Some innovations are heralded as turning points for civilization. The wheel propelled us great distances, the combustion engine transformed lives, and the television transported us to imagined lands. The chair doesn’t tend to receive quite the same status, despite literally lifting humans off the ground. But what started as something purely utilitarian has morphed into a beacon of design in the 20th century. The marriage of form and function has made the chair an increasingly popular collector’s piece, with one even hailed as the best design of the 20th century.
“Every truly original idea — every innovation in design, every new application of materials, every technical invention for furniture — seems to find its most important expression in a chair”
Designer, George Nelson
From the Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, to the Le Corbusier Grand Confort and the Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair, the evolution of the coveted chair – a chair that goes beyond mere function – has gathered significant pace over the past century.
A series of museum-worthy designs have transformed homes, offices, and living areas into desirable spaces whose interest and excitement extends beyond the drabness of functionality. Innovations in engineering, design, and materials all contributing to the seated revolution.
Superstar designers like Charles and Ray Eames have ensured that taking the weight off can be done in elegant, luxurious style, along with a host of other designers. These include the likes of Vernor Panton, Eero Saarinen, and Hans Wegner.
The right chair can make a valuable addition to a room in more ways than one, and the evolution of the chair is not exclusive to the aesthetic realm. In April 2022, an Eames Lounge Chair sold at Bonhams for £11,000, while Eileen Gray’s 1917 Dragon Chair that had belonged to Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé sold at auction in 2009 for $27.8 million, making it the most expensive chair ever sold.
And it’s not just at auction that the aesthetics of the modern chair can be appreciated. They have confirmed and even added a sense of luxurious, sophistication and style to a range of TV shows and films over the years. Dr Frasier Crane enjoyed relaxing in the knowledge that his carefully positioned Eames Lounge Chair is the best-engineered chair in the world. The futuristic Djinn Chair by Olivier Mourgue helped to give 2001: A Space Odyssey a sci-fi aesthetic. The iconic Ovalia Egg Chair helped establish an unforgettably modern set for Men In Black, while Hans Wegner’s Ox Chair was the menacing throne of Dr Evil in Austin Powers.
Chairs like these stand apart as impeccable mixes of practicality and aesthetics. They ensure that the sitter or fan can enjoy the benefits of quality design, and turn the everyday act of sitting into an art. To help you do the same, we have collated 25 of the Most Famous Chair Designs of All Time to help you ease into luxurious, sophisticated, and engineered refinement.
The Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman
What started as an experiment to mold plywood into compound forms to create lightweight leg splints during World War II evolved to epitomize sexy mid-century executive style and comfort and become a true icon of 20th-century design. The increasingly collectible piece of furniture is available in a variety of color ways, but the vintage rosewood have proven to most popular among enthusiasts of comfort and style at auction.
Louis XIV Chair
As the King of France, Louis XIV reigned for a record 72 years and 110 days, and in that time he became known for his extravagant and opulent taste. This taste for a lavish lifestyle also extended to chairs, as shown by the high-back, plush upholstery, and intricate wood detailing of the Louis XIV Chair. And while the French royal family didn’t survive, the elegance of the chairs has ensured that they have.
Elegance and simplicity can be difficult to achieve, as proven by the Hans Wegner-designed Wishbone Chair, which requires over 100 manufacturing steps to create the steam-bent top and the characteristic Y-shaped back in the form of a wishbone. While the chair debuted in 1949 and the Midcentury Modern design had its roots in the past, as Wegner was inspired by a painting of Danish merchants in Ming Chairs.
Turning expectation of how a chair is put together on its head, Eero Saarinen’s 1955 Tulip was made as a single-material, single-form chair that stands on a single leg to create a majestic and flowing piece of furniture the bears a resemblance to the flower from which it takes its name. Saarinen’s design tidied up what he called the “slum of legs” on most chairs and created an elegant icon of design in the process.
The result of a collaboration between the Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his partner and designer, Lilly Reich, the Barcelona Chair was designed for the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona as a one off, but its timeless elegance has ensured that it’s still produced under license by Knoll to this day. While the Barcelona Chair might look simple, it’s actually upholstered with 40 individual panels.
Designed for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen in 1958, Arne Jacobsen transformed the traditional armchair into a curvy, fluid and tempting piece that almost cocoons its inhabitant like a warm leather glove. It’s also ideal for dramatically swiveling to face someone entering a room in the manner of a Bond villain, which can be done in a variety of different leathers and fabrics.
Louis Ghost Chair
What Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost Chair lacks in comfort, it makes up for in inventiveness and irony. The silhouette of a Louis XIV chair is produced in a single-piece injection-molded transparent polycarbonate to create something that sits somewhere between French regal elegance and playful charm. Ultimate chintzy refinement at the dinner table, but with a crisp mass-produced finish.
Papa Bear chair
How could anything named Papa Bear be anything other than gloriously comfy? Hans Wegner’s piece exudes comfort as the two outstretched arms embrace the reclined sitter, allowing them to lounge in gloriously refined comfort. The design of the perfectly angled and padded lounge chair is complemented by a solid wood frame, which is hand-joined to provide a base for the traditional upholstery.
Groundbreaking in its construction and appearance, Vernor Panton’s swinging sixties Stacking Chair was the first chair to be manufactured in one single piece entirely from plastic. It’s not just a pretty face either, as it was engineered in 1960 to keep its structural integrity thanks to the combination of a cantilever structure with a slightly flexible material and an anthropomorphic shape.
Ming Dynasty Chairs
The Ming dynasty ruled China from 1368 to 1644, but the influence of their chairs has lived considerably longer. Inspiring countless imitators, including Hans Wegner’s Wishbone Chair, Ming chairs have also remained popular with the public, as shown by the fact that a late Ming Dynasty Yokeback Armchair sold for HKD9,920,000 (approximately $1,263,735) in 2015 at Sotheby’s.
When designer Eero Saarinen set out to create the Womb Chair for Florence Knoll in 1948, he did so with the aim of creating “a chair that was like a basket full of pillows.” This icon of post-war American modernism wasn’t merely a comfortable place to park though, as the armchair was also the first piece of mass-produced furniture with an integrated seat shell made from fiber-reinforced plastic.
Le Grand Confort or LC2/3
Originally designed in 1928, the low-slung armchair didn’t go into production by Cassina until 1965. Co-designed by Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, the Grand Confort has an international jet set aesthetic, but it is constructed with a Rationalist approach to design in a clever way to contain a series of boxy cushions in an open, tubular steel frame. Elegant simplicity.
Eames Molded Plastic Side Chair
Prior to its production in 1950, the idea of a simple, sculptural, mass-produced chair was unheard of, but the Eames Molded Plastic Side Chair changed all that and is today a ubiquitous feature of home and office. In 2001, Herman Miller reintroduced the Molded Plastic Chair in polypropylene and it has spawned a series of imitators, most notably at IKEA, whose design embodies the same simple and gracious form.
Jeanneret Office Floating Armchair
Delicately managing to achieve a work-life balance aesthetic, the Pierre Jeanneret Office Floating Armchair was originally created for the Chandigarh Administrative Buildings in India back in the 1950s. The meshed seat back hints towards its warm-weather past, but today has a mainstream appeal as an elegant dining room alternative.
A hugely important milestone in the history of modern furniture, along with the Wassily (more on that later), Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam took inspiration from bicycle handlebars when constructing the elegantly simple cantilevered chair using non-reinforced tubular steel to significantly advance 20th-century chair design. If the designer’s name is familiar then it might be because Breuer also designed the former Whitney Museum in New York, which is known as the Met Breuer.
Fauteuil aux Dragons (Dragon’s Chair)
Somewhere between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, the distinctive aesthetic of Irish born Eileen Gray’s Dragon’s Chair – that features ornate sculptures on its sweeping armrests – marks it out as an interesting piece of European avant-garde. Not only aesthetically interesting, Gray’s 1917 chair is also historically significant: one belonging to Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé sold at auction in 2009 for an eye watering $27.8 million, making it the most expensive chair ever sold.
Combining molded plywood and a solid bent-wood construction, Norman Cherner’s armchair was designed in 1959 and has become a popular feature in Midcentury-inspired homes. The sleek and minimalist armchair is dominated by curved arms that make it the perfect lounge chair, while Cherner’s preoccupation with materials means it was designed with an attention to detail akin to that of Charles and Ray Eames.
Arne Jacobsen: A pair of early teak and leather 4325 “Swan” armchairs (produced c. 1960-67). Sold for €16,900 via Artcurial (May 2015).
Designed for the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen by Arne Jacobsen in 1958, the appeal of the pedestal lounge chair has endured, as it has remained in production at Fritz Hansen ever since. The technologically innovative chair is all curves and features no straight lines, while the aluminum star base supports a molded shell of synthetic material.
Influenced by the constructivist theories of the De Stijl Movement and more plainly, a bicycle frame, Marcel Breur’s Wassily Chair changed the course of furniture design. It’s more sculptural than his B32/Cesca and the deconstructed club chair looked like an abstract piece of art compared to other chairs in the 1920s, making it seem as futuristic then as it still does today. For additional style kudos, it also appeared in Frasier Crane’s eclectic apartment.
A tan leather and chromed Butterfly chair after a design by Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Hardoy. Sold for R6,000 via Strauss & Co (June 2022).
Originally designed by Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan, and Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy in Buenos Aires in 1938, it was Knoll Associates who acquired US production rights of the stretched fabric chair and made it famous worldwide when it was featured in their eponymous catalogue from 1947 to 1951. It’s so popular that it has a range of imitators and is also known as the Hardoy Chair, Safari Chair, and Wing Chair. Keep that in mind when searching Invaluable for it.
If the Butterfly Chair opened the door for the popularization of a stretched material over a steel frame, then the Poäng Chair marched through it and took over the world. Like the rising of the sun there seems a certainty to the fact that you know someone who has or had an IKEA Poäng Chair, which was designed by Noboru Nakamura in 1976 and its molded plywood frame (it was changed from steel to wood in 1992) bounces when sat in to give the impression of a rocking chair.
Forum Rocking Recliner (La-Z-Boy)
Combining an ottoman with a padded reclining chair, La-Z-Boy created their own niche of late 20th century comfort with this bestseller. The patent for the American icon was filed all the way back in 1929, but it’s status in popular culture wasn’t cemented until the latter period of the century when Martin Crane added to Frasier’s eclectic apartment with his chair, while Friends, Joey and Chandler immortalised it as an aspirationally chic item for bachelors in their 20s.
It’s been described by GQ as “the only famous office chair for a reason” as the ergonomic design has become as integral to many offices as a computer. The Herman Miller Aeron made its debut in 1994. It was designed by Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick to provide ultimate ergonomic comfort for many different types of deskbound work. Its striking, innovative look made it a symbol of the dot.com boom, as it ushered overstuffed leather power chairs out of offices and boardrooms around the world.
Hanging Hoop Chair
British designer Lee Broom discarded expectations that chairs have to be supported by legs with his Hanging Hoop Chair that questioned the very essence of what constitutes a chair, with his two metal circles and an upholstered seat that’s suspended from above. The suspended chair has proven increasingly popular and is a regular feature of aesthetically pleasing beach bars and restaurants, and aspirational home gardens looking to recreate the holiday environment.
Lounge Chair Wood
One of Charles and Ray Eames’ most well-known designs, the Lounge Chair Wood (practicality was a feature that also extended to naming their furniture) was another plywood design developed as an affordable, high-quality chair. The result of five years of pioneering experiments with wood-molding techniques, the now iconic chair design from 1945 has enjoyed an enduring appeal and in 1999 it was hailed as the best design of the 20th century by Time magazine.