Friday, April 6, 2012

Sitting in with Voltaire and Rousseau...

photo: Le style et la matière

Although I have not been able to sit down to write of late, readers here may remember my slightly animist tendancies in decorative arts (previous posts here, here, herehere if really you are interested!) that I labelled 'anthropomorphism.' I'm still drawn to this aspect of the objects we surround ourselves with and I get regular signals that I'm not alone in my whimsy.

photo: Le style et la matière

Witness this recent advertisement in the Metro for a meeting-dating site... 
where pink can meet blue and surely other color combos too.

bookcover illustration by

It may strictly be a question of limbs: 
the chair probably ranks number one on the list of human surrogates in the object world.

Faudesteuil Dagobert source: Grammaire des arts décoratifs

Le bon roi Dagobert
Avait un vieux fauteuil de fer...

The old days were not times for postural laisser-aller and sitting itself was not a priority. Even a king did not expect padded comfort for his regal posterior. The message of the throne bespoke personal power and these seats, even in more ancient and rudimentary forms, were some of the first important examples of surrogacy. The Trone de Dagobert the oldest example of a  faudesteuil, an armchair  based on the Roman curule or folding X seat. The armrests and backrest here are later in date, presumably Merovingian additions to the base. It was blocked into a stable seat in the 12th century. 'Faudesteuil' derives fromFaldestoel the German word for folding stool.From here it is easy to see the transformation to the modern French for armchair, fauteuil. (to follow up on this throne with photos and more information see here.)  

source: Grammaire des arts décoratifs

Charles Blanc, celebrated 19th century author of many works including the 
Grammaire des decorative arts and editor-in-chief of La gazette des beaux arts
wrote of the intricacies of seating furniture from the ployant (folding stool) and simple tabouret (stool) to the grandeur of the Louis XIV fauteuil and so on to the comfort of the Louis revivals of the late 19th century. Historic and aesthetic considerations aside, Blanc's writings show his consciouness of the  societal elements represented by furniture and how dress and decorum influenced design. The caption for the illustration above reads, "who among us would dare to propose an ogival seat to a contemporary of Mme de Pompadour?"
Mais, jamais de la vie!

source: regard'antiquaire

La comfortable and elegant bergère appeared on the scene to accomodate intimate gatherings and new ways of living.
With their constantly clever expressions and affected manners, les Precieuses of the 17th century were right to call armchairs 'vehicules de conversation' and say about them:

Voici une bérgère qui vous tend les bras.
Here is a bergère who stretches out its arms to you.

But, do be careful into whose arms you fall. Choose wisely and especially, be ever on your guard never to become a slouch in this important relationship. 

source: destockmeubles
The comfortable armchair known as the Voltaire was a creation of the Louis-Philippe period (1830-48) and was not contemporary with Voltaire. 

Voltaire by Houdon

The philosopher did however appreciate similar comfort in seating.

Blanc writes:

La vieillesse de Voltaire nous a valu un fauteuil cher à tous ceux qui conservent l'activité de l'intelligence dans l'affaiblissement du corps, et il est assez curieux, ce me semble, qu'un homme uniquement occupé des choses de l'esprit en ait remontré aux ébénistes en inventant le plus confortable des sièges.

From Voltaire’s advanced years we have gained the benefit of an armchair valued by all those who preserve their wits despite bodily weakening, yet it seems to me rather curious that a man solely devoted to matters of the mind should have guided cabinet-makers on the road to inventing the most comfortable of chairs. 

source galerie francois belliard
The table à la Tronchin could be inclined and adjusted up and down

Mais n'est-ce pas encore aux indications de Voltaire que nous devons la table Tronchin, imaginée par le célèbre médecin de Genève, afin que un homme de lettres y put écrire debout? Rien de mieux trouvé pour la santé de tous et pour l'esprit de quelques-uns, que cette table dont le pupitre, pouvant s'élever ou s'abaisser au gré de l'écrivain, lui permet de donner du mouvement à ces
idées, de les promener, pour ainsi dire, dans son cabinet, comme faisait Rousseau quand il déclamait par les chemins de son éloquence, et de revenir ensuite à sa table pour y écrire sa phrase tout d'une haleine, sans changer d'altitude, sans avoir à s'installer de nouveau.

And once again, was it not Voltaire’s indications that gave rise to the Tronchin table, imagined by the famous doctor of Geneva so the man of letters could write while standing? Nothing better has been found for the health of all and the mind of a certain number, than this table whose writing desk  is able to be raised or lowered at the writer’s will, permitting him to give movement to his ideas, to walk them about in his study so to speak,  just as Rousseau* did when he declaimed  eloquently from footpaths, then coming back  to his desk afterwards to write his sentence all in the same breath, without changing altitudes, without having to settle down again.

These days, and in such illustrous company, I'd be tempted to let our chair surrogates sit-in for us 
more and actually be sat in less. And now, that is just about as much sitting as... I can stand.
Is there a table à la Tronchin suitable for computers?

*Rousseau suffered from rhumatism and was known to be a great walker, 
the only way he found to calm his pain.


  1. I think there are too many, rather than too few Tronchin-like devices for computers, but there are times when one certainly could use one. As I write, I lean bolstered against a headboard, the laptop elevated to my side on a sturdy but empty casebox for a good Châteauneuf-du-Pape (although I think a casebox for a Pomerol might be just as serviceable). I can attest that the ergonomics do not seem to permit the freest flow of reason, so I will stop here. But it was so good to see this posting that I had to improvise some thanks. I think this advances the biography of a chair to its proper elevation, and I will always welcome more in this line.

  2. hello love
    i hope you had a happy easter.

    i am in love with the table à la Tronchin.


  3. hi g! i enjoyed this one! bizarre isn't, it, how we relate this way to chairs! i guess we do something a little similar to cars....... i have two white chairs that i like to think of as "stand-ins" for me who get to spend ALL DAY LONG basking in my sunny back yard! bisous!
    Mlle Paradis

  4. Laurent: Maybe there are more devices of this kind in office supply stores?
    Recycling those caseboxes is a good idea, but beware of torticolis!

    Renée: Thanks- we do enjoy our Easter Monday as well over this way! I can just picture you running back and forth -clack, clack, clack- to your Tronchin in your glamorous showroom!

    Hello, Mlle Paradis! Wouldn't it be nice if they could rest and relax for us so we would always feel in tip top form - while we never stopped!! Glad to know you're still out there!