past & present: the curule

curulemain
illustration by julia rothman

I find it pretty amazing that we decorate our homes with furniture forms that are thousands of years old. You might know this stool as an x-stool, but it’s also a curule, a Dante chair, Savonarola chair, a Faldistorium or even a scissors chair! (The form tweaks a bit as the name changes, but the consistent feature is that x-base). Every once and while the curule chair (or x-stool) pops up in the pages of magazines (or in the occasional d*s sneak peek!). It’s one of those classic pieces that can easily be incorporated into any decorating style.

egyptianwallpainting
Copy of the wall painting from the tomb of Huy, an Egyptian official who lived during the reign of king Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC). Thebes.

We begin our x-stool journey with the Egyptians! The Egyptian folding stool was constructed from a pair of wooden frames with a slung leather seat and was developed as a portable chair for the commanding army officer. (Can you spot the folding stool above? It’s a “Where’s Waldo” for the Decorative Arts!)

romancoin
sella curulis depicted on a Roman coin via coin archives

The ancient Romans took the form of the Egyptian folding chair in about the 6th century b.c. and it became used as a chariot chair and as a camp-stool for magisterial commanders in the field. The chair, called the curule, was usually made of or decorated with ivory. The heavier chair was not always able to fold, but it still conferred the same sign of prestige as the Egyptian version.

saxonkingfolding-stool
The October 2003 excavation by Museum of London Archaeology Services of the tomb of a Saxon king from the 7th century AD. Above is a folding stool that was thought to originate from Italy or the area which is now modern Slovakia/Hungary. details here

styleswoon18
a curule in the home of samatha reitmayer of style/SWOON

After 24 centuries of use in home decor, the curule still looks pretty fantastic in the modern home. See some additional examples of the curule, and a little round-up of modern x-stools!

CLICK HERE for the full post! (Including “Books to Read” and “Facts to Know!”)

edwinboothhamlet
edwin booth as hamlet in 1870, the library of congress

The form of the curule was revived in 16th century Venice. A Savonarola chair (sometimes called a Dante or Dantesca chair) is an Italian Renaissance period style of chair characterized by having two transverse pairs of curved legs crossing beneath the seat and rising to support the arms and back. The chair is named for Girolamo Savonarola, a fiery Dominican friar, who organized the 1497 Bonfire of the Vanities and was later executed. Unlike the curule, the Savonarola has a back support.

curulemetmuseum
18th century folding stools, metropolitan musuem

Reminiscent of their Roman predecessors, the pair of beechwood folding stools (above) were part of a set of 64 stools ordered in 1786 for the royal palaces of Fontainebleau and Compiègne for the gaming room of Marie Antoinette. The discovery of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748 sparked a new interest in classical forms such as the curule. The appreciation for the Roman heritage of the curule was due in part to the collecting appetite for Roman antiquities – many of which prominently featured a sella curulis.

Stools such as these were an important part of the elaborate French court etiquette. An courtier’s title determined whether he or she could sit in an armchair, a simple chair or a stool. (or even sit at all!)

Some of the other rules of etiquette related to sitting during the reign of Louis XIV:
via The Splendors of Versailles

  1. When a gentleman sat down, he slid his left foot in front of the other, placed his hands on the sides of the chair and gently lowered himself into the chair. There was a very practical reason for this procedure. If a gentleman sat too fast, his tight pants might split;
  2. Women and men were not allowed to cross their legs in public.

americancurule
1825 American neoclassical mahogany benches via 1st dibs

The Founding Fathers had a particular fondness for the symbols of the Roman Republic but it was 19th century Americans who saw this classical design as perfectly articulating their aspirations for social mobility.  Previously, curule-based furniture was passed down through generations. Newly affluent 19th century Americans strove to achieve the same look. Shortly after flour mill owner David Lydig furnished his newly built Broadway mansion with curule-based furniture, he was initiated into “The Club” – an exclusive dinner and conversation society.

Books to Read

  1. Curule: Ancient Design in American Federal Furniture – Published as a companion to a 2003 Yale exhibition, this is your source for a scholarly evaluation of the curule. Be warned – it’s out of print, but you can find used copies!
  2. Furniture Encyclopedia – I’ve had this out from the library for so long (thanks online renewals!), that it’s probably a sign I should buy my own copy! This is one of my g0-to-books for a background on styles or specific pieces of furniture.

Facts to Know

  1. In 44 b.c., in honor of his appointment to the dictatorship of Rome, Julia Caesar commissioned a golden sella curulis for himself.
  2. In America, most furniture with a curule base was made in New York.

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Present!
Inspiration and sources for incorporating the curule into your home! The curule or x-stool is such a versatile piece of furniture. It can be used in every room of the house – bench for the foot of the bed, kitchen chair or just extra seating. I would love a pair to use as ottomans in my own home! There’s a round-up of modern x-stools below, but I love a good hunt! Ebay here I come!

domino
x-stools in front of bed from domino, may 2007 photographed by annie schlechter

styleswoon18
a curule in the home of samatha reitmayer of style/SWOON

domino2
via domino magazine june/july 2007 photographed by melanie acevedo, produced by ruthie sommers

xstools3

clockwise from top left: crosby stool $1,550 chrome x-stool $995, chase sling stool $149, masai footstool, x-bench $495, x-stool brown $249,

Liane

love your history-related posts amy! btw, we have the same Louis XIV etiquette rules at our house. i just hate it when my tight pants split…

Christine Schwalm

That was my favorite part of the History of Home Furnishings class I took in design school–just seeing how certain things stood the test of time. Egyptian stools, Gothic chests, Rococo chairs, etc. Well designed furniture stands the test of time.

PixieShtick

Woot! My husband is all into ancient Egyptian stuff and can even read hieroglyphs. He’d love a room decorated with that flavor and while I have a few artful pieces I haven’t really got into it. This is a cute furniture piece I could really like though. Thanks for bringing to past to me.

Amanda

hahaha! Whenever I saw the archeology dig site and the pic underneath, I thought…WOW! Is that was was under there? I then realized that it was something else entirely. You were about to inspire me do dig up my entire front lawn…

Kate

Love these history posts! I appreciate all the work that goes into completing them.

amya

lol amanda! sorry that was a bit misleading! i think that stool came from wisteria originally, but they don’t have it on the site anymore! :)

Sarah

This is such a great post! I love learning about the history of objects and I didn’t know any of that before. Thank you for making me a bit smarter (and with the use of pretty pictures!) The beechwood folding stools for Marie Antoinette are gorgeous.

Lucy Canada

Absolutely fantastic post! Love the historic background of things.

Lynn Byrne

Hi Grace, I am a big fan of design history and it is a major part of my blog, Decor Arts Now. If your readers liked this post on the curule chair, they might enjoy my blog. I just completed a 3 day series on Art Deco. Yesterday, Jan.12, showcased French Art Deco furniture and will let readers know who all the greats are. You can find me at http://www.decorartsnow.com. Lynn

Terri Moore

Great post. Brings back memories from the Egyptology classes I took in college (loved the classes but the only practical use typically surfaces during a game of Trivial Pursuit). However, the name Klismos is stuck in my head for the first Egyptian chair. Difference?

Lydia, Clueless Crafter

The history posts are the best because education is key to making design decisions that have meaning and aren’t purely selected for trend.

I think I will always remember the name “curule” as it sounds like curl, which is like an “x” in my mind. Ok, so my logic is off but it may help some of you.

rachel

I agree with Lydia. These posts get me so excited about design and its history. As a designer it is such a great tool. Knowledge is power :)

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