What Makes a Good Chair?

What Makes a Good Chair?

Ahead of Sotheby's sale, Take a Seat, design experts Charlotte and Peter Fiell take us through the combination of elements that makes a good chair.
Ahead of Sotheby's sale, Take a Seat, design experts Charlotte and Peter Fiell take us through the combination of elements that makes a good chair.

T here is something very special about chairs. That is because a good chair is like a good friend – someone who is always there to offer solace and comfort. But more than this, chairs that can be described as “good” help us define our own personal spaces and bring an all-important sense of style and character to our domestic landscapes.

The enduring appeal of a good chair can be put down to how successfully its creator has managed to combine aesthetics and function, while addressing a particular set of needs. Its success can also be gauged by how well it expresses the age and culture in which it was created, because it is this element that gives a chair its own distinctive emotionally engaging personality. In comparison to any other designed object, chairs sustain a far great physical and psychological interaction with their users, and it is this that has led them to enjoy a unique place within the realm of design. So much so, most well-known designers and architects have at some point in their careers turned their hand to designing a chair – it is almost a rite of passage within those professions. That said, the history of the chair goes back a lot further than that, in fact right back to the dawn of civilization, when humans progressed from so-called “mat cultures” to societies that began developing different forms of seat furniture. For many centuries, if not millennia in certain cultures, the chair has literally conferred the elevated position of its users.

Even today as a symbolic object, the chair has few equals. That is because whether in the form of a throne or an executive office chair, it powerfully signifies the status of its user. And that also explains why chairs are territorialized by us in our daily lives, with each family member often having their preferred chair to sit in as way of marking out their own space. So, given how integral chairs are with our lives, it makes a lot of sense to only make acquaintance with good ones: life is too short not to make space for a few exemplars in one’s home.

This fascinating sale showcases the extraordinary creative breadth that has gone into the design and construction of good chairs over the course of three centuries, including as it does elegant eighteenth century giltwood fauteuils, various carved African “tribal” stools and seats, an interesting assortment of nineteenth century Neo-classical armchairs and even a simple yet beautifully crafted Provençal Style corner-chair from the early twentieth century. And in addition, it also features a nicely curated round up of acknowledged modern seating icons by the likes of Jean-Michel Frank, Ignazio Gardella, Alexandre Noll, Claude Lalanne, Tom Dixon and Charles Pollock.


Yet despite the stylistic diversity of these different seating solutions, they all fall into the category of “good chairs” – creations that have a tangible sculptural and stylistic presence thanks to the strength of their inherent design and quality of execution. In fact, each and every one can be seen to reflect the hopes, dreams and aspirations of its designer, while at the same time providing a poignant insight into the social mores and hierarchies of the societies from which they emerged. In a nutshell, these fifty or so chairs are the physical testaments to creative lives lived as well as interesting barometers of socio-economic and political change. The fact that they have been treasured over the decades, and in some cases centuries, testifies to their exceptional quality because when people feel emotionally engaged with objects, then they are more likely to safeguard them for future generations. If only these chairs could speak, what spellbinding stories could they tell having successfully survived, in some cases probably against considerable odds, over the meandering pathways of bygone times?

Throughout its history the chair has always been explicitly linked to power and status – the notion of the chairman’s chair being the perfect case in point. And over the last three centuries, although its functional body-supporting imperative has barely changed, the chair as a designed artefact has been subject to countless interpretations, revolutions and evolutions. As such, its design development – from the earliest primitive wooden stool to today’s parametrically-derived design art piece – mirrors the richly woven tapestry of our shared material culture, encompassing ever-changing tastes as well as constantly evolving materials, technologies and ideologies. Today, the good chair remains a potent totemic object of desire in that it offers us, even in troubled and uncertain times, an emotionally reassuring historical continuity that firmly rests on the twin constants of accomplished design endeavour and beautifully crafted execution. So, sit back, relax and enjoy contemplating this lovely collection of good chairs.

20th Century Design

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