Chairs are easily taken for granted. Our houses have many of them clustered in kitchens and dining rooms, gracing nooks and corners, behind desks and pulled up to vanities. Although our chairs may be beautifully styled, the other furniture in a room usually eclipses them. It’s rare when a chair gets the compliments.
On the other hand, most of us have a favorite chair. It might be the mighty wingback pulled up to the fireplace or the overstuffed armchair we curl into to read our latest novel. Children have time-out chairs. Gardens have their own chairs. Boudoirs have chaise lounges. So when you think about it, chairs are pretty special.
And certainly, chairs are a big deal to us at Soft Surroundings. We love the different styles, especially those of 18th century France, and the history behind them. And we are devotees of chairs that are well made. Hand carvings, hand finishing, fine fabric upholstery, thick, down-wrapped cushions—all these things are all-important to us.
A little history…
Seating started with stools, not chairs, in Egypt around 2686 B.C. But by the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2000 B. C.) stools evolved to have raised sides and a back and were used solely by royalty. Archeologist found the oldest chair still in existence mixed in with the furniture of Queen Hetepheres near the Great Pyramid of Giza. It’s one of the few pieces of wood furniture to have survived from the Old Kingdom.
Chairs were symbols of status and comfort. As Western civilization evolved, chairs became a part of life, at least for the classes of people with money. The thinking then was that sitting on a chair separated man from animals who sit on the ground! How far we’ve come!
In the court of King Louis XIV chairs were used to demonstrate hierarchy. The etiquette of seating was a big part of the king’s philosophy of royalty. In his presence, most people had to stand. Sitting was a huge honor, only done with the king’s permission, and on a stool. Even his children and grandchildren perched on stools. Armchairs and side chairs were important political objects and sitting in them caused a lot of conversation and gossip in the royal court.
Soft Surroundings has a large assortment of bergére chairs, designed for beauty and comfort. A bergére has an upholstered back that continues down to the thick cushioned seat. The armrests are often padded and upholstered too. The legs are usually cabriole style. Most of our bergéres have exposed wood frames that feature plenty of hand carvings and grooves.
Our merchants fell in love with an antique Louis XVI bergére they found in a market on one of their inspiration trips through France, and we create a truly stunning replica of it in our Seine Bergére Armchair. Starting from the frame of solid oak, it is beautifully hand carved with grooves, swirls and ridges. The wood, from the camelback to the cabriole legs, has been wire-brushed and finished with a white wash to give it that well-worn patina. This gorgeous chair is upholstered in Versailles Blue linen.
The French developed bergére chairs with wings on the sides for greater comfort and privacy and they called them bergére en confessional. Some say wingback chairs became popular because they could be pulled up to the fire shielding the body from drafts in the less-than-airtight houses of the 1700s. Wingback bergéres are still used as priority seating near the hearth in modern homes.
Our Fontaine Wingback Chair is very popular and beautiful example of the style. We adore its curvaceous tufted back, exposed burlap, and the way it wraps you up in comfort.
Caned Back Chairs
Cane seats first made a historical appearance during the reign of Louis XV in Versailles. They were appealing because they were light and could be moved around and positioned for socializing or playing games—common activities in the court at that time. Cane chairs allowed everyone in the court to sit without as much concern for court etiquette. For comfort, they sometimes had quilted padding tied to their backs.
We have a lovely caned chair in the style of Louis XVI. We found its muse on our excursions through France. The frame is hand carved just like the original with intricate shell, ribbon and leaf shapes along the apron, legs and back. It is expertly caned and finished by hand in antique white with gentle distressing for that time-honored look.
Another lovely example of caning is our Rocaille Cane Back Side Chair with its rich red velvet upholstery, caned back and elaborate shell carvings. Notice the fine detail of the nailhead trim around the seat.
Although stone benches were fixtures in formal French gardens of the 18th century, a visitor to the Palais Royal in Paris could rent a chair made of straw for a small amount of money. By the 19th century these straw seats were replaced with metal chairs. By the 1830s cast-iron garden seats were being produced and sold throughout Europe and the United States.
Soft Surroundings has an assortment of vintage garden chairs in our Brocante collection. Brocante means flea market, and we’ve found these rustic antique garden chairs in the markets of France over the last year.
Our Corsica Garden Chairs are from around 1890 and they are forged of solid iron. We love the feminine harp design of the back. We’re even fond of the rust: it shows they have endured the test of time and the elements!
Our Directoire Garden Chair is perhaps a few years older and also cast iron. The delicate medallion back and perforated seat are finished in the original white paint and the scroll of the arms is dramatic and organic. A thrilling find.
Take a look…