An admission: I have a fetish for chairs.
As a designer, chairs offer the best opportunity to design from a sculptural aspect. Coupled with my historical jones, it should not be surprising that the one chair design that stands out is klismos. Given the timeless nature of this chair, it is no wonder other furniture designers have gravitated to this form as well. But what I find as interesting as the chair itself is the diverse personalities involved with bringing this form, along with ancient Greek ideals, back to life.
The extravagant Thomas Hope (1770-1831), son of one of the wealthiest banking families of Europe, was a collector, author, patron and furniture designer whose designs were inspired by Greek, Roman and Egyptian styles from his 10-year Grand Tour of the Ottoman Empire. He made klismos a commonplace word among a new generation of designers and architects.
Thomas Hope, known for fanciful indulgences, chose to have him self depicted in rich Turkish dress for his portrait in 1798. He believed that England needed to return to “true elegance and beauty” in dress and design and so modeled his surroundings around the influences of the Greeks and Romans. His year long stay in Constantinople, which influenced his first book on fashion, “Costumes of the Ancients,” might help us to understand why he selected this particular outfit for his sitting.
Hope is now best known for his book, “Household Furniture and Interior Decoration” published in 1807, which is believed to be the first English use of the phrase “interior decoration.” The book contained drawings of the interiors and furnishings of his London town home, which he opened to the public in hope of transforming modern British taste. This classically inspired pattern book of the English Regency became “the source” for generations of designers and architects drawn to the ideals of ancient Greece. He urges the young artist:
“to take a higher flight, he (the artist) should not stop his progress at the study of my humble publication;
he should ascend to those higher, those more copious sources of elegance, whence I myself have drawn all my ideas,
and which alone can offer an inexhaustible store of ever varied and ever novel beauties.”
“…my hope that the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America,
and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western world”
Benjamin Henry Latrobe painted by Charles Willson Peale, 1804. This portrait indicates his stature among the important citizens of Federal America. I love the artist’s touch showing Latrobe’s glasses sitting on top of his head.
On this side of the pond, one such person to reference Hope’s book was British born, Philadelphia architect and designer, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, also enthralled with Ancient Greece. Two separate commissions demonstrate his admiration for klismos.
This chair, commissioned in 1805 for the Waln family of Philadelphia, is thought to be the first American adaptation of the klismos form in the United States, although here, the legs only flare and are not true saber legs. This design was as avant-garde as anything produced in London or Paris at the same date. As a true example of unique styling each crest rail in the set of chairs features a different composition of mythological creatures.
The chairs Latrobe designed for President Madison and his wife, Dolley, were destroyed in the fire of 1814. This exact reproduction is based on Latrobe’s drawings, above.
His second commission was for Dolley Madison. It was she who wanted to open the “people’s house” to more informal gatherings of men and women, in the tradition of the French salon. Where the modern classical taste embraced the klismos form as a symbol of grace and beauty, the engineering behind the ancient design had been lost.
This design shows a purer historical reference, with dramatic sweeping saber legs. But given the structural stress with legs of this exaggerated curve, Latrobe added “X” stretchers, thus they do not have the grace of his earlier chair. As a side note regarding construction, Latrobe wrestled with finding competent makers to execute his designs, as did Thomas Hope, evident in his writings. Upon viewing the first sample, Latrobe wrote his client, saying:
“To make a chair requires as much taste to design one.”
To be fair, his insistence on exactly following his designs raised issues of structural integrity, as several broke when sat upon. Some things never change.
T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings championed the cause of American furniture design independence and thought he would be remembered above all else for the klismos chair that he first “designed” in 1937.
Although he was quite aware of Greek Revival renditions, Gibby, as he was called, believed no 18th or 19th century furniture designer captured the grace and proportion of Greek furniture that belonged to it and to it alone. In the 20th century he discovers for himself the purity and flawlessness of the original Greek forms.
After wandering the British Museum, he discovered on the base of a Greek candelabrum: “perhaps the most beautiful chair extant . . . rising from the ground in slow sweeping curves culminating in a deep elliptical backrest, (possessing) the power to endow the sitter with nobility.”
Who saw it first? Perhaps, if the Internet had existed during his time, he might have discovered that a Danish designer, in 1790, had also been smitten with Ancient Greece. Klismoi designs by Danish designer, Nicolai Abildgaard, 1790 (left) and Robsjohn-Gibbings, c. 1960 for Saridis.
What Goes Around Comes Around
It’s apparent we’re drawn to the klismos form. I know I have used iterations, as have others in this century. What will the next generations of designers bring to this form? Will we find the klismos forms created in the future as inspiring as the Hope, Latrobe and Robsjohn-Gibbings’ interpretations of centuries past?
For a more thorough and fascinating read on Thomas Hope and his life and time, I highly recommend, “Thomas Hope, Regency Designer,” edited by David Watkin and Philip Hewat-Jaboor.
“Household Furniture and Interior Decoration” by Thomas Hope.
Maryland Historical Society – Latrobe drawings
Museum of Fine Art Houston – Latrobe Waln chairs
T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings and C. W. Pullin, “Furniture of Classical Greece.”
About John Black
John Black is the creative visionary behind some of the most compelling furniture designs in the world of interiors today. He is not an interior designer, nor is he a furniture manufacturer. Yet (most likely unbeknownst to you) you’ll see John’s designs in beautiful homes, shelter magazines, fine furniture shops, and design studios across the country – and actually the world.
John Black is a furniture designer and founder of the creative design firm that bears his name, J Black Design.
At heart, John is both a modernist and a classicist. Hardly a conundrum. John is known for an understated, classic approach to furniture forms that captures the essence of traditional silhouettes combined with modern touches. He is an artist and a mechanic with an unfailing, critical eye for scale and proportion.