The architecture and design collection of chairs

A Brief History of the Chair in Design

This blog was originally published in 2012.

Roaming through the museum’s Martin Building you may find yourself asking, “What’s with all the chairs?” I know I have. To answer this question for myself and all of you, I did a little digging into the history of design. As it turns out from reviewing Centuries and styles of the American chair, 1640-1970 by Robert Charles Bishop and 1000 chairs by Charlotte Fiell, a chair can say a lot.

Throughout history, chairs have symbolized the life and times of a designers and consumers. Like any work of art, we can learn about the culture they came from by looking at how they were made, who made them, and their style. What was important at the time? Who were they made for? What space did they used to inhabit? As art and architecture evolve over time, chair design does too. But their purpose never has; for millennia people have needed a place to sit. As such, the chair is a perfect marker for the ever-changing history of design.

Chairs combine form and function in a way that is easy for consumers to digest but incredibly difficult for designers to perfect inasmuch as they encompass many of the challenges of design-—engineering, material choice, production method, style, and functionality—in one small package.

In many cases a designer’s entire philosophy can be summed up by their chair. Designer George Nelson put it nicely, saying, “Every truly original idea—every innovation in design, every new application of materials, every technical invention for furniture—seems to find its most important expression in a chair.”

Nearly every important designer has made a chair at some point in their career. So take a seat and consider the chair. What would your “most important expression” look like?

DoubleButter (established 2006, Denver, CO), Roadrunner Chair, 2006. Medium-density fiberboard (MDF), linseed oil, and pine-resin varnish. Manufactured by DoubleButter, Denver, CO. Denver Art Museum, gift of the manufacturer. 2010.9.

Thomas E. Warren, Centripetal Spring Side Chair, about 1849. Manufactured by American Chair Company, Troy, New York. Denver Art Museum; funds from DAM Yankees. 1989.91.

Gothic Revival Armchair. American, about 1840–60. Walnut and reproduction needlepoint upholstery. Funds from the DAM Yankees, 1990.192.