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Analysis of a Chair

I’ve always thought it might be helpful to have a way of determining the identity and style of a chair by using visual means rather than by memorizing the names of all sorts of periods and styles. Sure, one can attempt to divide all chairs into forty distinct styles, but that is more helpful after the fact. As a props person, we are often faced with an existing chair, or picture of a chair, and we need to discern its style so we can find more like it. “This chair has kind of a Chippendale back, but with turned legs. What is it?”

Well, I haven’t accomplished anything like that, but I have come across a series of plates in the book Furniture Designing and Draughting, by Alvan Crocker Nye, published in 1907. These plates break down and illustrate the variations in each of the parts of a chair. If you remove ornamentation and look at just the basic shapes, you can design almost any chair from Western furniture history simply by picking and combining these variations. Even with the rudimentary distillations of chair design in  these plates, you can create 486,000 distinct-looking chairs.

Chairs - Front and side elevations
Chairs - Front and side elevations

Plate VII above shows variations on how the legs can be oriented. In the top row, we see side elevations of a chair with a straight back and straight legs, an inclined back with straight legs, an inclined back with back legs inclined, and the back and all legs inclined. In the second row, we see the back inclined and legs crossed, than front elevations showing an upright form, an inclined form, and finally an X or scissor form.

Arms, seats and stretchers
Arms, seats and stretchers

In Plate VII, we see the variations a chair’s arms can take. Under the “horizontal arm” drawing, we first see a plan showing how the orientation of the chair’s arm matches the shape of the seat. The two plans below it show how the arms curve out so the space between the arms is wider than the shape of the seat at the back. The two plans under the “receding arm post” show how the arm can be a compound curve or can be a continuation of the curve of the chair’s back. Finally, the elevation of the “sloping arm” chair shows that the arm can be higher in the back than in the front.

The plans of stretchers show how the reinforcing bracing of the legs can be arranged in either a box (trapezoid), an H, or an X (or cross) configuration.

Finally, the last column shows us different seat plans: square, trapezoid, triangle, circle, a circle and rectangle composite, and a circle and curves composite.

Outline of chair backs
Outline of chair backs

Plate IX shows outlines of common chair backs. 1) Rectangular. 2) Trapezoidal. 3) Polygonal. 4) Elliptical. 5) Semi-circular. 6) Shield.

Composition of back
Composition of back

Plate X gives various compositions of the chair back. 1) Paneled. 2) “Splat”, vertical. 3) “Banister”, vertical. 4) “Four Back”, horizontal. Variations include the “Three Back”, or the much rarer “Five Back”. 5) Composite.

In the bottom right corner of the plate are four outlines of top rail shapes: horizontal, triangular, trapezoidal, and circular.

Ancient Roman Weapons

In the same vein as my previous posts on Ancient Egyptian weapons and Ancient Greek helmets and weapons, here is an illustration of common weapons used in Ancient Rome.

A collection of typical weapons used in Ancient Rome

Left column, from top to bottom:

  • Iron head of Roman pilum.
  • Bronze sheath for sword below.
  • Sword worn with belt called a parazonium, 10 inches long, iron.
  • Short sword called a poniard, bronze.
  • Sword, 22 inches long, iron.
  • Sword, 25 inches, long, iron. This particular example has an armorer’s mark of Sabini.
  • Sword, 23 inches long, iron.
  • Sword, 26 inches long, iron. Hilt is ornamented with bronze
  • Dacian sword. From Trajan’s Column erected in 113 CE.

Center: Signum, or badge, or Roman cohort, bronze. Found in Asia Minor.

Right column, from top to bottom:

  • War-hatchet, iron.
  • Head of javelin, 6 inches long, iron.
  • Bill, bronze. This particular example was found in Ireland.
  • Plain war-hatchet, bronze.
  • Plain war-hatchet, bronze. It’s shape shows it is a weapon, not a tool.
  • Bill, iron. From the ruins of Pæstum.
  • Head of javelin, 11 inches long, iron.

The illustrations and descriptions have been taken from An Illustrated History of Arms and Armour: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, by Auguste Demmin, and translated by Charles Christopher Black. Published in 1894 by George Bell.

Ancient Greek Helmets

A few days ago, I posted some illustrations of Egyptian weapons from an 1894 text on arms and armor. Continuing in that vein, here are some pictures of various Greek and Etruscan helmets.

Greek Helmets

First row, from left to right:

  • Greek casque called a “kataityx”, probably in leather, from the 8th century BC.
  • Etruscan casque in bronze, first period.
  • Etruscan casque in bronze.
  • Bronze casque attributed to the Umbrians (allies of the Etruscans)

Second Row:

  • Etruscan casque in bronze. A similar helmet exists in gold.
  • Etruscan casque in bronze with fixed visor.
  • Greek casques in bronze with inscriptions.
  • Greek casque of the hoplites. Bronze.

Third Row:

  • Greek casque in bronze.
  • Greek casque in bronze with reliefs, antennae and a crest-holder.
  • The perfect Greek classic casque seen in many sculptures (though no actual artifacts have survived).
  • Greek casque ornamented with horsehair.

Fourth Row:

  • Greek casque with horsehair crest and embossed details.
  • Crest of a Greek casque in bronze.
  • Greek casque with neck covering in bronze.
  • Greek casque with chin-strap. Bronze.
  • Greek helmet with neck-covering and plume-holder for a horseman.

The illustrations and descriptions have been taken from An Illustrated History of Arms and Armour: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, by Auguste Demmin, and translated by Charles Christopher Black. Published in 1894 by George Bell.

Parts of a Chair

Learning the names and terms for parts of objects is important in developing your shared vocabulary for easier communication. If a designer asks you to “make the splat wider”, you don’t want to waste your time trying to widen a drop of paint.

For chairs, this was a little tricky trying to distill down all the general parts. Not all chairs have all the parts. Some parts are only specific to certain styles or time periods. Various people refer to similar parts by different names; in some contexts, they can be synonyms, while in others, they might have slightly different definitions. I’ve tried to exclude terminology which describes styles of parts. So while I defined a “leg”, I haven’t included a “cabriole leg”.

Some parts of a chair
Some parts of a chair

You can refer to the drawing above as well as the one below when looking at the definitions. At the end of today’s post, I’ve included a full-size drawing of both diagrams together at a higher resolution so you can print it out and hang it up. Have fun!

Some more parts of a chair
Some more parts of a chair
  • apron – the strips that run between the legs and connects to the surface (seat)
  • arm or armrest – part that supports your elbow and forearm
  • arm support – generalized term for the upright piece which supports the arm
  • back rail – rails specific to the seat back
  • back upright – synonym for “stile”
  • corner bracket – item which connects two members for added support and structure
  • cresting – ornamental topping, usually set in the center of the top of a chair-back
  • cresting rail – rail which contains the cresting, aka top rail
  • ear – small projecting member or part of a piece or structure, either decorative or structural
  • foot – bottom of the leg
  • headpiece – another word for “top rail” or “headrest”. With cresting, can be called “cresting rail”
  • leg – support for the chair
  • lower rail – lowermost rail of the seat back
  • manchette (arm pad) – upholstered patch or cushion on an armrest
  • mid rail – rail close to the vertical center of the seat back
  • rail – horizontal bar (of the back)
  • seat – the piece you set your bum on
  • seat back – general term encompassing the whole back of a chair, from the seat on up
  • seat rail – a synonym for the apron, or a single piece of the apron
  • shoe – a piece that sits on the back seat rail and holds the bottom of the splat, allowing easy replacement of a broken splat without disassembling the whole chair
  • skirt – band of fabric that hangs free from the bottom of an upholstered cushion. Sometimes used as a synonym for “apron”
  • slip seat – a seat which is easily removable to facilitate re-upholstery
  • spindle – a cylindrically symmetric shaft
  • splat – a vertical central element of the chair back
  • stile – outside vertical framing member (of the back)
  • stretcher – horizontal support element joining the legs
  • top rail – uppermost rail of the seat back
  • upholstered back – a padded back covered in fabric
  • upholstered seat – a padded seat covered in fabric
  • upright – vertical members of a chair back
Diagram of the parts of a chair
Click to load a large version for printing