What is a chair?

What is a chair? What does it look like? A seemingly simple and traditional object, the chair plays a particularly important role in not only the history of art and design, but also the history of people. It is a type of object particularly loved by both designers and users because the form need only follow the function of "a place to sit." Terence Riley, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art in New York says, "the chair is less functional than empathic. If the chair were solely a functional object, one might have expected that its form could have been settled centuries ago. But the chair is more than just a place to rest. Like the human being, it has legs, arms, a seat, and a back. Furthermore, to accommodate us, it is human in size; it is, in fact a mirror of ourselves, and despite its overt functional genesis it serves essentially as an expressive and subjective portrait of its maker and its prospective users." [1]

Conceptual Artist Joseph Kosuth famously addressed the question, "what is a chair?" in his iconic 1965 installation entitled One and Three Chairs. In this piece he presents the chair in three ways: as a photograph, as the wooden object itself, and as a dictionary definition. Kosuth uses images, semiotics, and language to challenge the viewer's understanding of the meaning of words and objects across cultures and history. By bringing the physical chair together with other aspects of it, Kosuth prods the viewer to consider how language affects our ways of seeing and representing the world. Kosuth's goal of exploration of the meaning of words and objects was not limited to furniture: One and Three Chairs was only the first example of Kosuth's series of One and Three installations, in which he assembled an object, a photograph of that object, and an enlarged dictionary definition of the object. But in this original piece he slyly reminds designers, artists, and people who sit on chairs, of the many deliberate decisions that constitute design of an object with fixed meaning, but not fixed form.

[1] Terence Riley. Paola Antonelli, ed. Objects of Design from The Museum of Modern Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 2003. 8.

Heather Bowling, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, 2016.

Web Resources

  • KERA
    Listen to a talk about the history of the chair with Witold Rybcznski, University of Pennsylvania emeritus professor of architecture.

  • DMA canvas
    Read about chairs at the DMA.