass-produced was the iconic No. 14 Chair or the Vienna chair. It’s also called the bistro chair because they were mainly sold to coffee bars all around Vienna. In fact, the design was specifically for coffee shops in Vienna.
So, the world’s first mass-produced furniture item is the simplest, practical, and wonderfully elegant chair we still see at bars and coffee shops. The original version of the Vienna chair was made from six pieces of steam-bent wood and a seat made of woven cane or palm.
Today, the Vienna chair is one of the world’s best-selling chairs, with over 50 million chairs being sold between 1859 and 1930. It’s still produced today by the Gebrüder Thonet Vienna company.
The Club Chair
Contrasting the practicality and simplicity of the Vienna chair is another iconic and timeless design that became the epitome of comfort and luxury.
The club chair is a type of armchair usually covered in dark, brown leather. However, it wasn’t always known as the “club chair,” but rather the comfortable chair or fauteuil comfortable when it was first invented in France. Unfortunately, the exact designers are unknown, even though their legacy remains today.
Thanks to its characteristics, such as the rounded shape and the use of Basane (full-grain sheep’s leather), we can trace the chair back to the 1930s in France, when luxury, durability, and comfort were the focus of furniture designs.
The name “club chair” was associated with it later because it was primarily used in French and English gentlemen’s clubs.
Today, there are many different variations and popular designs inspired by the timeless club armchair. You can check out some of our favorite armchair options here.
The Office Chair
The modern office chair has a fascinating and unique history behind its invention. For instance, did you know that the standard office chair has four fathers? In other words, four people are credited with its invention.
The mother of the office chair was the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century for two reasons. First, mass production made chairs less expensive and accessible to ordinary people. The second was the shift in labor toward administrative, i.e., office work. This created a demand for the office chair that would change the world of furniture.
The Four Fathers
Still, this doesn’t mean that the office chair did not exist before the 19th century. In fact, the first father of the office chair is none other than Charles Darwin. It’s believed that he was the first (or one of the first) to craft a prototype of today’s office chair. He made a moving chair by putting wheels onto his ordinary work chair as he needed to scoot around his lab to check his experiments.
The second father of the office chair is Thomas Warren, who mass-produced a victorian-style chair that could swivel – very much like today’s modern office chairs. However, he was ahead of his time. The chair was too ergonomic for people in Europe, where sitting in comfort was viewed as immoral.
The third father who deserves some credit is Thomas Jefferson. He invented the swivel chair and loved it so much that he drafted the Declaration in it.
Still, the “real” father and true inventor of the modern office chair in its complete package was the genius Thomas E. Warren who put together two and two and made a chair with wheels that can also swivel. He named it the “Centripetal Spring Armchair,” specifically designed for office work. The Centripetal Spring Armchair had many features that modern ergonomic chairs have today, such as height adjustability. However, it did not come with lumbar support and was a little too rigid.
Today, the world’s best-selling office chair is the Herman Miller Aeron chair which costs more than $1000. You can also check out our picks for this year’s top 6 ergonomic office chairs and see how far the chair industry has come along (and maybe get yourself one!). We also have tips to make an office chair more comfortable without breaking the bank.
The history of the chair is quite interesting, and we hope you enjoyed reading about the evolution of chair designs and styles over time. Seeing how the chair changed in different periods is an excellent testament to the evolution of our culture and societies.
But, let us not forget that in most cases, history is an interpretation more than a fact, especially when we’re talking about ancient times. Archeological findings help historians map out human history, but we can’t go back and see what exactly happened. Maybe in the future, we’ll find proof that some other ancient civilization in a different part of the world used chairs just as early, if not even earlier than the Ancient Egyptians. Even today, some historians say that the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Scotland is actually the earliest site where chairs are found.
But, until we uncover some new, groundbreaking truth about the chair’s origins, this is the official history of chairs.