Better Sit Down For This One: An Exciting Book About The History Of Chairs

Sep 3, 2016
Originally published on September 3, 2016 5:45 pm

Please, have a seat; it's time to talk about chairs.

Thomas Jefferson collected chairs. Pee Wee Herman named his 'Chairy.' Archie Bunker's beloved wingback is now at The National Museum of American History. And when the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey sat on a swivel chair for the first time, she was in for a surprise.

In the new book Now I Sit Me Down architect Witold Rybczynski traces the history of chairs. Take a close look at what you're sitting on, he says, and you'll learn about trends in architecture, design, culture and society.

When Rybczynski sits down to write, it's in an old, wooden swivel chair he bought at a flea market 40-some years ago. It reclines, it tilts, and it's well-worn. "This isn't just me," he says. "This is also whoever owned it before me. The wear and tear is kind of nice in an old chair."

Chairs are old — really old. But when exactly did humans decide the ground wasn't good enough? The oldest kind of chair, Rybcynski believes, was probably a folding chair — think of the nomadic tribes in ancient China, for example. "There are lots of occasions where you want to walk somewhere and then you want to sit," Rybczynski says. Who knew your beach chair had such a backstory?

The earliest records of chairs appear in Egyptian tomb paintings and ancient Greek art. The oldest representation Rybczynski could find is a Greek sculpture from 3,000 B.C., which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (You can see it right here.) It shows a harpist sitting on a simple, four-legged chair. "We would call it a kitchen chair," says Rybczynski.

"The striking thing about the Greeks," Rybczynski explains, "is that the chairs become very democratic very quickly."

Just take a look at the pictures — "there are women in chairs, gods in chairs, musicians — so it clearly was a tool used by many people," he says.

But democratic sitting didn't last. Fast forward to Europe in the Middle Ages and most people didn't get chairs at all. "They just sat on whatever was around because they couldn't afford it," Rybczynski says. "You had to be really rich to afford something like a chair. If they were lucky they sat on a bench — that was about the height of sitting."

A chair's body has just a handful of parts: Legs, sometimes arms, a seat and a back. It may sound simple, but it's not. "They're like little buildings, in a way, because they have to be beautiful but they have to be practical," Rybczynski says. "They actually have to be very structurally sound."

In his book, Rybczynski writes of the many different architects and designers who've helped shape the history of the chair. In the 1830s German-Austrian furniture maker Michael Thonet invented the Vienna chair — you've probably seen those at coffee shops and cafes. Thonet simplified the process of bending wood, Rybczynski said, and turned the craft of chair-making into an industry.

He also celebrates the work of husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames who began designing chairs in the 1940s. They designed shiny, smooth shells made of wood or a kind of plastic used in the linings of army helmets. "The object was to take a material which was a high performance material developed during the war, and try to make it available to householders at non-military prices," Eames explained in a 1956 NBC interview.

The Eames revolutionized chair production. From airports to offices, they came up with designs that were innovative and lent themselves to mass production. "They moved furniture from the traditional appearance to something very modern," says Rybczynski. Using materials like metal and plywood, they created chairs that remain popular today.

The "ultimate descendant" of the Eames shell chair is the one-piece, plastic chair — yes, those cheap, stack-able, patio chairs. They may not be pretty, but they solved a huge structural problem. "The challenge for chairs was always the joint," Rybczynski says. "Because, when you sit in a chair, the joints move and eventually they get loose and the chair starts to get wobbly. The plastic chair is one piece, so it gets rid of the joints."

Plastic chairs can be pretty indestructible. Designer Andrew Morrison notes that TV footage often shows intact plastic chairs strewn about in the aftermath of bombings. "Wooden chairs would never survive the blast, they'd be splintered to pieces," he says.

The ubiquity of the plastic chair (there's an entire website devoted to that subject) is all thanks to the "monobloc" mold, Rybczynski explains. "The whole process, from pellets to completed chair, takes less than a minute," he writes. "Since the raw material is relatively inexpensive, the production cost is extremely low."

The plastic chair may be just the latest chapter in the long and enduring history of chair evolution. After all, Rybczynski points out: "The problem of sitting is universal."

Still Sitting There?

In addition to Witold Rybczynski's Now I Sit Me Down, here are a couple more books in the chair genre you might want to check out:

1000 Chairs by Charlotte and Peter Fiell
From Eero Saarinen to Frank Lloyd Wright, this is an encyclopedia of chair design with stunning but compact images of every style imaginable. Each chair gets a page with brief descriptions of its history, materials, importance and/or creator's intent. The Fiells have written a number of books on design, including a follow-up to 1000 Chairs called Chairs: 1,000 Masterpieces of Modern Design, 1800 to the Present Day.

And for the young chair enthusiast in your life:

Down the Back of the Chair by Margaret Mahy and Polly Dunbar
If you've ever lifted up a chair cushion and found keys, pencils, coins or other missing valuables, you'll relate to the delightfully ridiculous treasures one family finds in Down the Back of the Chair, originally a poem by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy. Polly Dunbar's colorful illustrations are the perfect match for Mahy's wacky sense of humor.

Peter's Chair by Ezra Jack Keats
If you can forgive the old-school blue-for-boys/pink-for-girls color themes in this 1967 classic, this is a very sweet story about how we grow into new chairs as we get older — and how to make room for new, smaller members of the family, who will want to sit beside you.

Pablo & His Chair by Delphine Perret
Pablo is disappointed when his grandmother gives him a chair for his birthday. But, with the power of his imagination, his chair becomes his ticket to tour the world on an acrobatic adventure. When he returns home, Pablo's chair is waiting for him at the table, where his family gathers to hear him tell his tale.

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And now the game where people who have done a lot in their lives do a little bit more. So Bill Lee was a very successful left-handed pitcher in the major leagues for many years, perhaps most famously for the Red Sox in their pennant-winning season of 1975, but he's famous for his behavior, his somewhat outspoken nature. Well, he didn't get the nickname Spaceman because he was an astronaut. Bill Spaceman Lee, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.


BILL LEE: Thank you. My pleasure.

SAGAL: You have one of the great nicknames in baseball, a sport known for nicknames. How did you acquire it?

LEE: You don't pick your nickname.


LEE: I pitched - Luis Tiant started in Baltimore, I think it was '71, the second time we landed on the moon. He didn't get anybody out. I came in with the bases loaded, two runs already in. The next guy struck out. I ended up throwing eight and two-thirds innings of relief. I got a fake bunt and scored the winning run. We went into first place, landed on the moon and when we went back into the locker room and the press came by, we said we got our own spaceman right here. I was holding court, saying that we actually didn't land on the moon. It was filmed in Arco, Idaho.


SAGAL: You were one of those guys?

LEE: I am, still to this day.

SAGAL: You are one of those guys.

LEE: Yeah, I'm the only spaceman I know.

SAGAL: All right, wait a minute.


SAGAL: I've only known you for a short while, but I still got to say, are you sure that's why they call you Spaceman?

LEE: Well, I'm a little higher than the average - you know.

SAGAL: Yeah.

LEE: You know, I got fined by Bowie Kuhn. You know, I got fined actually...

SAGAL: Bowie Kuhn, the former baseball commissioner, I should say.

LEE: What happened was they asked if they had a drug problem on the Red Sox when I got traded to Montreal, and I said, damn right they have a drug problem on the Red Sox. They've been abusing nicotine, alcohol and caffeine for way too long, and they got to put a stop to it. And they said no, Bill, we mean marijuana. I said, I've been using that since 1964.


SAGAL: Did - yeah. In fact, you've been pretty open about that. Did that effect or help or hinder your pitching or your performance?

LEE: That was about the beginning of the end.

SAGAL: Really?


SAGAL: When you started...

SAGAL: They didn't realize I could - I mean, I beat Seattle one time, and I didn't throw the ball over 42 miles an hour.


LEE: I got pictures that prove it.

SAGAL: But you still play, and you've been out of Major League Baseball for quite some time, but you actually - you still pitch every week, right?

LEE: Every Sunday, weather permitting. I'm a ringer. People fly me in to pitch. They pay for my flight and I guarantee them I'll show up.

SAGAL: Well, yeah.


SAGAL: How - may I ask, how is it possible that you're still pitching at your age?

LEE: Drugs.


SAGAL: In your long post-playing career, have you ever been a coach?

LEE: I coach a lot, but no one listens to the Spaceman.

SAGAL: Oh, that's a shame.

LEE: Well, you've got to realize, a general manager is a manager of nothing in particular.


SAGAL: We - Bill, there's a new movie out there about your life. It's called "Spaceman." What's it like seeing yourself played on screen?

LEE: It's the two toughest weeks of my life. You know, I get released, I get divorced, they make a movie about it. I'm going, wow, there's not really a big upside to that. It's hilarious because it starts out with - you hear the sizzling of pancakes and stuff and it - you see, all of a sudden, a thing open and marijuana go on the pancakes.

SAGAL: Yeah.

LEE: And then it pulls back, and there I am in an apron and nothing else.

SAGAL: Yeah.

LEE: And then it goes downhill from there.

SAGAL: I just got to ask you - I'm going to ask you, 'cause I - it's a striking scene - did you, in real life...

LEE: No.

SAGAL: ...Look as good from behind as Josh Duhamel does in that movie?

LEE: I have a 42-inch waist. He has probably a 34-inch waist.

SAGAL: Yeah.

LEE: No, you can't get a camera around my ass.


SAGAL: Well, Bill Lee, we are delighted to talk to you. But today we have asked you here to play a game we're calling...

BILL KURTIS: You're Not Spacey, Kevin Is.

SAGAL: You are Bill Lee, known as Spaceman, so we thought we'd ask you today about Kevin Spacey, the actor in such great films as "The Usual Suspects" and "American Beauty" and such terrible films as "Pay It Forward" and "K-PAX." Answer three questions about the award-winning actor and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - Carl Kasell's voice on their voicemail. Bill, who is Bill Lee playing for?

KURTIS: Emily Brink of Boston, Mass.

SAGAL: All right.


SAGAL: You've played for a Boston crowd before. Here's your first question. Mr. Spacey is, of course, an extremely successful actor, having won Oscars, Emmys and even an honorary knighthood, but he wasn't always successful. In fact, during his early struggling years in New York, he managed to get by by doing what? A - growing his own vegetables in a secret garden in Central Park; B - pretending to be Johnny Carson and getting free food and drinks in restaurants and clubs; or C - stripping.

LEE: I like Ogallala, Neb.


PAULA POUNDSTONE: Is that, in any way...

LEE: Isn't he from - isn't...

SAGAL: You know, he...

POUNDSTONE: Who - is Carson from Nebraska? Is that what you're saying?

LEE: I think he's from Ogallala, Neb.

SAGAL: Oh, I'm sorry. The Nebraska reference was, of course, to Johnny Carson. You were way ahead of me. Yes, that's the answer.


SAGAL: Very good.


SAGAL: Mr. Spacey...

LEE: I rest my case.

SAGAL: Mr. Spacey says that he did a really good Johnny Carson imitation, so he'd go up and say, I'm Johnny Carson, table for four, and they'd let him in and feed him really well.

LEE: Brilliant man. He's a brilliant man.

SAGAL: All right.

ROY BLOUNT JR: A lot of people would have just said B, and you said Ogallala, Neb.


SAGAL: All right, it turns out that Kevin Spacey is not the only performer in his family. Which of these people is his brother? A - Randy B. Fowler - Boise, Idaho's number one Rod Stewart impersonator; B - champion competitive eater Joey Chestnut; or C - Dame Maggie Smith.


LEE: Well, process of elimination, it's got to be A.

SAGAL: It's got to be A. You're right. It's Randy B. Fowler.


POUNDSTONE: Wow, nice.

SAGAL: Boise, Idaho's number one Rod Stewart impersonator. I urge you to Google Randy B. Fowler because...

LEE: I didn't know he was from Idaho.

SAGAL: Well, that was - we threw that in to trip you up there.

LEE: It's where everybody in the O.J. Simpson case went.

SAGAL: That's true. They all live up there. You really have the most interesting mind I have ever encountered.


LEE: Should've started smoking in '64.

SAGAL: Yeah.


SAGAL: Last question. Believe it or not - and frankly, I did not want to find this out, but it is true - believe it or not, Mr. Spacey starred in a major motion picture that was released just last month. What was it and what was his role? Was it A - "Nine Lives," in which Mr. Spacey plays a businessman trapped inside the body of his family's cat; B - "Arthur," in which Mr. Spacey plays the heroic but forgotten U.S. president Chester A. Arthur; or C - "Talk Slowly And Use Big Words," a sex farce set in the world of public radio.

LEE: I want it to be A.

SAGAL: Do you want it to be A?

LEE: Yeah, I do.

SAGAL: Then it is A.


SAGAL: It's true. While we were all distracted with something else, this big Kevin Spacey movie came out, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, in which Mr. Spacey plays a talking cat.

LEE: I'm there.


SAGAL: Bill, how did the Spaceman do on our quiz?

KURTIS: He's in our hall of fame, 3 and 0 for Bill Spaceman.

SAGAL: Congratulations.


SAGAL: Bill Spaceman Lee is a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos. He's the subject of the new biopic, "Spaceman." Bill Lee, thank you so much for joining us. Bill Lee, everybody.


HARRY NILSSON: (Singing) I wanted to be a spaceman. That's what I wanted to be. But now that I am a spaceman...

SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill becomes the ultimate puzzle master in the Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.