Functions of Chairs in the 20th Century Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Functions of Chairs in the 20th Century

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Apart from possibly the automobile, the chair is the most designed, studied, written about and celebrated artefact of the modern era.
- excerpt from '1000 chairs' by Charlotte & Peter Fiell

Chairs are very important objects1. But when you look at chairs as being something more to simply sit upon, you find that the functions they fulfil, the design concepts behind their making, and the reasons they are bought, cover a vast and varied area.

Sure, a chair is designed to be something to sit upon. But it is this very simplicity of the humble chair's primary function that makes designing a desirable chair so difficult. Designing an object that can be sat upon is easy - but creating a 'good' chair ties furniture designers up in knots.

In the 20th Century, the design of chairs was, variously, an exercise in:

  • Product design
  • Interior design
  • Art
  • Craft
  • Architecture

So let's take a look at how chair design has become this significant and complex process.

Aesthetics, Style, and Status

In our daily lives, many of us spend more time in a sitting position than in any other. And though we may fill our homes with a myriad of domestic objects, we will almost certainly spend as much money on the seating as on any other aspect. The importance of chairs is reflected in the fact that the variety of chairs is greater than for any other single household object.

Unconsciously, we use chairs for much more than a place to rest our bottoms. We chose chairs to express our individuality and status, and to demonstrate our good taste. Architects, artists and designers also use seating designs to express their higher ideals, and we find that the latest in seating design has been an important aspect of many artistic and cultural movements.

Architects and Designers

During the 20th Century, the tendency was for the design of complete environments, rather than the separation of architecture, interior design, and product design.

There was a particularly close link between architecture and chair design. The most prominent modernist architects - Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier2 - all designed chairs. They sometimes did this specifically for the interiors of their buildings, but sometimes just as an independent part of their practice. For many architects it was a low-cost, achievable way of seeing their ideas given a physical form.

At the start of the 20th Century, the most prominent architect/designer in Britain was Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Like others working in the Art Nouveau style, he designed - or at least supervised the design of - complete environments, from the structure of the building to the tiniest interior fitting.

Many of Mackintosh's chairs are still available, as reproductions which are quite authentic in terms of form and finish. So the position today is that although Mackintosh and other widely copied designers designed chairs as integral components of their interiors, the reproductions are now sold individually and are bought as discrete works. And they are bought primarily as works of art rather than as useful household furniture.

Feeling Comfortable

Such is the energy and creativity that has been applied to seating design in the 20th Century that it would be easy to acknowledge only the new, the exciting, and the adventurous, while ignoring the chairs that most of us fill our homes with. In addition to the active aspirations we have for ourselves, our lifestyles, and consequently the things with which we surround ourselves, we are also looking for comfort. Just as in a physical sense we will see that comfort consists of an absence of pressure and muscular activity so, psychologically, comfort may be induced by an absence of anything new or challenging.

A visit to almost any out-of-town retail development will reveal warehouses full of mass-produced furniture. This type of furniture does have much to recommend it. It is cheap, easily available, and widely liked. However, it has little to say with respect to how furniture will be designed in the future, beyond 'There will be more of the same'.

Cost and Value

Because there is such a huge variety of chairs available it is difficult to recognise a particular model and assign a value to it. Neither does the cost of chairs depend on the specification, as with, for example, television sets. The value of chairs rests on more elusive attributes - for example authenticity, design, quality or exclusivity. How the chair is marketed and, in particular, where the chair is bought has a big impact on its perceived value.

As domestic items go, chairs are expensive, and yet everyone must have them. This makes for a hugely price-competitive domestic market, and many people buy the cheapest chairs they can find that fulfil the functions they require of them. This means that these 'cheap' chairs are produced in huge quantities and are therefore perceived as the norm. Any chairs made that differ from this 'norm' are, of necessity, produced in smaller quantities, and are therefore always more expensive.

We have then a major clue to a chair's value: if it does not look 'normal', then it must have a higher value. This 'unusualness' may take the form of an unconventional form or unusual materials, a different construction method, or more sophisticated functions.

So to be able to make an informed assessment of a chair, to make sense of what its image means, it is important to know what a chair costs to make, what price it is being sold for, and how many have been produced.

The Functions of Chairs

As stated in the introduction, the definition of a chair is not descriptive or aesthetic, but functional. It is simply an object to be sat on. But as seating design progresses beyond the basic piece of wood of a convenient height, chairs can be seen as objects that fulfil not only this primal function, but also a range of others.

The functions of chairs are concerned with:

  • The physical well-being of the sitter
  • The psychological well-being of the sitter
  • People other than the sitter

Of these three categories the first is self-explanatory. The second is concerned with how sitting in a chair makes you feel, or how what it does to your position, posture and relationship to others makes you feel. The third category is to do with the fulfilment of functions for other people - for example the designer, the owner of the building in which the chair is situated, or someone whose job it is to clean the chair or the floor around it.

Physical Well-being

The group of functions that are concerned with the physical well-being of the sitter has been closely examined and formalised in the 20th Century. It forms an important part of the science of Ergonomics.

Psychological Well-being

How sitting in a chair makes you feel is determined by a very complex, culturally-sensitive process. In order for us, as social animals, to feel good, we need to feel in control. One of the ways in which we do this is to impose our will on our environment, with our own bodies as the centre of that environment.

Our clothes are the first layer. What we wear is hugely significant, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Forming the next layer out, so to speak, are chairs. Next comes the other furniture and decoration in our rooms, our home itself, then the area in which we live. The outer layers consist of our village, town or city (as applicable), then our region, country and continent.

So our choice of chairs is very close to us, and therefore very important. For us to be happy with them, they have to look as though they will 'do the job'.

If we want to relax, the chair has to look comfortable; if we want to work, the chair we choose should look efficient. The design cues we look for may come from other chairs we have had experience of in the past, or they may be drawn from other sources.


The posture that a chair puts us in is also very important to our state of mind. The more alert we want to be, the higher off the ground we want our chairs. If we want to relax, we find a lower chair more appropriate.

This issue is currently having an interesting effect in the automotive industry. In cars we want to feel efficient, powerful, and in control, yet the seats we are given are very low and raked backwards. This is done for good ergonomic and aerodynamic reasons, but it may make us feel vulnerable, and subservient to other road users. Perhaps this is why some people like the seat height of large, high, four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Public Seating

In public situations most chairs are fixed. This prevents us from adjusting the position of the chair in relation to other people. Prevented from doing it ourselves, we want seating in this situation to be designed in such a way as to demarcate our personal spaces for us. Arm rests are used on bench-type seating in public environments, in a way that would be ridiculous on our sofas at home. Public multi-person seating is also very much more sturdy, not just for durability, but also to prevent any movement of our seat when someone else sits down further along. If our seat did move this would, subconsciously, feel like an infringement of our personal space, and we would begin to feel uncomfortable.

People Other Than the Sitter

Chairs are also designed to fulfil functions for people other than the sitter. In a commercial situation, the chairs are unlikely to have been bought by the person who is to sit on them. So how can the chairs they buy fulfil functions for them? Primarily, of course, they are buying a solution to the problem of providing seats for people. But this is only the first of the problems that chairs in this situation can solve.

Chairs are commonly used to indicate the status of the sitter, saying 'I am important', or 'I am efficient', for example. This can be extended to convey information about a company - perhaps 'We work in a high-tech way'. Once it is accepted that chairs function in this visual way, then there are new ways in which they can fail. Durability is important in both commercial and domestic situations, but in commercial situations the seating may have to appear perfect in order to perform its visual functions. Durability is therefore at a premium, along with low maintenance and ease of cleaning.

There are functions which chairs may be required to perform, even when they are not in use. For the manufacturer, the ability to flat-pack furniture until it reaches the point of sale, or even the consumer's home, saves considerable expense in distribution costs. The slim profit margins of companies like IKEA depend on this saving. For the user, especially the corporate user, stacking and ease of storage may be a critical characteristic.

Chairs are also used by designers as a way of communicating their ideas to a wider audience.

1In fact, you're probably sitting on one right now...2Pseudonym of Swiss-born architect and artist Charles Edouard Jeanneret (1887 - 1965). Le Corbusier was the name of a relative on his father's side.

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