Simple question. Does anyone know a clear difference between the two words? Looking it up in a dictionary is not easy since both words translate to chair in English. The matter is further complicated by the special situation in Austrian German.
In German as spoken almost everywhere outside Vienna, the precise difference between Stuhl and Sessel is as follows. A typical Stuhl has the appropriate height for a dinner table. It has a back rest and may or may not have (firm) padding. It also may have unpadded arm rests. Stuhl is also the generic word for furniture that seats one person. A Sessel usually has lower seating than a chair. It always has a back rest and arm rests, all of which are usually padded. The padding is typically softer than that of a Polsterstuhl. Many but not all Sessel are manufactured as narrow variants of a Sofa or Couch. A Sessel may have a mechanism for reclining the back rest that may or may not include the appearance of a foot rest.
The basic correspondences for furniture seating one in standard German are roughly as follows:
- stool = Hocker
- stool with back rest (e.g. church stool) = Stuhl (e.g. einfacher Kirchenstuhl)
- unpadded chair = Stuhl
- padded chair = Stuhl, Polsterstuhl
- armchair = Sessel
Since this is in principle a simple question that can be quickly resolved by a dictionary, I am guessing that you have been exposed to a form of Austrian German. In eastern Austria, or at least in Vienna, people speak differently and tend to assume that all of Austria does. (The information is not easy to find with a web search due to large amounts of search results from furniture shops.) The correspondences in Vienna are roughly as follows:
- stool = Hocker (? - not sure about this)
- stool with back rest (e.g. church stool) = Sessel (e.g. einfacher Kirchensessel)
- unpadded chair = Sessel
- padded chair = Sessel (maybe Polstersessel is also used for this?)
- armchair = Polstersessel, Fauteuil
Note also that in German Polster means padding, but in Vienna it also has the (primary) meaning cushion.
PS: Some dictionaries offer chair as a translation not just of Stuhl but also of Sessel, without indicating a regional restriction. This is because in English, an armchair is often referred to as just a chair, whereas German speakers are much less likely to refer to a Sessel as a Stuhl. Example:
- We have five chairs including the armchair. - Wir haben vier Stühle und einen Sessel.