Have you ever tried to redecorate a living room only to encounter stubborn resistance from family members over the suggestion of replacing their favorite chairs? Even if the pieces in question are old worn-out eyesores, it can often be a real struggle to get people to relinquish their favorite places to sit. Perhaps you have a personal chair to which you are attached. I am quite fond of the adjustable office chair that I use in front of my computer. To me, it represents the area where I work and, therefore, holds special significance as an aspect of my livelihood. My father used to dote on an old green recliner which was strategically positioned in front of his television. As far as chairs go, it was certainly nothing special. The upholstery was smushed in. The adjustable back no longer adjusted. The footrest was constantly stuck in the “out” position. Still, when he returned home from work, Dad’s ugly green “adjustable” chair was always the first place he would go.

Chairs Associated with Quality of Life

Upon reflection, I have decided that these attachments to furniture reveal a deep relationship between chairs and status. Looking into the past, it is easy to see how such a pattern might emerge. The natural human tendency to associate physical comfort with quality of life suggests that furniture (especially chairs) has a subconscious association with success and personal esteem.

The origin of this relationship likely dates back to a time when any furniture was considered a luxury. If you were to enter a primitive dwelling where the only place to sleep and sit was the cold ground, it would be easy to see how even the most simple of chairs could seem like quite a luxury. Furthermore, if there was a comfortable seat in such an environment, the assumption would be that the most honored member of the household would have propriety over such a treasure.

Chairs Represent a Place of Honor

This tradition of chairs representing a place of honor stretches back through history and persists even today. This motif is best observed through the implication of the “throne.” The throne embodies the most direct association between chairs and status. In the typical royal court, the monarch sits on an elevated perch looking down on his or her subjects. Generally, the only other chairs in the vicinity would be relegated to the monarch’s spouse. Even so, the head honcho’s chair will inevitably be distinguishable as the “head chair” through size and adornment. Moreover, the chairs for the king and queen are nearly always elevated in height above the more common area of the hall. By creating this distinction in seating, a clear message is being sent from the ruler to his subjects; “I am the most important.”

Chairs in Social Settings

However, you don’t need a bejeweled throne to tell you the importance of chairs in social settings. Anyone who has ever planned a wedding can attest to the potential social pitfalls regarding seating arrangements. In this context, it isn’t the quality of the chairs that denotes standing, but, rather, the relative position of the chairs. Most wedding banquets use typical aluminum or wood folding chairs to acommodate large numbers of guests. However, the nexus of the social seating arrangement at a wedding surrounds the chairs occupied by the bride and groom. These are almost always large rectangular tables, allowing for a pronounced “head seat.” The wedding party sits at this head table, presumably in order of importance with relation to physical proximity to the bride and groom. I have observed this seating hierarchy create some fairly contentious situations during my time working in hospitality. One way to avoid hard feelings in these social settings is to follow the example set by King Arthur. Deploy round folding tables of uniform size in the reception hall and the guests who aren’t part of the wedding party will gain a sense of social equality. By using rectangular tables in these situations you are forced to pronounce social importance in every sub-group by choosing a guest to occupy the head seat. Uniformity in size is also important in this regard. Even if you use round folding tables, the difference between a large round table and a small round table could provide a source of conflict during the event. It won’t do to seat your new mother-in-law at a table that is smaller than the one your second-cousin occupies. You don’t want any family members to feel that they have been relegated to the “kiddy seats.”

Chairs at Home

It is also possible to observe the relationship between status and chairs in a domestic environment. Traditionally, the matriarch and patriarch of the household are given chairs at the head of the table. This gesture denotes domestic authority and is also a position of respect. In some cases, the seating hierarchy is extended down the rest of the table (especially in homes with rectangular dining tables). Usually, the eldest child sits closest to the head of the table while the younger siblings are positioned further away, respectively. In the more modern family, whereby the members aspire towards a sense of domestic equality, the issue of the seating hierarchy can once again be diffused by utilizing a round table. Depending on the size of the family, however, it may be difficult to find a large round dining table that fills the need for space at large, multi-course meals. If you require a large rectangular dining table it is possible to conquer the “head of the table” debate by leaving the two ends unseated. This allows for equality in the seating arrangement while freeing up some surface space on the ends of the table.

The Word “Chair” in Titles of Respect

The relationship between status and chairs is pervasive. This is evident by the inclusion of the word “chair” in titles of respect. For instance, the head of a committee is often referred to as the “committee chair.” The very word “chairman” refers to an honorary position of authority in any given organization. Moreover, the leaders of various subcommittees within an organization are asked “to chair” whatever group they are to lead. This conversion of the noun “chair” into the verb “to chair” (which means “to lead”) ultimately demonstrates the close relationship between status and chairs. Furthermore, an awareness of this relationship can often help one avoid awkward social moments when it comes time to sit down for a meeting or meal. Finally, the relationship between status and chairs may help to explain why some people are so reluctant to upgrade their old chairs for newer models: every king or queen, no matter how small their domain, needs a throne from which to rule.