FRIENDS KNOW ODD things about one another. And so I wasn’t all that surprised when my friend Mary called to tell me there was a discussion of chairs on D.C’s own Diane Rehm Show earlier today.
As Mary knows, I love chairs! I love their graceful lines, sometimes polite, sometimes powerful. I love the way they have such a small footprint and yet can have such an impact on a room. So of course I turned on the radio.
Here was Witold Rybczynski, the architect and writer with whom we all fell in love back in 1987 when he wrote Home: A Short History of an Idea.
Well, at least I did. And here he was talking about a new book, Now I Sit Me Down—about chairs, their history, what they say about various cultures, what they say about status. A lot of us have a favorite chair, he pointed out, whereas most of us don’t have a favorite table or a favorite chest of drawers. (I could quibble with that.)
But one thing he said jarred me: As people emailed in to the show to talk about their favorite chairs, he pointed out that a chair is not a favorite because it’s an object, it’s a favorite because of what you do in it; it’s the activity that makes it a favorite.
Here is where I part company with the learned Dr. Rybczynski. My all-time, absolute favorite chairs are a quartet of French fruitwood dining chairs, very early 19th-century—dainty and graceful as the day is long. I love looking at them, love their lines, love the way they curve around the library table or line up against the wall.
But sit on them? I’d rather stand. On nails. The seats are much too tiny for the modern American derriere, and certainly too small for mine. They feel as fragile as they look, and creak a little, although I’ve had them strengthened and shored up over the years (thank you, German Martin of Luar Upholstery in Alexandria!). No, to me they’re more akin to art objects than furniture.
In fact, I came very close to giving away the only comfortable chairs I’ve ever owned. I should back up for a second and explain that for at least 30 years I’ve been something of a home-furnishings bulimic, buying a piece of furniture, using it for a while, falling out of love with it (or discovering it just doesn’t solve whatever problem I faced), then finding a loving new home for it, among people who can benefit from it.
The list is long: the leather lounge chair, the white Parsons console table, the wicker peacock chair and wicker etageres, the custom-made round dining table, the antique round dining table, the expanding teak dining table . . . There were two more dining tables, but it’s too embarrassing to go on. (For the past five years I’ve been thrilled with my 19th-century mahogany library/dining table that extends to seat 10 and has a pedestal that splits for great stability. It looks great too, I think.)
I bought my two comfortable chairs back in 1974, with the help of a decorator—otherwise I would never have known about them. They’re essentially Parsons-style chairs, meaning the legs extend straight down from the ends of the arms and the entire frame is upholstered. They’re quite upright, not something you would sink down into, and yet they embrace your frame, allowing you to relax while staying relatively upright.
In this sense Dr. Rybczynski has a point. I love these chairs to death because of how easy it is to read in them without getting so comfortable that I fall asleep. And because of the look of pleasant surprise on people who sit in them for the first time.
Best of all, I can sit in one of them . . . and gaze lovingly at my uncomfortable French fruitwood chairs!