Books in Review: Chairs by Judith Miller

Judith Miller began collecting antiques in the 1960s while a student at Edinburgh University. Since then, she’s become one of the world’s leading experts on antiques. In 1979 she co-founded the international bestseller titled Miller’s Antiques Price Guide, and has since written more than 100 books on antiques-related topics. Judith appears regularly on radio and television, most notably as an appraiser on Britain’s Antiques Roadshow. In the United States she’s appeared on CNN and the Martha Stewart Show, most recently to promote her beautiful new coffee table book about the history of chairs. Keeping it short and sweet, and definitely to the point, the book is called “Chairs.”

Recently Auction Central News had the pleasure of meeting with Judith in Philadelphia. Rather than simply reviewing the book, we decided we’d launch our new Books section by sharing the transcript of our conversation with Judith, as it lends great insight to the subject of chairs and Judith’s approach to writing the book. You may never look at the chairs in your own home quite the same way after you read Judith’s comments about their noble history and importance to design overall.

  1. Judith, you’ve written about every antiques topic under the sun, it seems, but this book is quite a grand effort to be devoting to the single topic of chairs. What inspired you to write this 336-page book about chairs? Chairs are the epitome of the style. They are the most important thing in showing how a style has developed. I’m a single-chair addict myself, and have bought a considerable number of them. When I leave the house to go shopping, my husband says, ‘Now repeat after me – we do not need one more single chair.’
  2. The chairs in your book are organized chronologically, and quite logically, starting with the Egyptians, around 2680 B.C. What can you tell us about how the use of chairs began? Chairs were a tremendous status symbol in Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. Until medieval times in England, there would be only one chair in a room, and that would be for the person of highest status – the chairman – hence the origin of the word. Even into the 19th century, chairs were for the wealthy. Everyone else would sit on benches or tree trunks, or the floor.
  3. The Egyptian chair that starts off the chronology in your book is quite the production – it’s a fantastic gold chair from King Tut’s Tomb. What were some of the other early civilizations or cultures that used chairs? There are wall paintings, drawings and engravings that show the Chinese had very elaborate chairs. The Japanese did, as well.
  4. Based on the photographs in the timeline presented in your book – and I must say, the photography is quite stunning – it would seem that aesthetics have long been part an important aspect of chair design. Would you agree with that – that functionality and visual appeal have always gone hand in hand in the design of chairs? I think they have. If you were Thomas Chippendale or Sheraton or Hepplewhite, you were in the business of producing commercial products for very wealthy clients who demanded that the chairs be sturdy but also beautiful. For instance, to satisfy his clients, Chippendale would import Italian Damascene silk for the seat covering, which is very expensive.
  5. Who were the important craftsmen who produced chairs in England prior to American Colonial times? We don’t know a tremendous amount about furniture craftsmen in England prior to the 17th century, before the arrival of French Huguenot craftsmen who came to England through Holland. They were silk weavers and carvers, and were very influential.
  6. The chairs of Colonial America were largely crafted by cabinetmakers or other woodworkers who brought their skills across the Atlantic from England or the Continent. How is it that in a geographical area as relatively small as New England that so may disparate styles developed – by that I mean, you could look at an 18th-century Philadelphia chair or a Newport chair or a Portsmouth, New Hampshire chair and identify their region and sometimes their maker. What were the differences in the way chairs were constructed in various cities of the American colonies? This is something I’m fascinated about. I actually did a program at Colonial Williamsburg in which I talked about the many varieties. Craftsmen came to America from Germany, England, Scotland and Scandinavia. They had access to different timbers depending on where they lived and worked. That would affect the style. Also, whom they were making the chairs for was very important. If they were making chairs for someone of German descent, they would take their inspiration from German designs.
  7. Your book includes this insightful quote from Mies van der Rohe – in 1930 he said “A chair is a very difficult object. Everyone who has tried to make one knows that. There are endless possibilities and many problems. The chair has to be light, it has to be strong, it has to be comfortable. It is almost easier to build a skyscraper than a chair. That is why Chippendale is famous.” What is it about Chippendale chairs that puts them in a league of their own? Mies van der Rohe would know which was more difficult, since he did both – he designed a chair and a skyscraper. Every designer wants to make a perfect chair. They’re so much a part of what we do every day. To be known as someone who designed the best chair is something they want to do but which is very difficult to get right. At one time it was even questioned whether we need four legs on a chair. I find the 20th century to be an exciting time for chairs. Being a Scot, I love Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s chairs, but if I were sitting in a tea room on one of his chairs, I wouldn’t stay for long. I would love to have one, though – maybe more as a piece of sculpture than a chair. But regarding Chippendale, I don’t thing he was particularly innovative, but he was brilliant at assimilating ideas – whether Chinese or French Rococo – and making them incredibly elegant. When you see a Chippendale chair from his workshop, they have an elegance and simplicity that makes you gasp.
  8. I laughed at your husband John Wainwright’s comment that your own household could do without another single chair. Do you have a particular obsession for chairs in your home? I mix them up and put them to use in different ways. In the front room there’s a Philippe Starck Lord Yo chair in one corner and an English walnut George I chair in the other corner. I have them around beds as bedside tables, and in the dining room I have eight different chairs around the table. All are from the period 1780-90 but each has a completely different back. Friends who come to dinner have favorite chairs – it encourages them to talk about chairs. I think we can get too interested in sets of everything.
  9. LiveAuctioneers is a wonderful source for buying chairs through auction houses like Millea Bros., Treadway, Rago Arts or the Chicago auction house Wright, to name but a few. We all know that investment should never be the primary or sole reason for purchasing antiques or contemporary art of any type, but there’s no denying that the work of some contemporary artists is more likely to appreciate in value than others. I’ll give you a few names, and please comment on them:
  10. Ron Arad – He’s someone who was way before his time in reusing objects and giving them a second life. Ron Arad is a visionary.

    Julia Krantz – I had never heard of her before I saw one of her amazing chairs in a shop on Franklin Street in New York. She stack-laminates wood, smoothes it, and lets the lines flow. She’s an incredible designer.

    Marc Newson – Marc Newson is an amazing designer, so inspired. He sees design in everything and has designed things as simple as a napkin holder and as major as the insides of an aircraft. Finding a Marc Newson chair to feature in the book was very difficult. They sell for an enormous amount of money.

    Philippe Starck – People have tried to denounce Philippe Starck for being commercial, and he says, ‘Of course I’m commercial.’ He’s very clear about where his inspiration comes from. His designs are in hotels all over the world. Whoever said designers should not be commercial?

    Wendell Castle – I’m beside myself with admiration for Wendell Castle. Some designers get into a set way of designing a chair, but he’ll put wood with leather, or use plastics or stainless steel. Every one of his chairs is different.

  11. This takes us to your ‘desert island’ chair. Let’s suppose Judith Miller is marooned on a desert island. Which chair does she take with her? That’s so, so unfair. It’s like choosing between your children. I might be tempted to choose a great design like Wendell Castle’s Nirvana chair, but I think it would probably have to be my George I walnut chair because to me it has so many fantastic associations. My chairs are scrapbooks of my life, and that chair has been with me through happy and sad times.

The author is Judith Miller, and the book is called Chairs, published by Conran/Octopus Books USA. Retail price: $65. Click here to purchase it through amazon.com.

# # #

Click here to purchase Chairs.


ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE


Author Judith Miller.

Author Judith Miller.