Barrel Chair History: The Origins of a Living Room Favorite

What could there possibly be to say about barrel chair history, you ask. Though perhaps a versatile and comfortable seating shape, it cannot possibly carry significant history. Prepare to be surprised!

In our last blog, we walked you through all the different kinds of barrel chairs you can find in the Styylish catalog. From Empire-style standalone to sets of Art Deco chairs, we applied the label “barrel chair” to a wide variety of quality objects.

We’re able to do that, in part, because of the ancient traditions that inform that kind of chair shape. In today’s blog, we want to trace those traditions, and exhume the story of how the barrel chair became (and has remained) an interior design favorite.

Recap: What is a barrel chair?

A barrel chair is a chair with a curved back-rest that can serve as a kind of armchair or be part of a set of chairs. Also referred to as a “tub chair”, the barrel chair takes its name from the overall shape of its body: cylindrical, often continuously so, to provide multi-plane back support with its rounded or slightly angled back.

Most barrel chairs in our collection are from the very early 19th century: pieces of the Empire period, specifically. But since then, the shape has been taken up by designers of all backgrounds and periods and turned into some truly remarkable pieces. Even legends have had a part in the history of the barrel chair.

Frank Lloyd Wright and the “Barrel Chair”

Wright Barrel Chair-styylish
Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Barrel Chair design

Famed 20th-century architect Frank Lloyd Wright named a chair design “The Barrel Chair” in 1937. Known primarily for his ingenious building designs, Wright’s carefully studied craft resulted in some of the most sought-after 20th-century furniture designs as well.

Wright’s late Art Deco masterpiece is a stunningly original design that flows vertically with immense grace. This barrel chair could indeed have been carved from a cylinder of pure wood – that, at least, is the effect Lloyd Wright intended.

Note the continuous backrest and angled armrests. Already capturing some of the sensibilities of Mid-Century design, Wright’s piece also hearkens back to the past in surprising ways. Indeed, his piece might offer the clearest view into how the design of barrel-style chairs evolved over time. It is Roman tradition that holds the key.

How Ancients Sat: The Curule Chair in Barrel Chair History

Campaign Furniture-Curule Seat-Stylish
A curule chair diagram

The Ancient Roman curule seat is, in many ways, the opposite of a barrel chair. A foldable seat with only small fabric backrests (if at all), the curule offers none of the body-lining comforts of later barrel chairs.

The shape of a curule seat is essential to the development of the latter, however. Note how deep and rounded the wood frame is. The kind of craftsmanship required to construct that kind of chair was likely rediscovered during the Renaissance and brought into 18th and 19th-century chair designs in that way.

What supports this theory is the sudden omnipresence of the barrel chair during the Empire period at the turn of the 19th century. Named for the Napoleonic Empire, Empire artisans were obsessed with bringing the iconography and shapes of the mighty Roman empire into their designs.

Empire Tub chair- 19th century- styylish
An Empire Tub Chair – available now on Styylish

Just take a look at one of our most elegant barrel chairs, which is clearly inspired by the curule shape in more than one way. Matched with elegant modern fabric, this piece is sure to elevate your interior.

A particularly wonderful detail of this piece is the way the integrated armrests curve. Recall how essential the armrest was to Frank Lloyd Wright, too, in the design of his barrel chair. Both seem to draw on the armrest as a structural component in the manner that the ancient Romans did. Some might argue that the curule seat was almost entirely made of armrest.

Comfort in Form

Dining Chair "Topaz", Custom Made- Styylish
Dining Chair “Topaz” – available now on Styylish

Wright’s armrest certainly inspired contemporary pieces like this Dining Chair “Topaz”. With proud angulation, and a distinctive “saw horse” leg design, this is a contemporary wonder. It’s sleek and captures the advantages of barrel chairs in whole new ways.

Debi Armchair- in rose- Styylish
The Debi Armchair, by Sergio Prieto – available now on Styylish

So, too, this Sergio Prieto armchair in fabric velvet. It reimagines the barrel as a winged shape. The armrests come alive as petals on the back of the rounded body. Rarely does a piece meet a tried-and-true shape with greater imagination than this juncture of texture, material, and avant-garde design.

Boucle Armchair- Styylish
A striking boucle armchair – available now on Styylish

But armrests do not make modern barrel chairs. Indeed, contemporary designs in the spirit of the barrel are frequently stripped down to a minimalist interpretation of the shape, like in the case of this boucle armchair. It subverts expectations with its two-shape simplicity but practically bursts with comfort and support.

Summary: Sticking to Traditions

Barrel chairs and the construction ideas underlying them have been around in some way, shape, or form for millennia. Barrel chair history, then, is about tracing those shapes through time and changes. Curved wood and chairs intuitively belong together. Curves are uniquely suited to the needs of a sitting body, after all. It’s no wonder that this particular style has remained a favorite.

What may be surprising is how adaptive the shape has proven. Even in design periods characterized by geometric explorations and departures, such as Art Deco, the barrel chair remained a staple. Though perhaps disguised with materials and aesthetic markers that define a particular period, the ancient shape has remained essential to our society of sitters.

Browse the Styylish catalog for a remarkable range of objects that have also stood the test of time. All in their own unique way.

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