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Antique chair styles: an antique dealer’s guide

Antique chair styles: an antique dealer’s guide


Antique chairs represent a huge area for the collector and there are many different types, each with a unique appearance. Here, our expert looks at the features of the most popular styles.

Whether you are looking to purchase a set of antique dining chairs or are trying to identify the style of an inherited antique arm chair, it is important to have an understanding of the types of antique chairs.

Antique dining chairs

Antique dining chairs are often sold as antique side chairs, harking back to an age when they were placed against a wall rather than around the dining table. They are chairs without arms and are therefore not usually placed at the heads of tables. Manufactured from all wood, side chairs can feature upholstered seats and some may have upholstered backs but the main frame will not have a fabric covering. Looking at the back of an antique dining chair can tell you a lot and will pigeon hole the type of chair it is.  Balloon back chairs, for example, date from the Victorian period and feature a curved back similar to a balloon. Legs can be simple in style or cabriole and there may be carved decorations on the back.  Other types of antique dining chair include bar back chairs with curved back bars, dating from the early 19th century, and barley twist chairs with uprights or legs carved into a twist. Ribbon back chairs are closely associated with Thomas Chippendale or Chippendale-style chairs and are characterised by intricate, interwoven back panels, resembling an elaborately knotted ribbon.

Antique arm chairs

While today an arm chair refers to a piece of lounge furniture, an antique arm chair is the chair that would have been placed at the head of a dining table. The oldest antique arm chair is known as a wainscot chair and dates back to the middle of the 17th century. Wainscot chairs have a framed construction of heavy oak, with solid back and seat panels, and are named after the panelling present in homes at that time. Windsor armchairs are a classic, all wood chair with thin spindles attached to the solid seat, which has a sculpted surface. The back of a Windsor chair leans backwards and legs are straight and splayed outwards. The styles of antique side chairs are also to be found in arm chairs.

Antique rocking chairs

A rocking chair features two curved bands of wood, or rockers, which enable it to rock to and fro, and was originally designed as a chair for nursing mothers. Originating in the US in the early 18th century, the first rocking chairs were simple chairs attached to wooden rockers. From the 19th century, the rocking chair was exported to England and across Europe and pieces from this time were hand-carved from wood and featured wicker seats and backs. There are several styles of antique rocking chair, including the high-backed English Windsor rocker from the mid-18th century and the 19th century Shaker rocking chair, a plain ladder-back chair with a woven seat, befitting of the simple nature of the Shaker community. The most iconic style of rocking chair however, is the Bentwood chair, named not for its designer but for the process used to manufacture it. The Bentwood process was patented by Austrian Michael Thonet and involved steaming wood to create the shape of the rockers, replacing the straight lines of a piece with a graceful and fluid aesthetic. Today a Thonet Bentwood rocking chair can realise from several hundred pounds to thousands.

Antique chairs for sale

For collectors of antique chairs, an auction house offers a level playing field to private and trade buyers, giving the private buyer the opportunity to pay the same price as dealers. But bear in mind that specialist sales may only be held infrequently and there is a commission charge for both buyers and sellers which varies from auction house to auction house and can be up to 20% of the hammer price. Antique centres like Hemswell, on the other hand, are open year round and are home to hundreds of reputable dealers in one place. Our antique chair dealers are professional and friendly and are always happy to chat to customers and share their expertise when they are on site.

For trade buyers and overseas buyers unable to visit us in person, we offer a personal one to one shopping experience where you will be accompanied on a virtual tour of the premises by our Managing Director, who can showcase pieces of interest. For further details please contact the centres.

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