Take a Seat: Celebrating Dining's Unsung Hero
Considering the humble chair, its origins, and the history on how we sit down to dine
Today’s post comes to you from Katy Kelleher, whose “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption” was recently named one of NPR’s “Books We Love” for 2023. Her story below is part of our broader January theme: Comfort.
Good diners notice details. The food. The crowd. The music. But what about…chairs? Unless they’re wobbly, these utilitarian pieces of furniture are almost universally overlooked.
I noticed chairs at a young age, long before I started writing about design. For that, I can thank Boston’s Jacob Wirth House, a now closed/rumored to reopen beer hall once located in the theater district that served schnitzel and sausage. It was a favorite of my German grandmother, and so we went once a year, driving an hour to reach our culinary destination. To me, it felt like a real European restaurant. It didn’t have the low ceilings of The Colonial Inn in Concord or the stark spindle-backed chairs of the Wayside Inn in Sudbury. Instead, it had intimate tables and friendly, curvy bentwood chairs.
A bit of history on the bentwood: The most famous example is Thonet's No. 14, commonly known as the "bistro chair," which sold some 50 million units from 1859 to 1930. The No. 14 chair took gold medal honors at the 1867 World’s Fair, and caused Le Corbusier to gush, "never was a better and more elegant design.” Now firmly in the public domain, iterations of the original are sold by big boxes like IKEA and Muji.
Yes, bentwoods were, and still are, everywhere. And yet, most people never give too much thought to chairs, unless they’re working improperly. Strange, since when you’re eating out, the dining chair is one of the most important utensils, trumping, I’d argue, even the fork in its usefulness. A chair lifts you up to the level of your food and holds you there. Whether or not you linger for dessert depends, at least in part, on the success of that chair.
For as long as Americans have been dining, we’ve been mostly doing so upon a series of four-legged platforms. What distinguishes a dining chair from any other type of seating is its uniformity (they come in sets), its portability (you have to be able to move them to and from the table), and its (relative) simplicity.
They’re also some of our oldest, most steadfast furniture, dating back to ancient Egypt, at least. It’s actually kind of amazing how modern this chair from 1450 BCE looks, with its simple and elegant ivory embellishments. It’s generally accepted that chairs were invented by the Egyptians, and while ancient Greeks sat to eat, the Romans favored a reclining position on low, sofa-like loungers arranged in a semi-circle around the table. The Gods, on the other hand, sat up in thrones, according to art from the time. Perhaps that’s part of why we still use dining chairs rather than putting our bodies in more comfortable positions to eat — they remind us of power.
As the centuries wore on in Europe, more people accessed the simple technology of a straight-backed chair, yet heavy, ornate chairs were reserved for the fancy folk who could afford them (and had the staff to push them around).
“In medieval Europe, as in ancient Egypt, if you were entitled to sit on a chair it meant you were important, because the chief role of furniture was to signify status,” writes architect Witold Rybczynski in Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair.
Throughout the Renaissance, the Baroque period, and the Rococo era, chairs became increasingly more fanciful and ornate. It wasn’t until the 19th century that high minded design began to simplify, and we can thank both modernist architecture and the advent of cafe culture for the shift. The French get the credit for creating the basic blueprint for our most commonly used chairs, but northern European makers played their part, too. Inspired in part by the sturdy, simple, and graceful forms of Shaker furniture, Danish modern design took the world by storm in the 1940s and forever changed how Americans decorated and dined. These mass produced, solid wood objects were inspired (at least in part) by an egalitarian desire for all people to have comfortable, durable, nice things…plus some minimalist, curvy design.
In many ways, it feels like this is when American furniture tastes stalled out, especially regarding dining chairs. Some wild choices appear now and again, but it’s mostly a sea of cafe chairs, bentwood, and Eames lookalikes. Few contemporary dining chairs are both interesting and comfortable, which is arguably the most important aspect of seating. This means we rarely stop to notice perfectly serviceable chairs. You’re more likely to discuss a bad chair — much like the ranting people of Reddit and Vice, I loathe an Industrial Cafe chair. Yet these are popular dining options in the casual, family-friendly places I tend to visit — acceptable, but not exactly built for comfort.
No wonder most people prefer to be on the inside of the booth.