Chairs of the Twentieth Century

I am fascinated by the idea of the renaissance man. The kind of person who can do anything. Michaelangelo, who started of as a painter but branched into architecture, sculpture, poetry and architecture. Leonardo Da Vinci, the painter of the worlds most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was sought after as a war strategist, designer of things ahead of his time like parachutes, diving boats and explosive devices, to name but a few.

In our time with major technological advances on every front it is difficult to be the best in your own field, let alone other fields of expertise. It is hart warming to still find such people. In architects I found some modern renaissance men. Especially in the field of furniture design.

Chairs is one of the most essential of household and interior decorating furniture. The end of the nineteenth century saw a big change in how people saw their surroundings. Changes in social structure caused people to discover their own worth and allowed people of all social levels to surround themselves with beautiful things. The industrial revolution with mass production made costs of many products come down. New technology made designs possible that were previously not even draemt of. All this caused an explosion of design in chairs.

The first development in chair design came from the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris. Morris was a designer, artist, poet and novelist. His life motto was that one should surround yourself with objects that is both useful and beautiful. The arts and Crafts movement emphasized the use of handcraft and material of high quality.


The Spinners chair or ‘tub chair’ was handmade and decorated by hand and demonstrated Morris’s ideas.


The turn of the century made people aware of the dawn of a new era. The  Art Nouveau and Art deco styles came into being. Art Nouveau was a florid style with organic appearance and flowing lines. Every country had its own name for their form of Art Nouveau. In Spain it was called modernism.

Antonio Gaudi was an architect in Barcelona. He designed unique buildings in the Catalan Modernism style. Old fashioned furniture looked odd in these organic styled buildings which forced him to design his ownfurniture.


On the forefront of Viennese Jungenstijl was professor of architecture Otto Wagner. The simplicity of his designs was revolutionary.




The idea to design furniture to complement your architecture became a trend with innovative architects of the Twentieth century.

Mies van der Rohe with his modern buildings consisting of expanses of glass, marble and metals, designed chrome and leather masterpieces to furnish his buildings. They are still seen as masterpieces today. His two well known remarks is well demonstrated in the furniture: “Less is more” (with simple lines but well designed)  and “God is in the details” (good quality materials and perfectly  finished).

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The architect Le Corbusier had the same problem with furniture not fitting into his modern buildings. His furniture is highly sought after today and original pieces can fetch the same prices as art masterpieces on international auctions.


Scottish designer Rene Macintosh had a range of chairs with dramatic appearance. Celtic and Japanese influences played a major role in his development as artist and is reflected in his chairs.

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The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, known for iconic houses like Falling Water, complemented his buildings with his own unique style of furniture as well.


Scandinavian design is known world wide for its simplicity, style and craftsmanship. Alvar Aalto, Finish architect started of as furniture designer and branched into architecture later in life.


The iconic harp chair of 1968 is another timeless Scandinavian chair, by Jørgen Høvelskov. The design is based on a Viking ship.


But good design is more than expensive furniture of the best materials available. Real good design is often the well designed chair with simple lines and can easily mass produced. It should be sturdy, strong and stackable, like Robin Day’s 1962 chair that we often see in town halls, schools or restaurants. After half a century they are still popular and comfortable.


Even our contemporary architects like Frank O. Gehry makes time to play at furniture designer. His ” Wiggle chair” is made of corrugated cardboard glued together. It might be tong in cheek and may not be the iconic chairs of Mies van der Rohe, but it is still good original design.


How do you select chairs over a time peried of more than a century to write about. Every new material on the market had the spin off of new furniture design. Every designer has his/her own idea on how a chair should look like. It is a stimulating and entertaining subject to read about. I added drawings of a few more of my personal favourites. I hope it will stimulate to read more on this fascinating subject.



2 thoughts on “Chairs of the Twentieth Century”

  1. My vriend. Jy het ‘n lang pad gekom, en dit met vrug voltooi, tot hier toe. Die horison roep verder; nog sovele ander dinge en belewenisse om ook in die knapsak te sit ter nagedagtenis en viering van jou kleurvolle lewe.

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