The History of the Klismos Chair (And Why We Should Care)

Austin Interior Designer Amity Worrel Looks at How the Ancient Greek Klismos Chair Has Influenced Interior Design Through the Ages

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When I was last in New York City, I visited The Met and saw a reproduction of the famous Klismos chair. As I wandered through the Greek wing, I took in the iterations of the design that echoed across rows of Grecian pottery, wall murals, and artifacts. Seeing this iconic chair in all its forms took me back to my design school days in NYC, where we learned all about the Klismos chair. It is arguably the most important and identifiable chair design of the Western World. 


If you aren’t familiar with the Klismos chair, you might be wondering, “Why should we care?” After all, a chair is designed to fit the human form. We figured out those proportions a few thousand years ago, and the basic design hasn’t changed much since. While I am perfectly capable of designing a comfortable upholstered chair for my Austin interior design clients, creating something that resembles the Klismos chair is far beyond me! It is immensely difficult to match this form with new designs, which adds to the allure this chair has over us. 

Klismos Chair
Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress/Sketch from the 1800s Depicting a Klismos Chair in Ancient Greece


The influence of the Klismos chair goes far beyond the dining room table. It has been represented in centuries’ worth of other art forms, been reproduced through decades of design styles, and even influenced the architecture of our nation’s Capitol. This chair was a key player in the Age of American Enlightenment, and I think it’s time we were all enlightened on just how important the role of the Klismos chair has been throughout history. 


So take a seat (preferably in a Klismos reproduction). 

Klismos Chair - First Dibs
Klismos Chair – 1st Dibs


What is a Klismos Chair? 

Many folks have thought the Ancient Greeks lounged on chaises and reclined when dining, but that was mainly reserved for special banquet occasions. More often, they were probably sitting in Klismos chairs! Klismos comes from the Greek word for rest, and the design features curves, allowing for a more relaxed posture. The Ancient Greeks originally designed the Klismos chair in the 5th Century BCE. For reference, that’s around the time of Socrates and the beginnings of Western philosophy. (It’s only fitting that the iconic chair design was born from an era of enlightenment!)

So, what makes the Klismos chair stand out from other designs? Three main design factors make a Klismos chair a Klismos chair. 


  1. Flared Legs: The design features two or four curved legs that flare outwards, creating a light sense of effortless support. 
  2. Curved Back: The chair’s back is curved, consisting of two rails and possibly a decorative panel or loose caning in the middle. 
  3. Hugging Backrest: It features a narrow, concave backrest designed to hug the human form for comfortable support and an elegant aesthetic. Backrests vary in thickness and curvature. 


No Original Klismos Chairs Exist, So How Do We Even Know What They Looked Like? 

Klismos chairs were popular from their debut all the way through the 4th century. However, they completely disappeared with the end of Ancient Greece. Not a single original Klismos chair exists. So, how do we even know what they looked like? 


The chair design was so popular that it was represented in Grecian pottery, sculpture, and other works. The most famous representation of the chair is the Stele of Hegeso, a tombstone dating back to 400 BCE depicting a woman seated in a Klismos chair for eternity. Thanks to these detailed representations, we were able to recreate the design. The Klismos chair legacy continues, and it has gone on to influence many more design styles throughout history. 

Stele of Hegreso / Klismos Chair
Stele of Hegreso/Image Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

The Klismos Chair Started the Greek Revival (And Influenced American Design Styles) 

The Klismos chair design was rediscovered during excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1748. The discovery of these pristinely preserved cities sparked a renewed interest in all things Greek and Roman across the Western World. Everyone from Napoleon to Washington was clambering to reimagine a design style that would hark back to the legacy of Ancient Greece and the ideals of its idolized government and philosophy. Neoclassical architecture was born.


Greek Revival styles, including Neoclassical and Federalist architecture, reflect a strong political motivation. During the 18th century, America won the revolution and broke free of British rule, entering the American Enlightenment. Citizens of the newly freed colonies were hooked on the Greek Revival styles and all they represented — a diplomatic government, the enlightened citizen, and so on. We began to fancy ourselves as intellectuals and naturally wanted spaces to reflect and convey that to others. The Classics were put on a pedestal, and society wanted these ideals represented in their government buildings and homes, which is why so much of Washington DC resembles The Parthenon. 


And so, buildings were designed with symmetry and outfitted with towering columns, and the Klismos chair had a front-row seat to all the action. 


The Klismos Chair’s Influence on Other Design Styles 

The Klismos chair’s influence didn’t stop there. Like a ripple, this singular piece of furniture influenced American design styles from 1776 through today. The effect can be seen everywhere, from the Capitol to college campuses and suburban homes. Neoclassical design had many spin-offs, including the Empire, Georgian, and Biedermeier styles. 


The Empire style has its roots in France, as it was based on Napoleon’s take on Greek Revival architecture. However, it did make its way to the States. This variation is characterized by charming features like a mansard roof, tower entryway, and elongated proportions for a grander scale. 


Georgian design is still one of the most popular styles of American homes. It has English ties, but despite our need for independence, Americans are still enamored with the British. Georgian homes feature simple yet elegant symmetrical designs with classic red brick facades. A Klismos chair feels right at home here at the formal dining table. 

Emma Film Still - Georgian Architecture
Emma Film Still/Source Focus Features/Georgian Architecture


The Biedermeier style has its own unique spin on Neoclassical design principles. Biedermeier took a softer approach to Empire furnishings, utilizing woods local to the German, Scandinavian, and Austrian regions where it originated. The famous inlay Biedermeier chairs share many design similarities to the Klismos. Biedermeier had a resurgence in the 1970s, and many of those 70s design trends are being referenced in homes currently. 


Reproductions and inspired takes on the Klismos chair are prevalent throughout such a wide range of design styles. Once you’ve taken note, it will be hard not to see its influence everywhere. 


Designing with Trends vs. Designing with History 

So, why should we care about the Klismos chair? Instead, I ask, “How could we not?” I take an academic approach to interior design because I find it fascinating to study how one style (or chair) can affect other styles and continue to reinvent itself through the decades. I’m against following interior design trends because they are void of this historical context. If we don’t study and understand our selections from a historical perspective, we are blindly selecting finishes at random. While some of us have a natural knack for coordinating an aesthetic, talking about it and understanding its history is far more interesting and lends some weight to the importance of design. Styles cycle, trends fade, but enduring designs last through millennia.  


Remember. When you sit in a Klismos chair, you are taking part in history.

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