From New World Encyclopedia
An early twentieth-century chair made in eastern Australia, with strong heraldic embellishment.

A chair is a type of furniture intended for sitting, usually for one person at a time. It consists of a seat, legs (usually four) that support the seat, a back, and sometimes armrests. Chairs as furniture typically can be moved. The back often does not extend all the way to the seat to allow for ventilation. Likewise, the back and sometimes the seat are made of porous materials or have holes for decoration and ventilation. The back may extend above the height of the head, with separate headrests.

In addition to its functional role, a chair may be the product of artistic design and may have aesthetic appeal.

Related terminology

If a chair has no back or armrests, it is called a stool. If it has a reclining back and an inclining footrest, it is called a recliner. A chair for more than one person is a couch, sofa, settee, loveseat, or bench. The official chair on which a monarch is seated for state or ceremonial occasions is called a throne. A separate footrest for a chair is known as an ottoman, hassock, footstool, or pouffe. A chair mounted in a vehicle or theater is simply called a seat. Headrests for seats in vehicles are important for preventing whiplash injuries to the neck when the vehicle is involved in a rear-end collision.

History of the chair

The chair is of extreme antiquity. Although for many centuries and indeed for thousands of years it was an article of state and dignity rather than one for ordinary use. "The chair" is still extensively used as the emblem of authority in the House of Commons in the United Kingdom and Canada, and in many other settings. Committees, boards of directors, and academic departments all have a "chairperson." Endowed professorships are referred to as chairs.

It was not until the sixteenth century that chairs became common anywhere. Until then, the chest, bench, and stool were the ordinary seats of everyday life, and the number of chairs that have survived from an earlier date is exceedingly limited. Most such examples are of ecclesiastical or seigneurial origin. Knowledge of the chairs of remote antiquity is derived almost entirely from monuments, sculpture, and paintings. A few examples can be found in the British Museum, the Egyptian Museum at Cairo, and elsewhere.

In ancient Egypt, chairs appear to have been of great richness and splendor. Fashioned of ebony and ivory, or of carved and gilded wood, they were covered with costly materials, magnificent patterns and supported upon representations of the legs of beasts or the figures of captives. The earliest known form of Greek chair, going back to five or six centuries B.C.E., had a back but stood straight up, front and back. During Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.), a higher seat first started to appear amongst the Chinese elite and their usage soon spread to all levels of society. By the twelfth century, seating on the floor was rare in China, unlike in other Asian countries where the custom continued, and the chair, or more commonly the stool, was used in the vast majority of houses throughout the country.

In Europe, it was owing in great measure to the Renaissance that the chair ceased to be a privilege of state, and became a standard item of furniture whoever could afford to buy it. Once the idea of privilege faded, the chair speedily came into general use. Almost at once, the chair began to change every few years to reflect the fashions of the hour.

The twentieth century saw an increasing use of technology in chair construction, with such things as all-metal folding chairs, metal-legged chairs, the slumber Chair, molded plastic chairs, and ergonomic chairs. The recliner became a popular form, at least in part due to radio and television. The modern movement of the 1960s produced new forms of chairs: The butterfly chair, bean bags, and the egg-shaped pod chair. Technological advances led to molded plywood and wood laminate chairs, as well as chairs made of leather or polymers. Mechanical technology incorporated into the chair enabled adjustable chairs, especially for office use. Motors embedded in the chair resulted in massage chairs.

Design and ergonomics

This rocking chair in the Adirondack style is made of rough wood to give it a rustic look.

Chair design considers intended usage, ergonomics (how comfortable it is for the occupant), as well as non-ergonomic functional requirements such as size, ability to be folded and stacked, weight, durability, stain resistance, and artistic design. Intended usage determines the desired seating position. "Task chairs," or any chair intended for people to work at a desk or table, including dining chairs, can only recline very slightly; otherwise, the occupant is too far away from the desk or table. Dental chairs are necessarily reclined. Easy chairs for watching television or movies are somewhere in between, depending on the height of the screen.

Ergonomic design distributes the weight of the occupant to various parts of the body. A seat that is higher results in dangling feet and increased pressure on the underside of the knees ("popliteal fold"). It may also result in no weight on the feet which means more weight elsewhere. A lower seat may shift too much weight to the "seat bones" ("ischial tuberosities").

A reclining seat and back will shift weight to the occupant's back. This may be more comfortable for some in reducing weight on the seat area, but may be problematic for others who have bad backs. In general, if the occupant is suppose to sit for a long time, weight needs to be taken off the seat area and thus "easy" chairs intended for long periods of sitting are generally at least slightly reclined. However, reclining chairs are generally not suitable for work or eating at a table.

An adjustable office chair.

The back of the chair will support some of the weight of the occupant, reducing the weight on other parts of the body. In general, backrests come in three heights: Lower back backrests support only the lumbar region. Shoulder height backrests support the entire back and shoulders. Headrests support the head as well and are important in vehicles for preventing "whiplash" neck injuries in rear-end collisions where the head is jerked back suddenly. Reclining chairs typically have at least shoulder height backrests to shift weight to the shoulders instead of just the lower back.

Some chairs have footrests. A stool or other simple chair may have a simple straight or curved bar near the bottom for the sitter to place his/her feet on.

A kneeling chair adds an additional body part, the knees, to support the weight of the body. A sit-stand chair distributes most of the weight of the occupant to the feet. Many chairs are padded or have cushions. Padding can be on the seat of the chair only, on the seat and back, or also on any armrests and/or footrest the chair may have. Padding will not shift the weight to different parts of the body (unless the chair is so soft that the shape is altered). However, padding does distribute the weight by increasing the area of contact between the chair and the body.

A hard wood chair feels hard because the contact point between the occupant and the chair is small. The same body weight over a smaller area means greater pressure on that area. Spreading the area reduces the pressure at any given point. In lieu of padding, flexible materials, such as wicker, may be used instead with similar effects of distributing the weight. Since most of the body weight is supported in the back of the seat, padding there should be firmer than the front of the seat which only has the weight of the legs to support. Chairs that have padding that is the same density front and back will feel soft in the back area and hard to the underside of the knees.

There may be cases where padding is not desirable. For example, in chairs that are intended primarily for outdoor use. Where padding is not desirable, contouring may be used instead. A contoured seat pan attempts to distribute weight without padding. By matching the shape of the occupant's buttocks, weight is distributed and maximum pressure is reduced.


Actual chair dimensions are determined by measurements of the human body or anthropometric measurements. The two most relevant anthropometric measurements for chair design are the popliteal height and buttock popliteal length.

For someone seated, the popliteal height is the distance from the underside of the foot to the underside of the thigh at the knees. It is sometimes called the "stool height." The term "sitting height" is reserved for the height to the top of the head when seated. For American men, the median popliteal height is 16.3 inches and for American women it is 15.0 inches[1] The popliteal height, after adjusting for heels, clothing and other issues is used to determine the height of the chair seat. Mass-produced chairs are typically 17 inches high.

For someone seated, the buttock popliteal length is the horizontal distance from the back most part of the buttocks to the back of the lower leg. This anthropometric measurement is used to determine the seat depth. Mass-produced chairs are typically 38-43 cm deep.

The Difference between Leg Room & Seat Pitch.

Additional anthropometric measurements may be relevant to designing a chair. Hip breadth is used for chair width and armrest width. Elbow rest height is used to determine the height of the armrests. The buttock-knee length is used to determine "leg room" between rows of chairs. "Seat pitch" is the distance between rows of seats. In some airplanes and stadiums the leg room (the seat pitch less the thickness of the seat at thigh level) is so small that it is sometimes insufficient for the average person.

For adjustable chairs, such as an office chair, the aforementioned principles are applied in adjusting the chair to the individual occupant.


A chair may or may not have armrests; chairs with armrests are termed armchairs. In French, a distinction is made between fauteuil and chaise, the terms for chairs with and without armrests, respectively. If present, armrests will support part of the body weight through the arms if the arms are resting on the armrests. Armrests further have the function of making entry and exit from the chair easier (but from the side it becomes more difficult). Armrests should support the forearm and not the sensitive elbow area. Hence in some chair designs, the armrest is not continuous to the chair back, but is missing in the elbow area.

A couch, bench, or other arrangement of seats next to each other may have armrests at the sides and sometimes armrests between seats as well. The latter may be provided for comfort, but also for privacy (for example, in public transport and other public places), and to prevent lying on the bench. Arm rests reduce both desired and undesired proximity. A loveseat in particular, has no arm rest in between.

Chair seats

A bench is long enough for several people to sit on.

Chair seats vary widely in construction and may or may not match construction of the chair's back (backrest).

Some systems include:

  • Solid center seats where a solid material forms the chair seat
    • Solid wood, may or may not be shaped to human contours
    • Wood slats, often seen on outdoor chairs
    • Padded leather, generally a flat wood base covered in padding and contained in soft leather
    • Stuffed fabric, similar to padded leather
    • Metal seats of solid or open design
    • Molded plastic
    • Stone, often marble
  • Open center seats where a soft material is attached to the tops of chair legs or between stretchers to form the seat.
    • Wicker, woven to provide a surface with give to it
    • Leather, may be tooled with a design
    • Fabric, simple covering without support
    • Tape, wide fabric tape woven into seat, seen in lawn chairs and some old chairs
    • Caning, woven from rush, reed, rawhide, heavy paper, strong grasses, cattails to form the seat, often in elaborate patterns
    • Splint, ash, oak or hickory strips are woven
    • Metal, Metal mesh or wire woven to form seat

Standards and specifications

Design considerations for chairs have been codified into standards. The most common one for modern chair design is ISO 9241, "Ergonomic requirements for office work with visual display terminals (VDTs)—Part 5: Workstation layout and postural requirements."

There are multiple specific standards for different types of chairs. Dental chairs are specified by ISO 6875. Bean bag chairs are specified by ANSI standard ASTM F1912-98[2] ISO 7174 specifies stability of rocking and tilting chairs. ASTM F1858-98 specifies plastic lawn chairs. ASTM E1822-02b defines the combustibility of chairs when they are stacked.

The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association (BIFMA)[3] defines BIFMA X5.1 for testing of commercial-grade chairs. It specifies things such as:

  • Chair back strength of 150 pounds (68 kg)
  • Chair stability if weight is transferred completely to the front or back legs
  • Leg strength of 75 pounds (34 kg) applied one inch (25 mm) from the bottom of the leg
  • Seat strength of 225 pounds (102 kg) dropped from six inches (150 mm) above the seat
  • Seat cycle strength of 100,000 repetitions of 125 pounds (57 kg) dropped from 2 inches (50 mm) above the seat

The specification further defines heavier "proof" loads that chairs must withstand. Under these higher loads, the chair may be damaged, but it must not fail catastrophically.

Large institutions that make bulk purchases will reference these standards within their own even more detailed criteria for purchase. Governments will often issue standards for purchases by government agencies.


In place of a built-in footrest, some chairs come with a matching ottoman. An ottoman is a short stool intended to be used as a footrest but can sometimes be used as a stool. If matched to a glider, the ottoman may be mounted on swing arms so that the ottoman rocks back and forth with the main glider.

A chair cover is a temporary fabric cover for a side chair. They are typically rented for formal events such as wedding receptions to increase the attractiveness of the chairs and decor. The chair covers may come with decorative chair ties, a ribbon to be tied as a bow behind the chair. Covers for sofas and couches are also available for homes with small children and pets. In the second half of the twentieth century, some people used custom-clear plastic covers for expensive sofas and chairs to protect them.

Chair pads are cushions for chairs. Some are decorative. In cars, they may be used to increase the height of the driver. Orthopedic backrests provide support for the back. Car seats sometimes have built-in and adjustable lumbar supports.

Chair mats are plastic mats meant to cover carpet. This allows chairs on wheels to roll easily over the carpet and it protects the carpet. They come in various shapes, some specifically sized to fit partially under a desk.

Remote control bags can be draped over the arm of easy chairs or sofas and used to hold remote controls. They are counter-weighted so as to not slide off the arms under the weight of the remote control.

See also


  1. NIOSH, Workstation Layout: Relevant Anthropometric Measures. Retrieved September 23, 2008.
  2. ANSI, Standard Specification for Safety of Bean Bag Chairs. Retrieved September 23, 2008.
  3. BIFMA, "The Industry Voice for Workplace Solutions." Retrieved September 23, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aronson, Joseph. 1961. The Encyclopedia of Furniture, 3rd edition. New York: Clarkson Potter. ISBN 0517037351.
  • Dampierre, Florence de. 2006. Chairs: A History. New York: Abrams. ISBN 978-0810954847.
  • Fiell, Charlotte, and Peter Fiell. 2005. 1000 chairs. Köln: Taschen. ISBN 978-3822841037.
  • Lucie-Smith, Edward. 1993. Furniture: A Concise History. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0500201722.
  • Miller, Judith. 2005. Furniture: World Styles from Classical to Contemporary. New York: DK Pub. ISBN 978-0756613402.


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