Welcome to first post in our “History of Motion Picture Equipment” series! Each post looks at the humble beginnings of an iconic piece of set equipment.
The director’s chair through the ages
Let’s imagine, for a moment, the quintessential director.
She’s wearing a wide-rim hat and sunglasses to protect against the beating midday sun; speaking into a megaphone; sitting in a director’s chair.
Being one of the most recognizable symbols of the film industry, one could easily forget that the director’s chair has had a long history.
Where did these chairs come from? How have they changed over the millennia?
To answer these questions we must go back thousands of years to ancient antiquity where we begin with the director’s chair’s X-legged ancestor.
The Cross-frame folding stool of Ancient Egypt
The chair equals power. This is a clear symbolic link between chairs, e.g. thrones, and rulers witnessed throughout human history across cultures: emperors, kings, pharaohs, even deities have always been depicted in chairs. But the folding cross leg design was first depicted on the walls of pharaonic tombs dating from before 2000 BCE. The simple design may not blow your mind, just a pin hinging two crossed wooden slats with animal skin or fabric pulled across for a seat. Yet to own an x-frame chair was a status symbol. Also, women were never depicted sitting in x-frame chairs. They would be relegated to rigid stools or chairs.
The x-frame chair of the Cretan Empire at Knossos
This alternative iteration of the classic x-frame chair pioneered by the Egyptians was, in fact, available to women and men. Depictions of elite Cretan women sitting in cross-frame seats confirm this.
The cross frame chair of the Bronze Age Nords
The remains of 20 folding chairs were found north of the Elbe River in Germany and dated to around 1400 BCE. Historians have confirmed that the stools were built by local craftsmen, i.e., not imported from the south or the east. In fact, no x-frame chair remains have been discovered in the area between northern Europe and Northern Africa. And while it may be the case that the far-traveling Nords picked up the design from the Egyptians at some point in unrecorded time, it is clear that the implementation is uniquely their own. It is also noteworthy that these chairs were discovered in “lower” class graves, i.e., religious leaders, doctors, wealthy merchants and craftsmen, not just in the graves of rulers and nobles.
The Curule Seat of Ancient Rome
From senators to magistrates, anyone in power in Ancient Rome sat in the ubiquitous curule seat. The word curule comes from the Latin currus, “chariot”. The earliest known example of its use was during the circus maximus of 494 BCE celebrating Rome’s victory in the war with the Sabines. In 44 BCE the senate passed an order that the most famous of all Romans, Julius Caesar, would be granted the curule seat throughout the empire, except for the theater, where he was given a gilded, jewel encrusted throne which elevated his status to that of the gods.
The “barbarian bed” of the Han Chinese Empire
As early as the second century AD we have recordings of the use of x-frame chairs in China being used by military commanders. While it is tempting to assume the ever-ingenious Chinese with inventing the chair on their own, we know from Chinese poems that the chair was referred to as hu chuang, the “barbarian bed” and imported from abroad. Historians cite Silk Road trade with Rome as the source for x-frame chairs in China.
The Throne of Dagobert of medieval Germany
Whereas the overwhelming majority of x-frame chairs are carved from wood, the 8th century AD dated Throne of Dagobert is made of bronze. The armrests were added in the 12th century. Note the leopard legs!
The Director’s Chair of the American Motion Picture Industry
The ubiquitous director’s chair of the modern-era was invented by Gold Medal Camp Furniture Company and exhibited for the first time at the 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.
Now plenty of other companies offer their take on this classic design. Plus One Rentals has a partnership with Telescope to rent their “World Famous Director Chair”. Why did we go with Telescope? Simple! Nearly every prop master we know recommends them!
Will you look at these chairs the same again? Do you feel the power of history now when you sit in one? OK, maybe that’s pushing it a little, but you can’t deny that the coolness factor of director’s chairs ticks up knowing how long they have been with us. Hopefully, you enjoyed this little historical tour of the director’s chair! We have more content like this incoming, so be sure to follow us on Facebook and Youtube so you know when we post!