Author’s Note: This essay contains spoilers for Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon, both the books and the TV adaptation.
Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once remarked that “a chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.” It’s a surprising, provocative consideration: that chairs, for all of their small-scale simplicity, still find ways to challenge us through their demands as both a decorative and functional object, embodying ideas and perspectives within the material manifestation of their fabricated forms.
Chairs are almost always an accessory, parts of an ensemble of furnishings. They’re hardly ever the center of attention in interior decor, unless it’s for a coffee table book that features hundreds of them or for an exhibition of design history like The Schaudepot at the Vitra Design Museum. Designers rarely (if ever) create only chairs, incorporating this kind of object into a whole portfolio of furniture that embodies their aesthetic values and craftsmanship. As Jesús Llinares of Andreu World points out, “Often we do not notice chairs, [but] they are nevertheless a real luxury, and a tremendously valuable object not for their price or exclusivity, but for being part of our life more than we are able to see.”
The subject of chairs — and what they represent socially, culturally, and politically — has been on my mind since I started watching HBO’s House of the Dragon. Like the rest of the Game of Thrones series, the main conflict of the show boils down to who has rightful claim over the Iron Throne and who does not. As questions of inheritance and legitimacy arise, this power struggle explodes into a brutal civil war that ultimately leaves Westeros’s ruling family, the Targaryens, irreversibly scarred.
Unlike the original show where the Iron Throne becomes largely symbolic and most of the story unfolds across Westeros’s seven kingdoms and beyond, almost all of the important political events in House of the Dragon happen within the Red Keep’s throne room. It’s the place where the results of King Jaehaerys’s Great Council would place Viserys in the line of succession over Rhaenys Targaryen, the Queen Who Never Was. It’s where King Viserys would later clash with his brother Daemon. It’s where Viserys would later name his daughter Rhaenyra as his successor, and it’s the place where he defended her claim and those of her sons shortly before his death. The Iron Throne is, afterall, the physical manifestation of the Targaryens’ dynastic power, having been created by swords seized by Aegon the Conqueror. The legend goes that Aegon’s dragon, Balerion, forged the monstrosity of blades with his dragonfire.
The Iron Throne we see in House of the Dragon, which is set 200 years before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, is significantly larger than the one we see in Game of Thrones. This one seeps out onto the Great Hall like a pool of spilled blood, much more jagged than its more modern counterpart. Its redesign for the screen is more in line with what author George R. R. Martin envisioned: “a hunched beast looming over the throne room, ugly and asymmetric,” deliberately uncomfortable. Obviously this upgrade can be attributed to House of the Dragon’s larger production budget, but I do love how fans have since decided that the more minimal throne was the result of Robert Baratheon’s “cleaning up” of the Red Keep and its Targaryen symbolism.
A piece of lore that’s stuck with me since I first read the books is that the Iron Throne has a nasty habit of cutting whoever it deems unworthy or too weak to rule. The list of those who sustained injuries from it is not long, but it is significant. The Mad King (Aerys II) was nicknamed “King Scab” for the amount of cuts he had, unsurprising since he’d be the last Targaryen to sit on the Iron Throne. There’s Maegor the Cruel who was found dead on the throne, slashed and speared through by its blades. While some speculate it was foul play, others believe it was the throne itself who did it. Aegon the II, thanks to injuries he sustained in battle, would not even be able to ascend the Iron Throne anymore, having to sit instead on a wooden chair at its base. After the Dance of the Dragons, it’s said that Queen Rhaenyra sustained several injuries after she reclaimed her title, prophetic of her short-lived rule — how that will play out on-screen in House of Dragon is still unknown.
Then there’s the most obvious one: Viserys’s hand injury that ultimately leads to his declining health. Out of all of the changes made for the TV adaptation, this choice is especially important. Whie Viserys just loses 2 fingers thanks to a skillful maester in the book and later succumbs to other unrelated illnesses, House of the Dragon decides to turn his encounter with the Iron Throne into his demise. As Viserys earns a cut that can’t heal and starts to lose fingers, then a hand, then an arm, along with missing teeth and sores all over his body, we see the way the stress of fulfilling his duties takes a toll on his well being. He becomes a skeletal husk who wears a golden mask to hide the eroded part of his face that’s taken his eye and leaves the bones in his cheek exposed. The reason for such a drastic decline is left up to the viewers’ interpretation as potentially the result of Viserys’s weakness, his indecisive leadership, or his poor judgment, like removing his brother Daemon from the line of succession and letting his wife die to save his potential male heir (a decision that haunts him until the end).
Around the same time I tuned into House of the Dragon, I went to SculptureCenter to see Henrike Naumann’s show, “Re-Education.” When visitors enter the museum, the first pieces they see are a trio of school desks lined with olive green fur. In metal baskets are books with titles like Tumbling Ruins and Rustic Traditions, suggesting both cultural dominance and collapse. Naumann’s practice is shaped by her experience coming of age in the German Democratic Republic, where ‘re-education’ happened first in the form of anti-fascist programs developed by the Allies and then through introductions to Western pop culture and consumerism after 1989. These manifest in the form of a room styled after The Flintstones and a series of short films that feature men in different WWII-era military uniforms moving furniture around as they describe the end of the war and the subsequent division of Germany by the Allies.
In the exhibition’s main room, against a monumental backdrop of stacked wooden furniture, are a set of chairs arranged in a ring. There’s a chair furnished entirely with bones, another with horns spiraling out of it. A tiny wooden chair sits next to one with a long, ladder-like backing. Some are ergonomic, like a black office chair and an oversized armchair, while others, like a mini rocking chair, are for a child rather than an adult. From a distance, they are recognizable furnishings, up close their materials and proportions imbue them with an eerie quality. Visitors can walk around or through this arrangement and, as I saw in a couple of Instagram posts, some even broke the cardinal rule of “don’t touch the art” to sit in them.
Naumann uses furniture to explore how ideology manifests in our everyday life through design conventions. Fascinated by “horseshoe theory” and its misleading characterization of political views, Naumann uses these chairs to scrutinize Western values and America’s current state of unrest. By using objects that touch on aspects of American interior design, from the monumentality of capitalist consumption and business-driven corporate style to suburban home aesthetics and elements of American farmhouse style, the chairs’ heterogeneous arrangement mirrors that of a convened meeting, a discussion exchanged through juxtaposed seating. The pieces invite viewers to speculate on what political leanings and ideas each chair might represent, and how those aesthetic signifiers have changed throughout history.
A few weeks later, I visited Jessi Reaves’s show “At the Well” at Bridget Donahue. Like Naumann, Reaves filled the gallery with her own reinterpreted furnishings. Her sculptural chairs take a surreal turn, fashioned out of repurposed materials like upholstery scraps, twisted pieces of metal, and sawdust. Reaves has built a career out of defying the popular idea that great design should change users’ experiences without their knowledge. Her work invites looking, proactively challenging conventions of beauty through playful redesigns that reveal furniture’s materiality while also playing with destruction, decoration, and anti-functionality.
As Reaves dismantles this found furniture pieces and puts them back together, her sculptural interventions provide insights into the chair’s value, highlighting its previous use or the significance of its design in larger historical and cultural associations. When interviewed about an installation she made for Maison Margiela in 2018, Reaves notes, “I wanted these [seats] to feel more industrial, and almost illogical.” That ethos manifests in this collection of works, too, as manufactured precision is taken apart and remade under her experimental craftsmanship.
Her piece, A sample of the truth (2022), is perhaps the most throne-like out of all of the sculptures in this show. The woven-back lounge chair is a common sight in many homes, yet an amalgamation of wood glue, paint, paper, and metal mutate out of its arms, turning the familiar comforts of the chair into something more monstrous and hostile. What happens to a chair when no one sits in it? At what point does it stop being a chair and becomes a sculpture? A symbol? Something more than its original purpose? In an interview with 032C, Reaves reflects on her fascination with chairs and the “psychological weight” they gain when left empty. “I wanted to make a piece such that it sat perfectly between being repulsive…but also looking so soft that you can tell you’re supposed to sit there…The more challenging part is how to explain that interaction to people… It’s more about the encounter with the thing — about wondering if you can sit. There’s a certain person who’s willing to test that boundary.”
Chairs are, at the end of the day, just a pair of legs with something on top for you to sit on. Sometimes you’ll even get a seat back attached. A comfortable experience isn’t always guaranteed (especially if you choose to sit on the Iron Throne). For all of their mundane uses, chairs are powerful objects, taking on the role as important tools and signifiers in our daily life. Chairs’ myriad structures symbolize ourselves, whether that be our political values, our cultural background, or our economic circumstances reflected in the kinds of designs we gravitate towards and use. It’s no surprise that architects love to make chairs, using their structure as a test site for new ideas which users can experience more intimately than the grandeur of a building.
A chair passed secondhand from one owner to the next begins to accumulate wear, marked over the years by everyone who used it. A chair fresh from the factory has its own story to tell, one about manufacturing, supply chains, economic demands, histories of labor and class. I think about how artist Rachel Whiteread once described her furniture casts as “memory made solid.” Tell me, do you have a favorite chair? Do you remember your worst seating experience? Has an empty chair ever unsettled you? What happens when a throne loses its king?