A LOOK-BACK AT HOW CHAIRS EVOLVED THROUGHOUT THE 20TH AND INTO THE 21ST CENTURY:
As 2016 comes to an end, we’ve decided to look back at how one of the most important objects of human comfort has evolved over the span of a single century: the chair. Humanity has made more progress over the 20th century than throughout the previous nineteen centuries combined – in human rights, science, technology, architecture, design and art, to name but a few of our advances (and despite our predilection to self-destruct in the name of misguided ideologies).
One of the best examples of human evolution and experimental curiosity can be observed in the design of chairs over the course of just ten decades. We’ve scoured the design history books and the archives of some of the world’s eminent designers and managed to put together a special timeline, marked by the creation of iconic chairs in the 20th century and unconventional chairs in the early 21st century – and what a journey this has been!
Centuries ago, the chair served a very simple and essential purpose – seating and comfort. From the standard model with a raised surface to sit on, four legs and basic back support, the chair has been modified and redesign as we developed our woodwork skills.
Later down the line, we tried to simplify the manufacturing process, giving rise to the Watchman’s chair – once a standard presence during medieval times and all the way into the 19th century, now a favourite DIY challenge for woodworking hobbyists.
Soon enough, the stool and bar stool came along, followed by the Windsor Chair and rocking chair – the latter invented by Benjamin Franklin and a favourite in cosy home decor.
And then the 20th century came around, and Lynchburg, Virginia native Nathaniel Alexander invented and patented the folding chair during the first half of the 20th century. He designed it for use in churches and school or group gatherings, and the original model included a pocket/holder on the back for people to store their hymnals and school books. Later on, it became a favourite on camping trips.
The function and form of the chair started to expand. Office workers and executives needed a specific type of seating and back comfort for their desk work, and so the swivel chair – invented by Thomas Jefferson, evolved into a stylish and modern office accessory.
In 1925, as the Bauhaus Movement evolved, Marcel Breuer began to challenge the norm with his Wassily chair – a wonderfully chic object that was the first to use bent and polished tubular steel as both a supporting framework and a decorative element.
A year later, however, it was Mart Stam who was awarded the European patent for the cantilever chair in 1925.
Club chairs became equally essential to social spaces, lounge bars and clubs – plush, easy seating with arm rests that became perfectly fabulous throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, and hasn’t left since.
At the same time, designersstarted to look at the chair as a means to experiment and enhance the value of form without abandoning the function. In 1928, Le Corbusier presented the Grand Confort and its little ‘brother’, the Petit Confort armchair. An original piece is priced at circa $2,548 today, given its now-historical value.
In 1932, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld gave us the memorable Zig Zag chair, stepping away from the use of legs altogether and working with full, flat surfaces in order to create a simple but chic and usable chair.
Later on, after the DSR emerged in 1948, Harry Bertoia designed the Diamond Chair in 1952 – a beautiful object that defied the mid-century norms and experimented with new materials.
As the swinging ‘60s came along, prolific designer Eero Arnio created the iconic Ball Chair, once again challenging form while overall enhancing function. The ball chair was different and stylish and everything that the young generation wanted in their homes at the time, with bold contrasts and enough plush seating to make it the perfect spot for reading a book or sipping on a Dirty Martini.
The ‘70s gave us Frank Gehry’s Wiggle Side Chair, manufactured by Easy Edges in New York and using corrugated cardboard, fibreboard and round timber. Cardboard furniture had previously arrived on the scene during the ‘60s as a cheap and light alternative to traditional furniture, but Mr Gehry took the material and exploited its sculptural potential into what quickly became a design icon of 1972.
In 1987, emerging designer Samuel Chan developed his signature Curve Chair, an iconic piece of furniture focused around the natural beauty of wood. Mr Chan used moulded beech-veneer plywood in order to create this unique chair.
In 1988, legendary designer Philippe Starck made his first statement with the Dr Glob chair for Kartell. It arose from the idea of combining different materials in order to obtain a greater structural rigidity while innovating the design approach. It made use of the contrast between thickness and lightness and its texture and opacity made Dr Glob a true masterpiece of style.
As the ‘90s kicked in, more and more designers their sculptural take on the common but essential furniture piece. Tom Dixon made his debut for Cappellini through the S Chair in 1991. The original design was made using a dark lacquered metal frame covered in woven marsh straw or wicker, but it was soon adapted to fixed covers in Ecopelle, Feltro, Panno, Optik and Small Dot fabrics, as well as different types of leather.
A household name for the end of the 21st century, Tom Dixon also designed the stunning Pylon Chair in the following year for the same Italian furniture giant. This time, however, Mr Dixon stepped away from layered construction and devised his small armchair from steel wire – lacquered in natural aluminium and also available in orange, blue or gypsum white.
In 1996, the fabulously creative Marcel Wanders unveiled his famous Knotted Chair, a superb combination of industrial technique and handcrafted proficiency. The aramid and carbon fibre thread was knotted into a chair, then impregnated with epoxy resin and hung in a frame to dry – leaving the final form in the hands of gravity. This design was also commissioned for Cappellini.
The ‘Naughties’ meant, of course, the closure of the 20th century and the beginning of a bold new set of a hundred years destined for greatness. It meant even more freedom and bravery in design, breaking conventions and producing chairs that weren’t just objects for seating, but standalone works of art.
In 2003, Herman Miller gave us the Chair_One, an intriguing design offered as an alternative to chairs that looked comfortable but weren’t. With a concrete base and modelled from die-cast aluminium, Chair_One became perfect for pretty much any environment – an emerging requirement from design-conscious consumers.
Paulius Vitkauskas created the beautifully different Kudirka rocking chair in 2006 – a wonderful seating solution using the intelligent arrangement of multiple vertical legs that replaced the conventional arched base used for the rocking motion. It was something else entirely, and we loved it!
In the following year, Jacob Jorgensen drew inspiration from the construction of marine vessels and designed the superb Barca Chair. The Danish designer combined identical repeated elements in order to create forms that appear free and organic. Taking freeform to a whole new level, the Barca Chair captured attention and refused to let go.
Christian Flindt presented his own take on comfort that same year with the Orchid Chair – a design that is not only inviting and comforting, but also downright otherworldly. A sculptural piece, the Orchid Chair original sells for approximately EUR 1,600 these days and it has certainly earned its spot in the design history manuals to come.
2008 gave us the incredible Spoon Chair by Philipp Aduatz, a marvellous contraption that is both a sculpture and a seating object. Reminiscent of the silver spoons we’re so familiar with, the Spoon Chair went beyond the expected and trivial forms – it broke the chains, walked into the art world and returned as a perfectly functional seating solution that was also highly decorative.
As 2009 unravelled with a powerful feeling of change and great potential, Philippe Starck teamed up with Eugeni Quitllet to challenge the chair once more. Together they designed the Out-In Chair, an oversized armchair with a retro sci-fi allure – offered in sets of three. We were hooked.
That same year, the talented Karim Rashid unveiled his Pyramid Chair, a much-needed breath of fresh air on the design scene. Fearless in his approach, Mr Rashid simply turned the pyramid form upside down, fixed it onto a flat metallic base and carved a comfortable seating solution into the very body – upholstered in a variety of plush and vibrant colours.
Last, but certainly not least (we had to stop somewhere!), came the Thin Black Lines concept by Nendo Studio in 2010. This strangely simple chair was part of an eponymous exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery that year – condensed expressions of meaning, similar to Japanese calligraphy. The Japanese studio took the traces of sketches drawn in the air and assigned them with practical functions – in this case, the Thin Black Lines Chair.
We’ve obviously seen so much in terms of design over the past century. We’ve seen the conventional, the modern, the contemporary, the extravagant and the extraordinary – and we’ve seen the unexpected ways in which today’s iconic designers reinvented an object as simple as a chair, turning it into a veritable sculpture – over and over again.
Here’s to 2017! We hope to see more of the above – innovation, creativity, experimentation and an undying need to challenge the norm, break away from the pattern and design with passion and function.
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