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The origins of a classic: The Director’s Chair

The history of the Director’s Chair dates back a surprisingly long way, and has unusual origins for what is considered a simple piece of furniture.




Noted as the closest design to the current is the coffee-makers’ chairs of the 15th Century, but it’s amazing to think this simple, recognisable design could in fact date back as far as the Romans. Their Curule Chair (meaning “Chariot”) is often credited as the first ever version. Over the centuries, it was used by royalty, the military, and as far afield as the Pharaohs of Egypt. When the wealthy travelled, they sat on their own bespoke Curule Chair as a sign of their status.

The modern American style Director’s Chairs were introduced by the Gold Medal Camp Furniture Company in 1892, and featured at the 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition in Chicago where it won an award for excellence in casual furniture design.



What debuted was the design we must recognise today; a lightweight armchair that folds side-to-side with a scissor action, using a canvas or similar strong fabric for back and seat – although some say this design also has its roots in the Renaissance era. A rich history indeed for our simple friend.

In the 19th Century, reflecting its history as a seat of power, American directors began using the simple folding design on set, finally giving the chair its modern name and cementing the design into modern culture.

The chair came to Africa with the first Safaris, with the ability to fold it and its portability making it ideal for the nomadic safari life. It’s ideally suited to our outdoor lifestyle and is found in most bush camps and lodges, and on stoeps and patios alike. Designers and decorators have come to recognize that it makes both an attractive and functional chair to use in less traditional roles – as a home office chair or around boardroom tables, for dining and relaxation.

Construction of a Director’s Chair

Our humble Directors Chair, whilst simple in its design, cannot be overlooked for the importance of its construction. I’m sure we’ve all sat in some examples of this chair and not felt entirely at ease.

Having built several thousand Director’s Chairs, of many designs, over the last 25 years, I’m happy to say here at African Touch we pride ourselves on the perfect design and finish.

I believe the most important consideration when building a Director’s Chair are the joints used. The chair is built with relatively slim timber sections and is subject to considerable stresses in everyday use – it’s the users’ weight that makes the chair work, as your body pulls the canvas seat taut, and makes the chair stable.

The mortice and tenon joints must therefore be very accurately cut, and fit snugly so that when glue is applied they form an exceptionally strong bond. For those who are wondering, the mortice and tenon is one of the oldest joints used by artisans in joining two pieces of wood at a connecting angle of 90 °, and it goes back thousands of years (used not only by woodworkers, but also stonemasons and blacksmiths). Although there are many joint variations, the basic mortise and tenon comprises two components: the mortise hole and the tenon tongue. The tenon, or the peg is inserted into a square or rectangular hole cut into the corresponding member. If the joint is cut and glued correctly it will be stronger than the timber from which it is constructed. We don’t want any rocking chairs!

to join pieces of wood, mainly when the adjoining pieces connect at an angle of 90°. In its basic form Although there are many joint variations, the basic mortise and tenon comprises two components: the mortise hole and the tenon tongue. The tenon, formed on the end of a member generally referred to as a rail, is inserted into a square or rectangular hole cut into the corresponding member. The tenon is cut to fit the mortise hole exactly and usually has shoulders that seat when the joint fully enters the mortise hole. The joint may be glued, pinned, or wedged to lock it in place.

Next comes the choice of material, which is also critical. The material must not stretch, and it must be fitted in such as way so that when the chair is opened and sat on, the bodies’ weight is taken up by the seat, pulling the material taut and giving the user comfort. If the weight is not distributed across the chair, the user will feel very uncomfortable – and unstable!

We offer three options for seat and back material. My favourite is the Safari pure veg tanned leather, which has a wonderful feel and thickness. The method of tanning and its weight means that the leather stretches very little and it very comfortable to sit in, even in very hot or cold weather.

The second option is a tough, heavy Ripstop Canvas. At 440g per square meter that’s very tough. The material is available in a variety of colours. A third option is a proof cotton canvas that is very soft and comfortable to sit on. However, it must be doubled up and carefully stitched to give it the strength necessary.

We offer the additional design feature of a wider seat, if needed, and our Deluxe chair has a deeper backrest that swivels to accommodate the best back angle for the user. There is also the option of a broader armrest, with a convenient cup holder. Or you could opt for our clip-on drinks tray – the choice is yours!

Why not add a piece of modern history to your home?