Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chairs are a favorite 20th-century design, their sleek lines and cool steel embodying the best of Modernism. But the X-shape of the legs are actually a direct callback to the ancient curule stool, one of the most significant furniture forms in history. Let's take a look back at the origins of this 'seat of power.'
Throughout history, the protocols of which people of which status could sit on which types of chair were important aspects of social and political diplomacy. In ancient Rome, curule [pronounced cue'-rool] chairs were specifically a symbol of the authority of certain senior government officials, including the emperor. The sella curulis, as it was known, was a backless X-shaped folding chair, itself derived from ancient Egyptian X-shaped chair types, that could be brought with an official on journeys, into the battlefield, or anywhere else. It was backless not only to facilitate folding, but also because the idea was that it wouldn't be too comfortable to sit in for long periods, so the government officials would be encouraged to perform their roles swiftly, to better serve the people.
The curule chair's role as a folding throne endured into the Middle Ages. Perhaps the oldest surviving European chair, for instance, is a 7th-century curule chair called the Throne of Dagobert (above). Made of cast bronze and showing traces that it was once gilded, the chair was originally a stool; the back and arms were added in the 12th century. Dagobert was a 7th-century Frankish king who, according to French tradition, commissioned the chair and used it as his throne. It was subsequently used by successive French kings during important public events.
During the Renaissance, the curule stool evolved into X-form chairs, like the one pictured above. In French royal settings, you could sit on a chair only if you were the highest ranking aristocrat in the room, and otherwise you had to sit on stools, many of which took a curule form. So to some extent by this point the curule stool had lost its association with imperial power. It also was sometimes non-folding by this time.
In the early 19th century, Napoleon I adopted many of the symbols and styles of the Roman Empire as a way of outwardly legitimizing his power (which he had grabbed in a coup d'etat). One of the symbols he restored at this time was the curule stool. Napoleon sat on the Throne of Dagobert in 1804 during his first Légion d'Honneur ceremony, and he ordered several curule stools for his various palaces, including Malmaison (above) and Saint-Cloud.
As the 19th century wore on, the Empire taste went out of style, and with it the Roman-style curule. But 20th century designers like Elsie de Wolfe (above), Mies van der Rohe and many others took the form and adapted it for modern purposes. So next time you sit on an X-frame stool, I hope you feel yourself infused with the authority of the magistrate and the power of the centuries.
Images: 1 Mies van der Rohe Barcelona stools in a Peter Pawlak interior, photo by Joshua McHugh for Elle Decor; 2 A gold coin from the reign of Emperor Macrinus (218 CE) featuring Macrinus and his son on the reverse sitting on curule chairs, via Wikipedia; 3 The Throne of Dagobert (circa 7th century CE), in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France; 3 Boccaccio and Petrarch illumination from De casibus (BNF Fr. 236, fol. 134v), first half of the 15th century, with a curule chair in the background, via the Bibliothèque Nationale de France; 4 Napoleon's Salle de Conseil at Malmaison, via napoleon.org; A wrought iron X-shaped stool by Elsie de Wolfe in a Robert Couturier interior, photograph by William Abranowicz for Elle Decor.
For more on the Throne of Dagobert, check out this short and informative subtitled video from the BNF on YouTube.