Image gallery: have a seat!

How often do you notice the chair you are sitting on in a restaurant? I’m a fairly observant person but I couldn’t tell you what kind of chairs my favorite restaurants use. Unless a chair is unusually uncomfortable I doubt I’d pay any attention to it at all.

Restaurant owners, managers, and designers, on the other hand, have thought about chairs a lot. There are numerous considerations that go into selecting them, including price, comfort, durability, style, portability, and how much space they occupy.

And let’s not leave out gender, because many of the chairs used in the 20th century were either intended to appeal to men or women, with the understanding that women will adapt to male preferences, but not necessarily vice versa. A 1912 etiquette column counseled women not to wrap their feet around the front legs of chairs in restaurants, but to keep them close together, facing straight ahead and flat on the floor. The author admitted the reason so many wrapped their feet around chair legs was that the chairs were too high for most women!

It’s hard to say exactly what chairs were used in the 19th century because of the lack of available images as compared to the 20th. In the early 19th century, public eating places were often furnished with benches, while chairs came later. After hunting up as many drawings of chairs as I could – mostly from Victorian trade cards and circulars of the 1880s [e.g., Glover’s Corner, Boston] — I’d say seating in ordinary, non-deluxe restaurants was fairly simple, with slat or spindle backs.

Certain chairs have been dominant in restaurants at various times over the past decades. The most successful beyond a doubt was commonly known as the “Vienna chair.” Used worldwide in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was one of the bentwood chairs developed and produced from Carpathian beech by the Thonet Company of Austria. Its stellar success was because it was graceful, durable, and lightweight. As one of the earliest chairs to be mass produced, it was also inexpensive. [Boos Bros., 1915]

Various versions of the Vienna chair were in use in this country in the 19th century. The C. L. Woodman restaurant of Chicago advertised in 1880 that it had remodeled and added “260 pretty chairs of cane and ebony [that] recall the days of our Viennese rambles.” In 1884 B. Nathan & Co., San Francisco, ran an ad saying “Sole Agents For Thonet Bros. Indestructible Bent-Wood Austrian Furniture and Chairs, for Hotels, Restaurants and Dining-rooms.”

Somewhat reminiscent of the Vienna chair, metal “ice cream parlor chairs” were used in various types of restaurants in the early 20th century.

Though it continued in use until WWII and even beyond, becoming collectible in the 1960s, the prototypical Vienna bentwood chair began to look dated in the 1930s, when streamlined aluminum or chrome chairs upholstered in colorful leatherette came into vogue. Some restaurants tried to update their bentwoods with paint or cloth covers that added color. [Lauer Sister’s, 1936]

But by the 1960s chairs with metal frames and padded vinyl backs and seats lost their 1930s moderne look, retreating into plainness and, for some, stackability. I have to admit what when I see this type of chair in a restaurant I lose faith that I will encounter good food. They are often used in restaurants that cater to banquets.

Tea rooms and other restaurants that pitched their appeal to women often tried to avoid using typical restaurant chairs. A newspaper in Canton OH in 1906 applauded a new luncheon restaurant for women that had “wicker chairs . . . instead of the conventional stiff restaurant chair.” No two of the wicker chairs were alike, the article said, giving the place a desirable “homelike” look. Many other tea rooms and inns used Windsor side and armchairs evoking a sense of Colonial times.

More expensive restaurants, especially those catering to men, were likely to use leather upholstered chairs, as shown in the men-only Locke-Ober restaurant in Boston.

Men evidently favored sturdy arm chairs with a clubby look or, more informally, less pretentious captain’s chairs. As early as 1862, Philadelphia’s Continental Café and Restaurant advertised that the gentlemen’s café was furnished with walnut tables with marble tops and handsome walnut chairs “covered with red morocco.”

More recently a stylish restaurant has demanded a stylish chair, though I’d be hard pressed to say what the typical restaurant chair of the 1980s up to today actually is.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020


Filed under restaurant decor

8 responses to “Image gallery: have a seat!

  1. Virginia Tuttle

    Hi Jan–The St. Nicholas Hotel (opened in NYC, January 1853) was proud of its rosewood “spring chairs” with seats covered in crimson velvet. Chairs with inner-spring seats were a new invention. (found this in Gleason’s Pictorial, March 12, 1853) Virginia Tuttle

  2. This is such an interesting topic. Recently we were in a restaurant where the chairs were gorgeous to look at, but incredibly uncomfortable to sit in. And don’t get me started about venues like the Wagamama chain here in the UK which have big tables and backless/armless benches to sit at….horrible, horrible. Now that I’ve read this I will take particular notice of chairs.

  3. Seth H. Bramson

    Jan and friends: Much of what I learned in, of and about running restaurants and clubs was learned from my long time friend and partner in the business, the late, great Lloyd Apple. Simply put, Lloyd was the finest food and beverage person this town has ever seen, especially in terms of his elegant good taste. Now, to the chairs: big, beautiful leatherette, on rollers, easy to move and noiseless. Later on, all, I will bring you up to date on our upcoming (due out Nov. 2nd) LOST RESTAURANTS of MIAMI (which covers all of Dade County) and is the first ever history of the restaurants and clubs of Greater Miami. Will be published by The History Press of Charleston.

  4. Tom

    Hi Jan…who designed your book …Blue Lantern Inn…just great… on another topic of Chairs…great subject. Seems like a real conundrum. …Manufacturing economic needs vs Restaurant Aesthetics requirements.

    • Tom, I’d say that you are right about how hard it is to pick chairs. The Vienna chair made it easy once upon a time because it checked all the boxes, but most designs don’t. I was very happy with the design of Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn. The publisher — St. Martin’s Press — chose the designer and I never knew who it was. I think most book design is done by freelancers.

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