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Greek Furniture: History & Style

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The ancient Greeks built a complex society. An often under appreciated part of this society was their furniture. In this lesson, we'll check out the accouterments that helped the Greeks find comfort in their world of stone.

Greek Furniture

The people of ancient Greece built some of the finest architecture marvels in the world. They were among the first to build freestanding structures entirely of stone. They captured the natural ratios of the world in massive stone edifices and developed the basic proportions and aesthetics that define Western architecture to this day. We know a lot about Greek architecture, but somehow we forget to ask, ''What did they put in these structures?''

The Greek people were not quite as solid as the columns they built, so they enjoyed the opportunity to sit or lay down. Not being overly fond of the ground, the Greeks instead used furniture for these purposes. We know very little about Greek furniture because little has survived. Most of our knowledge comes from reliefs and sculptures showing people using furniture items. These depict a world where even furniture reflected the obsession with perfection that was Greek culture.

Overview

For the most part, the ancient Greeks did not have a wide assortment of furniture in their daily lives. A home would only have a few items, but what they had seems to have been carefully crafted. While preceding Aegean civilizations like the Minoans and Mycenaeans seem to have permitted a range of experimental styles, the Greeks more rigidly aligned themselves with the furniture styles of Egypt. For the most part, Greek furniture mirrors Egyptian forms, indicating a good amount of trans-Mediterranean cultural interaction.

Still, there are a few things that make Greek furniture unique. For one, the Greeks seemed to prefer smoother lines and curves than the angular Egyptian styles, with a greater focus on comfort. Additionally, while Egyptians loved to model their furniture legs as animal legs, the Greeks found a different influence: their temples. Greek furniture often reflected the basic tenets of their architecture.

Symmetry and rational, geometric proportions dominate this aesthetic, and there was not a lot of extra ornamentation. A lack of extra decoration let the viewer appreciate the shape of the structure without distraction. When Greek furniture was decorated, it was often modeled on temples as well. Many Greek furniture items even had legs carved to look like columns. Overall, Greek furniture reflected their obsession with architectural perfection, logic, and harmony. Partly for this reason, most Greek furniture changed very little in terms of style over hundreds of years.

Couches

Nearly all Greek furniture can be divided into a few basic categories. Among the most important was the couch. Greek couches were called klines and may have actually been modeled on Egyptian beds. These multi-purpose furniture items were primarily used for eating. The Greeks ate while reclining. The headrest doubled as a backrest, providing more support, and plenty of cushions or pillows made it a comfortable household item.

Couches are found all over Greek art, including this scene painted onto an ancient vase
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Chairs

So, where would the Greeks sit when they weren't eating? The basic sitting apparatus was a simple stool. Stools were very important in wealthy Egyptian homes, and seem to have been popular in Greece all the way from the 6th to 1st century BCE. Most stools had straight, solid legs, but the Greeks also had folding stools with x-shaped, crossed legs. In many parts of the Mediterranean, folding stools were a status symbol. This may have been true in Greece as well.

Greek stools as seen painted onto Greek vases
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However, the Greeks also created their own distinct styles of seating. Most notable is the klismos, a light chair that had a back. In Egypt, only thrones had backs so this feature in common furniture was unique to Greece. Klismos-style chairs have been found in Greece as far back as the 7th century BCE, but they lost popularity by the end of the Classical era in the 4th century BCE.

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