A Classic in Kazakhstan

Chairs with arms and bentwood chairs the whole world over

As the crow flies it is 3,800 kilometres from here to the faraway place where you’ll find these chairs. A journey of some 5,000 kilometres by land and sea. That’s how far it is to Nur-Sultan, formerly known as Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

It was there that the writer, poet and activist Saken Seifullin spent some time in the early 1900s, working as a journalist in a newspaper office housed in a beautiful old wooden building from 1846 that still stands today.

Seifullin is famous as the founder of the Union of Writers of Kazakhstan and the author of a large number of books, including ‘Past Days’, a collection of poems published in 1914. This intelligent and sincere man was a passionate nationalist, but he lived in brutal times. Born in 1894, he died in 1938, just 44 years of age, after being tried and executed as a nationalist and a threat to society, following his arrest by agents of the NKVD from Moscow.

Today the quaint wooden building is a museum dedicated to the memory and work of Saken Seifullin. Here furniture and artefacts that once belonged to the writer help to recreate the aura and atmosphere of bygone times. Among all the memorabilia are a couple of chairs in black lacquered bentwood from the Thonet factory, Seifullin’s suit, his typewriter, and even the small home organ he used to play.

The quaint wooden building

In a corridor that links the various rooms in the museum are two chairs with arms and a small table littered with brochures. This little seating group could have been manufactured almost anywhere. The chairs are fairly new with floral-patterned covers. Pretty little things, I think to myself, and reach at once for one of my photo albums. Yes, that’s right. There’s a similar chair in the home of some good friends of mine in England, which is said to date from the second half of the nineteenth century. Another one, closer to home, is also dressed in a floral gobelin weave, while a third is decked out in a chequered woollen fabric. All three are reminiscent of their distant relatives in Nur-Sultan. The two latter ones date from the late 1700s or thereabouts and are in a style known here in Sweden as Gustavian, after King Gustav III, who was the Swedish monarch at the time.

One of the chairs from the museum
A similar chair owned by friends in England
A similar chair dressed in a floral gobelin weave

For the museum staff in Nur-Sultan, the origins of the two chairs in the corridor are something of a mystery. These revival style chairs are not part of the collection, and no one knows how they found their way into the museum, how new or old they might be, or anything else about them. Be that as it may, should you wish to rest for a while and leaf through the brochures, or simply soak in the atmosphere of the early 1900s, there is no need to know anything more.

A Swedish Gustavian chair from the the 1790s

After the end of the Stalin era, Seifullin was formally rehabilitated. He was posthumously acquitted of his alleged crimes, his reputation was restored and he was celebrated as a Martyr of Freedom, with statues raised to him and streets named after him.

Kazakhstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Michael Thonet invented what I dare say is the most sold and most famous bentwood chair in the world.

The author Leo Tolstoy had chairs like these in the dining room of his home in Yasnaya Polyana, as did the writer Saken Seifullin in his office in Kazakhstan.

By Gun Bjerkander Handberg

Note from Editor:
The stories and anecdotes shared on the blog are little chair gems discovered by antiques expert and author Gun Bjerkander Handberg. They are hopefully inspiring and give some understanding of the history of chairs from all different locations from around the world.
You can find a selection of wonderful tales of chairs in three publications from the series Please Be Seated – Historic Chairs & the Tales They Tell, which relate to this blog and are written by Gun Bjerkander Handberg. All three books are now available online .

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