Monday, February 6, 2017

History of Furniture: Ancient Greece

We practically need a time machine for this installment of the History of Furniture since we are heading back, far back in time, to ancient Greece.

We have the Greeks to thank for so many things: the concept of democracy, science, philosophy, advances in architecture...and some lovely furniture!

They invented the kline which is a type of sofa or day bed. Klinai (the plural) were made with a woven bottom (probably of leather strapping) and four legs, then covered with woven throws and pillows stuffed with hay, leaves, or feathers. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks often made legs of chairs or klinai into the shapes of animal legs or feet. But klinai could also have simple turned legs.

Thankfully, we know a lot about Greek furniture from extant images from frescoed walls and vases.

While the kline as the ancient Greeks knew it might not be in service today, we do have a lovely piece of Greek furniture still in use in the form of the Klismos chair.

Klismos chairs were originally made of wood with seats of cane or of woven leather. The swooping delicate line of the chair comes from its saber legs which curve out. The back rest continues the curve upward but in the opposite direction, giving the silhouette of the chair a beautiful "S" curve. A low, concave panel supported the sitter's back. While there are really no extant klismos chairs to speak of, we can find plenty of imagery showing its shape and construction not only from the Greeks but also from the Romans who emulated nearly every aspect of Greek culture.

The chair was quite popular during the classical Greek period but fell out of usage by the Hellenistic period. Some theorize this is because the chair's delicate saber legs contributed to instability, causing the piece to splay out and break. One would think that with a design flaw that serious, the chair would never have been widely used to begin with. I feel the decline of the chair simply has to do with changing tastes of style and fashion. Whatever the reason, it seems that the shape is too exotic and alluring to resist and the chair saw a huge rise in popularity in the late 1700s when all of Europe was interested in Neo-Classicism. Greek and Roman sites were being excavated, pottery was being unearthed and images of the klismos chair were discovered!

Klismos chairs are now a very chic and interesting alternative to a traditional chair.

At the start of this post, I mentioned that the Greeks contributed toward advances in architecture and they are perhaps best known for the Greek Column. There are actually three different orders--or types--of columns. It's useful to know these orders not only for architectural purposes, but because these columns can be incorporated into interiors or into furniture designs!

While it is commonly believed that the Doric column preceded the Ionic column in time, there is no real evidence to support this. Archaeologists have found Doric and Ionic columns from roughly the same era. But for ease, let's start with the Doric column first.

A Doric column is the plainest of the Greek columns. Although the shaft itself has some detail in the form of fluting (always twenty channels), the top is simply rounded, topped with a square abacus. Often Doric columns have no base, but some have a plinth for the fluted column to stand upon. It is the shortest of Greek columns, sometimes looking a little squat since it is thicker at the bottom than the top which allows the distribution of the weight from above.

Next is the Ionic column. I remember the name of this column because it starts with "I" and in a funny way, the top of the column appears to have two "eyes." These are decorative scrolls or volutes. This column, like the Doric, is also fluted but it is fitted with four more than the Doric, bringing the total channels of the Ionic column to twenty-four.

Finally, we have the most elaborate--and slimmest!--of all the columns, the Corinthian. Marked by a capital with two extravagant rows of acanthus leaves and scrolls, the Corinthian gets its name from the ancient Greek city of Corinth.

Of course many eras since have copied these ancient Greek styles in what has become known as a Neo-Classical style or Neo-Classical Revival. We will examine some of these in future posts. But in the meantime, happy designing!

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