In Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History Witold Rybczynski provides us with a fascinating and entertaining history of the chair. New chairs, old chairs, comfy ones, nasty ones, Chinese, French, Roman, American - his scope is global. And his enthusiasm infectious. If, like me, you treasure books which reveal the amazing background of the everyday objects in our lives, then this wonderful volume is for you.
It turns out that a history of chairs is also a history about power, culture, and our relationship to pleasure. As far back as ancient Egypt, for instance, chairs were symbols of authority and status. Important people sat in chairs; commoners had to settle for stools. Rybczynski reports seeing an Egyptian wall painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in which a carpenter sits on stool while he’s making a chair. In Medieval Europe this distinction in seating continued. Commoners sat on stools, benches, upturned pails, etc. but not chairs. Those are reserved for the privileged. Much of this had to do with the fact that chairs were - and still are - rather difficult to make. To create a stable one required the skilled work of carpenters, joiners, and other craftsmen. They were expensive and not easy to come by. Hence, symbols of status.
|The hu chuang|
Like other Asian cultures, the Chinese began by sitting on mats on the ground. Around the third or fourth century BC, the Chinese invented the kang - an elevated platform which could be heated from below. Kangs would often extend along an entire wall of a room and were used for sleeping as well as sitting. In fact, they’re still in use in China. In the second century AD the folding stool (hu chuang) was introduced to China. It had the same design as the X-frame stools which the Romans used in their army camps. Since there was then no Chinese word for “chair” or “stool” they used chuang, which means “bed.” Hu means “barbarian.” It is believed that the hu chuang was probably an import from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.
|The Chinese Yoke Back Chair (Yi)|
|The Windsor chair|
|Fauteuil à la reine|
So, as you can see, this book covers a lot of ground. I haven’t even dealt with chairs in the modern age. And I won’t. I will leave that for you to discover for yourself in this brief, superb book. Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier, Michael Thonet, Hans Wegner, Alvar and Aino Aalto, and others bring the chair into the industrial era. Published in 2016, the book takes the history of the chair into our own times. Illustrated with the author’s own attractive drawings (such as the fauteuil, left), Now I Sit Me Down is an impressive and eye-opening account of an ordinary item with a revealing history.