Klismos Chair: Definition, Types & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

How much history can there be in a chair? In this case, as much history as Western civilization itself. In this lesson, we'll check out the klismos chair and see how its been re-imagined over the years.

The Klismos Chair

When we want to indicate that something is timeless, we often say that it's classic. This is partly derived from the fact that ancient Greece and Rome are called the classical civilizations. We talk about classical art, literature, and drama which has survived for millennia and influenced the modern world, but what about furniture?

The klismos chair was a piece of furniture developed in ancient Greece. This same basic design can be seen in homes today. How can a piece of furniture remain in style for thousands of years? The base aesthetics of Western art were founded by the Greeks and they applied that aesthetic to everything, from temples to sculptures to, yes, even their furniture. As long as Western art survives, the klismos chair will match because it's a pure representation of this aesthetic. It's not just classical, it's classic.

18th-century painting of a man in a klismos chair
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Origins and Design

So, what exactly defines the klismos chair? This form is identifiable by three main features. First, the legs are curved and splayed, flaring outwards. In almost all versions of the klismos chair, this applies to all four legs (although occasionally you'll see one with only two splayed legs). Secondly, the klismos chair has a curved back, generally composed of two parallel, curving rails. Finally, look for a narrow, horizontal, and concave backrest. The curves are meant to contour to the human form and also give the chair a fluid and graceful appearance.

This timeless design was first introduced into Western society way back in the 5th century BCE. That's around the same time that Pericles brought Athens into its Golden Age, and Socrates was wandering about debating the meaning of life. Yes, this chair design is about as old as the origins of Western philosophy.

The design was popularized further in the 4th century CE, but it disappeared with Greek civilization. In fact, it was completely lost to time and not a single piece has survived. So, how do we know about it? Luckily for us, the Greeks depicted klismos chairs in their pottery and sculptures. There are also some Roman depictions of klismos chairs, all of which are found in Roman copies of Greek artwork. The most famous example of the ancient klimos chair may be the Stele of Hegeso. This tombstone was made in Athens around 400 BCE, and shows a woman named Hegeso seated in a curved, graceful klismos chair. This is just one many examples of the klismos chair in ancient art, but it's one of the best representations we've found.

Klismos chair on the Stele of Hegeso
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The Revived Klismos Chair

We know about klismos chairs thanks to ancient Greek art, but how did this forgotten furniture item actually work its way back into our homes? That story begins in 1748 CE. Surveyors in southern Italy accidentally unearthed parts of an ancient Roman city, buried in layers of volcanic ash. The discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum sparked a cultural obsession with all things Greek and Roman. In art, neoclassical sculpture flourished. In architecture, Greek and Roman Revival styles spread through major cities. After 1776, even the brand new United States jumped eagerly on the neoclassical bandwagon, seeing this as a way to create an ideological parallel between Roman and American republics.

The obsession with classical styles extended to furniture, and the klismos chair was recreated based on it depictions in ancient art. Variations of the klismos chair can be found in basically every neoclassical-inspired movement of the 19th century, but it's most prominent in the French Directoire and Empire, the English Regency, and the American Federal and Empire styles.

For American designers, the revival of the klismos chair was really thanks to three different furniture makers. First was Duncan Phyfe, a Scottish cabinetmaker who moved to New York around 1794. Phyfe translated the French Empire style of furniture styles into American markets, and one of his most famous designs was his klismos chair. For Americans, this curved and elegant neoclassical design would be so synonymous with Phyfe that it was sometimes called the Phyfe style chair.

A klismos-style chair by Duncan Phyfe
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