Design Vocabulary: Klismos chair

The Klismos chair is a classic chair design that reappears many times throughout history.  Understanding the history of a classic design item can be more than just fun trivia for design fans, it can also help you spot a trend and notice the specific variations of the original design that define each new version.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a Klismos chair as having “four curving, splayed legs and curved back rails with a narrow concave backrest between them”.  Kinda hard to visual from that description, huh?  So, let’s break it down.

First, you will never find an “original” Klismos chair in an antique shop. Klismos chairs date back to ancient times in several areas of Europe and the Middle East. There were a scant few that survived in royal Egyptian tombs, but only because those places were sealed up air tight for a millennium or two. Our best understanding of those chairs in older eras comes from depictions in surviving decorative arts objects.  Here is a representation of a Klismos chair in ancient Greece:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This is a really clear view of of those “splayed legs”.  Can you see them flanking the little child?  They are also know as “sabre legs”, because they have the same distinct long curve as a naval sabre.  See:

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Now let’s look at another chair.  This version of the chair comes from the late 18th century. America and a lot of Europe were going through a whole crave-everything-from-ancient-Greece-and-Rome phase then (we’ll discuss more of this phase in a future post), so you can see a lot of ornamentation on this chair.  Let’s look at the “curved back rail” mentioned in the description.

Image courtesy of

Can you see how the back is really “curved”?  Now, let’s look at the “narrow concave backrest”.  Here’s an example from the 19th century:

Image courtesy of House Beautiful

Just look at that curve!  You can see in this example (and the example above it) how the ends of the back curve out beyond the rails.  This, to me, is one of the most recognizable characteristics of a Klismos chair.  In most of the variations you will find, this curved, extended back is a dead giveaway of the design origins.

Now that you know what basics to look for in a Klismos chair, see if you can spot some of them in contemporary designs.  I’ll give you a head start:

Image courtesy of House Beautiful

This modern version (left) would be great in an office setting.  The curved back would probably be very comfortable for long sessions in front of a computer monitor.  The wire-looking legs keep it nice and light weight, portable in a conference room.

Image courtesy of Stickley

This little gem (right)  has minimized the curved extended back…perhaps to fit more of them around a dining table? The elegant design has also added some extra surface space by filling the back with lovely upholstered curve.  It almost looks like a traditional dining room chair, but no one can ignore those lovely sabre legs!

Image courtesy of Pier One

This playful chair (left) would make a great desk chair or even an accent chair in a bedroom.  By tufting the back and using a vibrant pattern, you almost don’t notice the curve of the back at first glance.

Lastly, look at this beautiful living room adaptation (below).  They’ve straightened the front legs a bit and added little nail head trim.  The leather finish in the light color adds a very modern classic feel to the design.


Image courtesy of

Now you be the expert!  Find Klismos chairs being showcased in your favorite magazines or furniture showrooms.  Do you like the overall design elements of the chair?  Would any of the examples I’ve shown work in your home?  Let me know what you think!

Posted on March 11, 2011, in Design Vocabulary, Furniture. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks Cathryn. I’m a big fan of classic languages. I’d love to have something in my office that reflects my interests. Now I know what to look for.

  2. The stresses where the legs join the frame will be a lot higher than in a straight leg chair. Only a very good cabinet maker could make a chair with those extreme splayed legs. A mark of excellent quality in joinery!

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