In this Attic vase from ca. 430 BC (which I have subtitled, "Who Throws A Vase?"), a woman sits in a klismos chair, with curved legs and a wide, curved back rail.
How many curule stools do you have in your home? Do you serve diluted wine to party guests in a krater? Do you eat your meals reclining on a dining daybed? Sure, these might sound like good ideas, but they are just a few of the scores of ancient Greek furniture forms that have been scrapped over the centuries. While big ideas like democracy might have stuck, the only piece of ancient Greek furniture that can still be found in contemporary interiors is the klismos chair. Let's take a look at this classic form first seen around 2,440 years ago.
The earliest depictions of klismos chairs can be dated to around 430 BC, painted on terracotta vessels or carved into stone in ancient Greece (images 3-4, 12-13). Appearing with relative frequency, these depictions were rendered by different hands, but the klismos chairs all look surprisingly consistent.
The key components of a traditional klismos chair are: saber back and front legs; wide, curved tablet back rests; and curved stiles (the posts leading from the back legs to the back rest). In ancient depictions, the stiles are typically a continuation of the back legs, forming a gentle S-curve. In antiquity, klismos chairs were lightweight wooden chairs that could easily be moved around a room. Apparently, they are mostly associated with important female users, since most people sat on three-legged stools, but there is ample visual evidence of men sitting in klismos chairs, as well (eg. image 4). Evidence of klismos chairs essentially disappears by the middle of the 4th century BC, when they must have fallen out of fashion.
In the late 18th century, archaeological excavations of ancient sites led to an intense interest in historically-accurate Neoclassicism, and images of any discoveries were widely disseminated. Furniture makers were immediately inspired by the klismos chair, including Georges Jacob, Thomas Hope (image 5) and Benjamin Latrobe (image 6). These designers did not always take the form literally, but used it as inspiration. Designers in the early 19th century often left the front legs straight, so there was more in common with the more Roman Neoclassicism of the generation before. Many designers embellished the simple klismos form with back splats, finials or stretchers, while others painted Neoclassical motifs in a Pompeiian palette onto the wood (images 5 & 6).
In the 20th century, the designer T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings produced many literal translations of the Attic images (image 7), the stark, fine lines of the chair revealing a startling modernness. Subsequently, contemporary designers have used the familiar klismos form as a point of departure again and again.
Why is the klismos chair such an enduring form? Perhaps because the graceful sweep of the curves balances its classical sobriety. Or, on a practical level, because the curved back rest is comfortable and the curved legs offer extra support. Or because, like any true classic, it can be adapted a million ways while still maintaining a sense of tradition.
Whatever the reason, it is literally the only ancient furniture form that, in its most faithful reproduction, can still fulfill today's practical and stylistic requirements.
Images: 1 Interior by John Dransfield and Geoffrey Ross, photographed by Simon Upton for Elle Decor; 2 Interior by Jeffrey Bilhuber, via RoomLust; 3 Gynaeceum scene on an Attic red-figure pyxis from c. 430 BC, in the Louvre collection, via Hellenica; 4 An Attic red-figure cup by the Eretria painter, c. 430 BC, in the Louvre collection, via Hellenica; 5 One of a set of nine painted chairs from Baltimore, c. 1815-1820, probably made in the Finlay shop after a design by Benjamin Latrobe, via Chuck LaChiusa; 6 Klismos made by Edward & Roberts, a London firm, ca. 1892, after Thomas Hope's design, originally published in his book, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, in 1807. Now in the Victoria and Albert Museum; 7 T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings klismos chairs in an Antonia Hutt interior photographed by Simon Upton; 8 Alex Papachristidis interior photographed by Simon Upton for Elle Decor; 9 An interior by Kathy Kelly for Helix Architecture + Design, photographed by Colleen Duffley, via the Elle Decor blog; 10 Interior by Top Design Season 2 winner Nathan Thomas, photographed by Joe Schmelzer for Elle Decor, featuring inlaid klismos chairs by Nadeau; 11 Donghia's Anziano chair; 12 Attic red-figure Oinochoe-chous (jug) depicting women perfuming clothes, attributed to the Meidias Painter, c. 420-410 BC, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 13 Attic red-figure pyxis depicting a woman holding a mirror, c. 430 BC, in the collection of the Louvre, via Hellenica.
Sources: The Donghia Anziano shown in image 11 retails for about $1800. Ethan Allen makes a Hollywood Regency-style variation on the klismos that retails for $349. And Restoration Hardware has a gorgeous outdoor cast aluminum klismos chair on sale for $299. If money is no object, there are always lots of good options on 1st dibs. I like this pair of Indian inlaid klismos chairs from William Laman for $1650, and of course you could go for it and buy a Robsjohn-Gibbings original from J.F. Chen. But my favorite is this sexy brass and patent leather version ($4800) at Dual that shows how versatile the form really is.