A parsons chair is a special kind of upholstered dining chair. The name has nothing to do with the clergy. The chair was named for its origin – it was created in Paris in the 1930s, by a designer at the famous Parsons School of Design.
When designing the chair, the Parsons School designers didn’t radically reinvent the idea of the chair (as, say, the Bauhaus did in Germany). Instead, the designers streamlined historical influences, kept what worked, threw away what didn’t, and created an enduring modern classic. The main traits of this – its naturalism, simplicity and linear look – are classic Modernist traits, but the style reflects 1800s Mission and Arts and Crafts styles, the Art Nouveau styles that emerged later, and the Art Deco that was contemporary at the time of the parsons chair’s design. The simplicity of the chair fits with these styles and a great variety of others, both classic and modern.
Originally, it was meant to be used in a set with the parsons table, whose linear look reflects a similar aesthetic in the matching chair. However, in a bit of irony, the simplicity of both has led to them being adapted separately into many styles of furniture and decor. The result? Today, they are rarely seen together. The parsons style is so adaptable that many who own a parsons table or a parsons chair have no idea that companion pieces exist. The parsons chair is virtually always crafted of hardwood, and features a slightly curving, squared backrest and legs. They are usually featured with slipcover upholstery that entirely covers the legs and gives it a solid, monumental appearance. This slipcover is optional or absent on many recent models.
Most parsons chairs nowadays are direct clones of the original Parsons School design. However, many recent variations exist, including versions with cabriole legs, Chippendale-influenced designs, shorter or taller designs, and versions with armrests, versions inspired more or less by Art Nouveau or Art Deco, and so on. The original Parsons School design was upholstered in leather, and this is still a very popular upholstery option, though microfabrics are increasingly used. The wide variety of options available today should ensure that you’ll be able to find one that’s right for you.
Due to its simplicity, comfort and ease of cleaning, the parsons chair remains enduringly popular, especially in restaurants. In fact, you might already own and enjoy one without realizing what it is. We hope that knowledge of this chair’s history should deepen your appreciation for this unique design.