Better Sit Down For This One: An Exciting Book About The History Of Chairs OK, fine ... this new chair anthology might not keep you on the edge of your seat, but it does reveal some very interesting ideas about trends in design, culture and social values.
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Better Sit Down For This One: An Exciting Book About The History Of Chairs

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

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

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Witold Rybczynski loves chairs. He loves everything about them - their design, their history, their sultry silhouette, I suppose. His new book is called "Now I Sit Me Down." NPR's Elizabeth Blair takes the opportunity to pay tribute to (laughter) the bottom's best-known resting place.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: People get attached to their chairs. Pee-wee Herman named his Chairry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL REUBENS: (Singing, as Pee-wee Herman) Hey Chairry, I love to sit on you.

LEXY FRIDELL: (Singing, as Chairry) Hey Pee-wee, I love it when you do.

BLAIR: Archie Bunker loved his wingback on "All In The Family." The rolling desk chairs on the sitcom "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" are practically characters. Chairs are so basic and yet so diverse. They rise, roll, recline and spin, as Maggie Smith found out in "Downton Abbey" when she sat on a swivel chair.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

MAGGIE SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Another modern brain wave?

DAN STEVENS: (As Matthew Crawley) Not very modern - they were invented by Thomas Jefferson.

BLAIR: Thomas Jefferson collected chairs. The chair has been evolving for centuries. And that's partly what fascinates Witold Rybczynski. When he writes, he sits in an old swivel chair he bought at a flea market about 40 years ago.

WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI: It leans back. It tilts. It's a wooden chair. And this isn't just me. This is also whoever owned it before me.

BLAIR: The wear in the arm?

RYBCZYNSKI: The wear and tear is kind of nice in an old chair.

BLAIR: We get tired. We need to sit down. But when did some humans decide the ground wasn't good enough? Rybczynski says the earliest records of people sitting on chairs are Egyptian tomb paintings and ancient Greek art. The oldest representation he found is a sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

RYBCZYNSKI: And it was of a musician, a harpist. But he was sitting on a chair, simply a four-legged - we would call it, like, a kitchen chair.

BLAIR: It was from around 3,000 B.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RYBCZYNSKI: The striking thing about the Greeks is that the chairs become very democratic very quickly. There are women in chairs. There are gods in chairs. There are musicians. So it clearly was a tool that was used by many people.

BLAIR: Mainly in the Western world. But that democratic thing didn't last. Fast forward to Europe in the Middle Ages. Most people didn't get chairs at all.

RYBCZYNSKI: They just sat on whatever was around because they couldn't afford it. And 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.

BLAIR: The man in the chair has the power - the chairman. Rybczynski believes the oldest kind of chair was not a throne but a folding chair.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLDING CHAIR")

REGINA SPEKTOR: (Singing) Come and open up your folding chair next to me.

RYBCZYNSKI: There are lots of occasions where you want to walk somewhere. And then you want to sit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLDING CHAIR")

SPEKTOR: (Singing) My feet are buried in the sand. And there's a breeze.

BLAIR: Legs, sometimes arms, a seat and a back - a chair sounds pretty easy to make. But Rybczynski says, far from it.

RYBCZYNSKI: They're like little buildings in a way because they have to be beautiful. But they have to be practical. And they actually have to be very structurally sound.

BLAIR: Architects and designers have worked hard to refine these buildings for our bottoms. I asked Rybczynski who among them really pushed the chair forward. First, he says, would be Michael Thonet, a German-Austrian furniture maker.

In the 1830s, he invented the Vienna bentwood chair, those wooden chairs with rounded cane backs. Rybczynski says Thonet simplified the process of bending wood. He turned the craft into an industry. Rybczynski also singles out a husband-and-wife team that began designing chairs in the 1940s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And the designer Charles Eames has become almost a household word.

BLAIR: Charles and Ray Eames built chairs with seats that were shiny, smooth shells made of wood or plastic, as Charles Eames explained in this interview on NBC in 1956.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES EAMES: 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.

RYBCZYNSKI: They moved furniture from the traditional appearance to something very modern. They used metal and plywood. And they're very beautiful chairs that are still popular and sold.

BLAIR: You might be sitting on an Eames-inspired chair right now. Or you might be sitting on what Rybczynski calls the ultimate descendant of the Eames shell chair, the one-piece plastic chair, those cheap, stackable patio chairs. Rybczynski says they might not be pretty. But they solved a huge structural problem.

RYBCZYNSKI: The challenge for chairs was always the joint because when you sit in a chair, the joints move. And eventually, they get loose. And the chair starts to get wobbly. And the plastic chair is one piece. So it gets rid of the joints. And it just - that's why they rarely break.

BLAIR: Rybczynski believes the history of the chair says a lot about not just trends in design but also social values. He also finds their endurance pretty remarkable.

RYBCZYNSKI: The problem of sitting is universal.

BLAIR: Witold Rybczynski's new book is called "Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos To Plastic Chair: A Natural History." Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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