I’ve recently been touring around giving talks and readings in bookstores, libraries, and colleges. The subject is my latest book, Now I Sit Me Down, a history of the chair. A common question from the audience is “What is your favorite chair?” I think that the implied question is actually “What is your favorite chair design?” But I prefer to answer it literally. I have come to the conclusion that what makes a chair a “favorite” is not the way it looks, or the fame of its designer, but rather the way it is used.
For me, and I suspect for many people, our favorite is the chair we sit in to relax—an easy chair, the name says it all. For me that’s my reading chair, where I read for pleasure when the writing day is over. Or sometimes reread what I’ve written—I gain a different perspective when I’m sitting in my easy chair. What sort of chair? It’s a wing chair. Hardly an antique, it was manufactured thirty years ago in North Carolina, but it’s based on an eighteenth-century model from Tidewater Virginia. Sometimes it’s hard to improve on a good thing.
How did I choose which chairs to include in my book? In some cases it was their longevity—the wing chair was already a hundred years old when George and Martha Washington had one in their Mount Vernon bedroom. Two hundred years after that, Archie Bunker pontificated from his wing chair in Queens. The folding camp stool originated in ancient Egypt, and we still use it today. There are chairs, like Michael Thonet’s bentwood café chair, that mark an important historical moment, when the chair ceased to be crafted and became a mass-produced product. The Danish Modern master Hans Wegner deserved a chapter simply because his chairs are so good. In other cases it was ingenuity that counted: Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel side chair and Charles and Ray Eames’s molded wood chairs have no direct historical precedents—they represent conceptual leaps in the dark. Designer chairs have their place, but some of the best and longest-lasting chairs were developed anonymously: the Windsor chair, the rocking chair, the deck chair. And I could not leave out such specialized chairs as the knockdown safari chair, the umbrella stroller, and the folding wheelchair. Or the adjustable ergonomic task chair, the most recent arrival to the chair family, unless of course you count the ubiquitous plastic chair, a scruffy intruder and the first global chair.
I decided early that the book should have illustrations. Most chair anthologies use photographs, but drawings are actually better at explaining exactly how a chair is put together; a photograph simply records what’s there, but an expressive drawing can highlight one feature and de-emphasize another. And drawings done in the same style underline that all chairs—whether medieval backstools or modern office chairs—are tools for sitting.
I made the drawings myself, using ink pens and pencil shading. Many of the best chairs have been based on craftsmanship, so drawing by hand seemed the right thing to do. There are sixty-five drawings. The most complicated was the Thonet Schaukensofa, a reclined rocking chair whose continuous bentwood pieces curve back and forth to form the back support, arms, and rockers. French eighteenth-century armchairs, with their puffy upholstery and carved cabriole legs, were the most fun to draw. Modern minimalist chairs, like the Jacobsen Series 7 and the Rowland 40/4 stacking chair, proved the most challenging—there is so little to work with.
I made the drawings especially for this book—with one exception. The sketch of an old rush-bottom ladder back chair that forms the frontispiece was drawn almost fifty years ago. I was a freshly minted architecture graduate and I was in Spain, part of my Grand Tour. My traveling companion and I had driven down from Paris, and we were spending a week in Sitges, a coastal Catalan town. We had rented a small house in the old part of town facing the beach. The house came with beat-up furniture—and a cat. It was March and too cold to swim, so I spent a lot of time sketching. Which is when I drew this old chair. Obviously I remembered Van Gogh’s painting, made when he was living in Arles, another Mediterranean town just up the coast. Different time, different place, similar chair. His chair was yellow, mine was green. The rush-bottom side chair appeared in the seventeenth century and it continues to be made today. That is what is so appealing about chairs—they are a living link to the past.
Witold Rybczynski is a writer and an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of How Architecture Works and Mysteries of the Mall and has written about architecture and design for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. Among his award-winning books are Home, The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He is the winner of the 2007 Vincent Scully Prize and the 2014 Design Mind Award from the National Design Awards. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia.
All illustrations in Now I Sit Me Down by Witold Rybczynski