Design icons: the Windsor chair

From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. The Windsor chair was first broadcast on 22nd April 2023. You can listen to the audio here.


Why is it that certain designs become classics and others are soon forgotten? Like the Windsor chair whose history stretches back at least three hundred years and yet it’s still got instant appeal and will fit in most modern homes. 

With its rounded wooden back of thin spindles and a generous seat, it’s the go-to chair for those seeking a bit of country style with a lot of class. Some say its name comes from when the British king, William the Third, visited a humble farmworker’s home and sat on a chair just like it. He was so taken with its comfort that he commissioned several for his home at Windsor castle. While that’s a charming story, albeit with a whiff of the rich stealing from the poor,  it’s more likely that the name comes from the chair being constructed in an area that would become the heartland of British furniture production, High Wycombe, and this particular chair was sold through an agent based in -nearby Windsor.

It matters little.  The chair design was first catalogued in the 1720s although stick-back chairs had been made for centuries, some so basic they were still rough with bark. The Windsor chair, on the other hand, had a particularly refined shape, usually with a curved wooden rail that forms a back and arms, with the spindles rising higher through the back and anchored in a beautifully hooped frame of wood. It used the technology of a wheelwright, who could bend timber using steam so that the wood would keep its curved shape. (This, of course, would be further refined in the 1850s by Michael Thonet in Vienna when he created the classic bistro chair.) There were two basic forms of Windsor chair, the sack-back with a double layer of spindles set within the curved frame, and the comb back, where the backrest spindles were capped by a single piece of straight wood, like the body of a comb.

The wood used was important. Key to the whole design is the broad seat, which was often shaped to make it more comfortable. With chair legs, backrest and spindles all anchored into holes created in this single piece of wood, it was important that the timber wouldn’t split. The close grain of elm and oak made them perfect but there examples in pine, too. The legs and spindles were often made from ash and beech which were particularly pliable and would hold a curve. The sitter was then contained within a sturdy but open structure that could be further softened with a cushion that wouldn’t slip off thanks to the gallery of spindles. It became the chair for fireside sitting, and an icon of the English countryside.

It was popular in America, too, and variations appeared, some with a more elaborate central splat, often with a wheel design carved into it, to give a flatter surface for the back to rest against. The chair’s apparent simplicity made it popular with further generations of designers, like Hans Wegner, who revealed his Peacock chair in 1947 made of ash and teak. Its exaggeratedly curved back had a flatter part in each spindle that reminded his colleague, Finn Juhl, of peacock feathers and the name stuck. It’s a classic of mid-century modern design, and a chair that gives the sitter an aura of radiating lines. Closer to Windsor, an Italian called Lucian Ercolani set up a furniture company in High Wycombe in 1920 called Ercol, which made variations of the Windsor chair, including the Quaker range of the 1950s with a more elongated hooped back and tapered legs that was at once traditional and bang up-to-date.

And that’s the essence of a classic. It speaks to our times, whatever our times are. As for the Windsor chair, regardless of whether or not it interested a monarch, to sit in one makes kings of us all.

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