We deal with a lot of chairs at Smart Furniture. From ergonomic task chairs to molded works of art, we’ve seen our fair share of chairs. That led a few of us to wonder, “How did the chair evolve? Where did it come from?”
Believe it or not, at one point in time people didn’t have chairs. They were forced to sit on the ground. Just imagine: you’ve just finished a hard day of hunting, gathering, and avoiding man eating animals. You return to your cave completely worn out and there’s nowhere comfortable to sit. Maybe if you’re lucky you have some grass to lie on. Sounds pretty brutal. With early people traveling so much — or leading nomadic lifestyles, if you prefer to be technical — the chairs were impractical and, while the need was there, no one really thought to create a piece dedicated solely to comfort and relaxation.
Once people began settling down — building the first structures, domesticating crops and animals, that kind of thing — the first form of the chair appeared as mats, cushions, benches, and ottomans. These earliest attempts at not sitting on the ground predate written history, going back beyond 10,000 BC. Definitely more comfortable (and sanitary) than the floor, these elementary “chairs” were still a far cry from the chair you know today. And worst of all, no back support! Sure, a pillow beats the ground, but it isn’t where I’d want to sit after a long day of tending crops with seeds that were just being domesticated.
Not surprisingly, some of the earliest forms of the chair as we know it today come from Egypt. Pyramids, early paper … it seems the Egyptians were busy doing everything cool for a good portion of history. These early chairs were often incredibly ornate, carved of wood with intricate gold or ivory inlays. Chairs would become grander and more ornate up through the 17th and 18th centuries, but were limited to being a luxury item for those who ruled. Those not of the privileged class were relegated to sitting on stools and benches; a back was too much to dream for. The stool and bench actually came to symbolize the working class in the western world because of this sharp division between chair users and the not-so-lucky. Stools have their place, but if a stool is a symbol of your place in life you are probably the victim of some serious back pain.
It wasn’t until the English Restoration in the late 17th century that ordinary individuals began using chairs. By no means was the chair an item that all people owned, but it was spreading to the upper echelons of society rather than solely the ruling class. This trend would continue into the modern era, spurred on by the industrial revolution. Much as it did for so many elements of life, the industrial revolution helped democratize the chair by giving more families disposable income and making the chair more affordable through manufacturing and mass production.
After the chair became readily available to all, chair design took a sharp turn towards functionality almost as if in response to the elaborate designs that had permeated chair construction prior to the 1800s. Chairs that weren’t solely functional were incredibly ornate and ostentatious pieces. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the chair was redesigned and re-imagined by individuals like Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, George Nelson and more, into pieces that were both beautiful and functional. The mid-century design revolution (that’s middle of the 20th century) saw a surge of novel ideas that focused on quality materials and simple yet beautiful designs, re-imagining the chair as a functional piece of art. This emphasis on functionality and beauty continues to shape the development of the chair today.
After centuries of a lack of chairs and viable seating options for most people, a funny thing happened in the 1990s. People were sitting too much. The advent of computers and the “technological revolution” saw people sitting at a desk for hours on end as they worked. After centuries of not sitting, human bodies became accustomed to active lifestyles and staying seated for an entire day actually harms your health. Slower blood flow, lower metabolism, and increased risk of heart problems can all occur from sitting for extended periods. Learn more about the danger of staying seated here.
In response to these emerging health problems, the past decade has seen a heavy emphasis on healthier chairs. Particularly among office chairs, new designs focus on mimicking the human body and providing better ways of supporting your back and spine. More than just providing support, the Herman Miller Embody Chair (pictured in use to the right) is actually the first “health positive” chair. Using the Embody Chair can actually improve the health of your back and spine.
We may have glossed over some of the details, but hopefully you can see how the chair evolved from grass on the floor to the modern wonders we use today that can actually improve your health. It’s easy to take a chair for granted, but next time you relax, work or just sit in a chair realize that whatever you’re sitting on is a marvel of human innovation and capacity.