Solomon Foot

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furniture and the body Furniture is both the body's surrogate, and its slave. Terms for chair parts reveal the surrogacy very clearly, from ‘rounded shoulder’ to ‘arm’, ‘back’, ‘knee’, cabriole ‘leg’, and ‘foot’. (‘Seat’ seems to have migrated in the other direction — first used to indicate the place where sitting occurs, only later did it refer to the body part involved.) Slavishness can be inferred from the iconography of the decorative motifs we impose, from a vanquished enemy or beast carved crouching under the seat of an African throne to the ubiquitous ball-and-claw foot of rococo chairs, signalling the captive poise of a raptor, or an orientalizing dragon's taloned grasp. In the modern period, signification has moved away from such applied motifs; the form and its materials themselves situate the user in a particular ideological scheme. The blatant anthropomorphism and zoomorphism of earlier ages have given way almost entirely, with technological materials and computer modelling now used to provide floating ergonomic platforms to support bodies trained to work in relative stillness for long periods of time.

Seats of power

Furniture was initially a perquisite of the ruler, never of the ruled. Graceful, slim beds and elegant stools were interred with Egyptian pharaohs as signs of their divinity, and guarantors of their comfort in the afterlife. In these Pharaonic objects, the various animal-headed gods (cow-headed Hathor, falcon-headed Horus) occasionally make appearances as finials behind thrones or on bedposts; the only allusions to bodies are in the legs of thrones, which can appear with muscled thighs, calves, and paw-like feet. As for the non-royal Egyptians, even well-born scribes and functionaries are shown kneeling or sitting cross-legged, in the non-propped positions still used by the majority of peoples around the world.

Access to furniture was more widespread among the ancient Greeks, whose patrician classes demanded a refined type of chair called the klismos. Less interested in the upright regality and animal symbolism that preoccupied the Egyptians, the Greeks provided their chairs with a low back support and a seat shaped to the lounging human body, anchored on splayed legs that remained stable whatever the sitter's position. Judging from sarcophagi that portray scenes from everyday life, the chair seems to have become truly common in well-born households only during the Roman empire, when the increasing height of the chair back began its long life as a signifier of nobility and power. Ancient pharaohs needed only an armchair and a crown to place their heads above their squatting attendants, but when even lowly potters and tradesmen sat on stools, the Romans were forced to enlarge the vertical back of the armchair to amplify its authority.

This trajectory reached a kind of apogee with the medieval chair, a stiff-backed, excessively vertical affair that originated in the monastic orders and was reserved for the clerical elite. The laity sat in aptly named misericordia, bench-like pews, with decorated backs and undersides that presented the distracted worshipper seated behind them with scenes of hellfire and worldly suffering. Medieval bench, chair, and stool were austere combinations of vertical and horizontal planes that trained the body in appropriate disciplinary modes. The ecclesiastic model governed domestic interiors as well: the armchair, symbol of moral and spiritual authority, was reserved for the higher orders, and most medieval diners and dwellers sat on long, backless benches, if they sat at all. Where they sat at the long, plank-like dinner table (above or below the salt) was all that mattered — there was no concept of comfort or beauty to be found in the table itself. In contrast to the sumptuous tapestries and cushions that adorned it, furniture was a prop for bare bones, made to be dismantled and ported around by a restless nobility. The Latinate words for furniture (mobiliers in French and mobilia in Italian) reflect this acknowledgement of the object's (and the body's) ‘movability’ and unimportant worldly status.

Domestic props

There is little place for furniture in nomadic, shepherding societies, nor in subsistence agricultural ones. Sleeping with the cows made good sense in an unheated peasant household in Northern Europe, and the North African nomad's tents and metal cookware were enough to carry without lugging around cumbersome objects to prop up the body. Cultural historians relate how the notion of the ‘domestic’, tied intimately to the development of furniture, only emerges with force in settled bourgeois societies of urban merchants, such as those in the seventeenth-century Dutch ‘golden age’, or perhaps a bit earlier in pre-Renaissance Tuscany. In the growth of capitalistic urbanity that began in the Renaissance, there was a shift from the medieval bed, built to hold up to ten people, to a more modest two-person model, fitted with curtains that could be pulled by the chambermaid to enclose the married couple for the night. Concepts of privacy, and models of the learned, pious scholar, were articulated in new built forms — the bookshelf, the enclosed study, the reading stand (constructed at the height of a standing reader — used primarily by elites. The reading body finally achieved its apotheosis in the professorial ‘chair’ (roofed, with a built-in lectern and reading stand for a seated reader), a term since conflated to the person of the endowed academic or the ruling business leader (the ‘chair-man’).

Surging, twisting, dynamic compositions, engaging as many senses as possible, emerged in art after the Renaissance, pioneered by the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini and epitomized in his ‘furniture’ for the Catholic cathedral, St Peter's, in Rome; the twisted, black-and-gold Solomonic columns called the Baldacchino (1624–33). The opulent and effusive schemes of the Italian Baroque were brought to France and harnessed for the glory of the roi soleil, Louis XIV. Furniture at Versailles incorporated the contradictions of the ‘Sun King’; the oxymoronic play of sunlight and absolutism. Mirrors multiplied the glories of the king's body, yet their reflections were manifestly contained by gilded plaster festoons. The royal bed was the veritable omphalos of power — yet, when curtains were drawn around the sleeping king, by implication, darkness reigned. Again, the ‘Louis quatorze’ chair is held to instantiate the values of the court elite, and to echo the ornament employed for the king's body: shapely tapered legs and slender frames, painted in colours and encrusted with gilt, decorated with the court emblems of fleurs-de-lys, feathers of exotic birds, and, of course, the centred rays of the sun. Royal chairs were built to be so lightweight that they could easily be moved to the side for the more important choreography of courtiers and king.

The taste for pomp diminished after Louis XIV's death, and as Paris resumed its dominance of French life a more playful style of ornament ensued among the aristocracy, named after, its central motif, the rocaille (rock-work) — hence, ‘Rococo’. The rococo piece of furniture presumed a body lost in pleasures: lounging en déshabillé, listening to music, or engaged in the serious pursuit of culinary marvels. Built of solid mahogany, adorned by gilding, and upholstered with cut velvet or damask, the chair, couch, or chaise-longue was further laden with cushions and draped with exotic cloths. It signalled the opulence of a culture importing stuffs from around the world, and the intimacy of those who would indulge their deepest desires for literature and romantic intrigue. The front legs of rococo chairs were undulating symphonies of curves and counter-curves. Still following the anthropomorphic echo of a mammalian leg, the thigh surged forward, often capped with a decorative shell, a curving bit of foliage, or even a Sphinx-like torso; occasionally this retreating thigh shape was paved with the scales of a fish. The knee swooped down and back, relatively unremarked in decorative terms, only to come forward again into the foot, which resolved itself into the talon and ball marking the tenacious terminus of the body that was the chair.

The Revolutionary condemnation of the sybaritic aristocratic body was expressed in its furniture, which, like every aspect of visual culture, conformed to the new rigours of a self-consciously ‘Republican’ neo-classical taste. Once again, prevalent verticals intersecting stable horizontals became points on a moral compass. Geometry replaced surprise and delight, sobriety reigned in the choice of striped satins over the earlier velvets and brocades. The age-old association of furniture parts with anthropomorphic or animal forms was broken in favour of architectural motifs. Now legs were slim classical columns, tapering toward a minimized, possibly Doric-looking foot. Leaves, rocks, shells, fish scales, all vanished in favour of a few urn-like finials, a hint of metope or columnar fluting, or the suggestion of a pediment. The bodies invited into such furniture possessed an egalitarian decorum in keeping with the Enlightenment ideals of the age.

Modern living

The burst of industrial and imperial energies that culminated in Victorian England produced a furniture suited for the various bodies of divergent classes, occupations, and pocketbooks. Market differentiation combined with eclectic and exotic tastes to produce a dizzying array of objects to fill the crowded Victorian home, citadel of domestic virtue and fortress of the regimented body. The domestic was now woven into the urban fabric with networks of gas, water, and, soon, electricity; in this industrialized context, symbols of the private and individual became more and more important. Rooms proliferated along with furniture functions, many differentiated along class, age, and gender lines. The anthropomorphic identity of furniture's parts returned, and with it a Victorian anxiety over nakedness that resulted in the ‘skirting’ of legs on everything from pianos to armchairs to bathtubs. The severe lines of William Morris' ‘Arts and Crafts’ style, which found many American adherents, was an antidote to most Victorian overstuffed profiles, while providing yet another correction to the perceived excesses of an earlier age. Furniture was believed to educate both mind and body in nineteenth-century moral behaviour.

The birth of art nouveau (called jugendstil in German-speaking countries) was a self-conscious effort to address the new century and determine its modernist pulse. Bodies were being reconfigured dramatically, particularly female ones — the corset and chignon were abandoned for the unconstructed sack dress and bobbed hair of the femme nouvelle. As art nouveau evolved into ‘deco’ (shorthand for ‘l'art decoratif’), furniture participated in a dramatic redesigning of interiors to house the new modern figure — sinuous, asymmetric curves echoed the baroque and rococo periods, but the heavy-handed symbolism of earlier centuries (with their putti, shells, and claws) was recast into simplified, abstracted shapes and lines. The flapper silhouette of deco would glorify a pre-pubescent female figure, just as the forms of art nouveau evoked tender spring buds and swaying reeds rather than fleshy, full-grown acanthus leaves. Much of these vegetal forms were cast in iron or blown into glass moulds on an industrial scale.

Modernist architects and designers entered the fray with a dramatic rejection of such artifice. ‘Ornament is crime,’ opined Adolf Loos in 1908, and in 1927 Le Corbusier echoed, ‘A house is a machine for living in … an armchair a machine for sitting in and so on.’ The new ‘machines’ drew explicitly on other technologies of the body — bicycles, for example, whose tubing served as the inspiration for the famous (and mostly uncomfortable) seats manufactured by the famous German art and design academy, the Bauhaus. Techniques of steaming and bending wood allowed this grained organic material to assume the same linear, undecorated form as the chrome-plated steel and leather chairs of Bauhaus fame. Connections to the body were now instrumental, not mimetic — and the bentwood technologies developed by Charles and Ray Eames for their 1946 chair were first worked out in moulding 150 000 leg splints for soldiers wounded in the battles of World War II.

Never again could designers turn a slim-ankled cabriole leg without indulging in a ‘period’ style. But the bodies destined for the twentieth-century's ‘machines for sitting in’ were not yet adapted to the new spatial hygiene of modernity. Bodies need motility, and furniture needs to support a shifting variety of poses in which the long-sitting human frame can refresh itself. Adjustable office furniture, and the efforts of efficiency experts, came together to address the new need for ‘ergonomics’ — equipment and objects designed with the human body in mind. Plastics, and the almost endlessly inventive forms they encouraged, finally released furniture from the need for legs, arms, and even an obvious seat. But while cantilevers and knee-supports may have decoupled chairs from their traditional representational functions, bodies still have visual appetites for the comfortable, overstuffed look of the surrogate/slave.

Caroline A. Jones


Aries, P. and Duby, C. (ed.) (1987–90). A history of private life, Vols I–IV. Harvard.
Rybczynski, W. (1986) Home: a short history of an idea. Penguin, London.

See also buildings and the body; ergonomics.