Turned or thrown chairs are an early form of armchair, made by turners with the use of a lathe, rather than by joiners or carpenters. They are of European origin, travelling to the Americas with European colonists, then developing somewhat independently there.
The earliest turned chairs are of uncertain date, but they became common in the 17th century. Before this date there are rare examples that claim to date back to before 1300, but most of these early examples are from manuscripts.
The characteristics of a turned chair are that the frame members are turned cylindrical on a lathe. The main uprights are usually heavier and plainly turned, the lighter spindles infilling between them are more decoratively turned, often with repeated bobbin turning, so as to appear as a series of balls, beads or bails. The complexity of this turning varies widely, and is used as a guide to identifying the region of origin. Some chairs have so many spindles that their backs and sides form an almost solid latticework, akin to the Arabic lattice windows or Mashrabiya. Eighteenth century turned chairs became far simpler. Eventually their techniques influenced the celebratedly simple and elegant style of the Shaker chair, still largely made by turning.
Three-legged chairs are common, particularly for older examples. The evolution of the chair is from the simple backless stool, commonly three-legged for stability. As there is no wide back, there is no reason to have more than one rear leg. These gave rise to the backstool, a backless stool with one leg extended upwards and later widened by a flat pad. As this pad developed further and wider it began to be supported by diagonal spindles for strength. These gave rise to the arms of the three-legged turned chair (illustrated). In time the turned chair gained a fourth leg and a square plan, becoming closer to the modern chair. Its evolution is through these three-legged stools though, not from the square chest and the throne-like box chairs.
Seats are commonly solid, but these are often replacements and their original material is uncertain. For later examples, especially from America, a rush seat is common.
Most turned chairs are of ash, but they are also found in fruitwoods and American specimens may use hickory, cherry and maple. Use of oak itself is relatively rare, but their age and relatively simple style means that they are normally counted as part of the "Age of Oak" furniture.
- Chinnery, Victor (1979). Oak Furniture: The British Tradition. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collector's Club. pp. 87–104. ISBN 0-902028-61-8.
- "King Stephen's Throne", c. 1300, Hereford Cathedral
- Romance of Alexander, c.1340, (MS Bodley 264, f.68v, Bodleian library, Oxford)
- Holtzapffel, John Jacob (1976) . Hand or Simple Turning. New York: Dover. p. 10. ISBN 0-486-23365-0.