Published on January 4, 2008
A Short History of Modern Chair Design: A Short History of Modern Chair Design Jack Williamson Executive Director, Design Michigan Design Historian Slide2: This mini-lesson was developed to be a stand alone presentation, as well as to be used in conjunction with a series of Design Michigan Design Futures Program lesson plans on chair design, available at the following link on this web site: http://www.designmichigan.org/design_futures/lesson_plans.html Introduction: Introduction History is not only the delivery of facts of about past people, places, things, and events, but the interpretation of the past to educate and provide insight about current interests and issues. It is therefore possible to take our current subject, the history of modern chair design, and focus on a variety of very different issues and themes depending upon the particular interests of the anticipated audience of this presentation. Slide4: I have chosen to organize the presentation around the notion that the physical and visual artifacts of design history can tell us quite a lot about the particular time period during which they were created. They can tell us about the values and interests of the people who lived at that time, about the way they employed craft and technology to solve contemporary problems, and about the perceived priorities and design tasks of their period. Each historical period offers different tasks and opportunities to its creative problem solvers. For example, periods following wartime are often focused on social reconstruction, especially in the case of civil wars, or on peacetime industrial growth which has resulted from the increased industrial capacity wartime production creates. Slide5: In the following, I will select European and American examples of chair design beginning in the middle 19th century, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, running right up to the end of the 20th century. As we proceed, we will see that design provides us with many insights into different historical eras. We will also see that designers both respond to the needs of their time period, but also shape those periods and create design expectations for future periods. Hopefully, after becoming familiar with detecting and evaluating the changing priorities of design in the past, we will also recognize that today, whether as designers or as consumers of design, we need to continually ask what our real physical, social, and cultural needs are at present, and how design can appropriately help us meet such needs. HickDay Dreamer ChairEngland, 1851: Hick Day Dreamer Chair England, 1851 This chair was designed and produced in England in 1851, in the very midst of the Victorian era. It reflects the conflicting values of that time period quite well. The Victorian era, named after Queen Victoria of England, is often assigned to the whole of the 19th century. This was a time of rapid industrial growth, the rise of manufacturing cities and consumer culture, and the mass migration of young people from the countryside to the cities. The time period looked to the future, due to its vision of industrial and technological progress, but also to the past, because the rapid pace of change also made people want to hold onto the past. Slide7: Designed by B. Hick, the "Day Dreamer" Chair was made of papier-mache, a new lightweight material which could be molded and painted to appear as if it was carved like traditional wooden chairs. This highly ornate chair, with its surface decoration of figures and flowers, harked back to expensive furniture for the rich, which the rising middle class sought to imitate in their quest for social status. However, this "manufactured" chair was far cheaper than those produced by master craftsmen for the wealthy. The chair thus uses the new industrial processes and materials to create a furniture form which, to be acceptable, pretends to come from the past. Hick Day Dreamer Chair England, 1851 Frank Lloyd WrightLarkin Dining ChairAmerica, 1902-04: Frank Lloyd Wright Larkin Dining Chair America, 1902-04 Less than a decade after the Day Dreamer Chair was produced, a movement arose in England which criticized the dishonest use of false historical ornament in design. Called the "Arts & Crafts Movement", it represented a reform-oriented attempt to bring quality back into the design of domestic products and environments. Industrial culture produced poorly designed products and furniture, and it also dehumanized workers who spent up to 14 hours a day in factories in boring, repetitive work under often unsafe working conditions. Slide9: Arts & Crafts reformers advocated the development of communities of crafts people who could bring care, skill and dignity to the production of goods which were honest in their design and use of natural materials. Surface decoration was replaced with clean, unadorned forms which expressed their purpose and function directly and honestly to the user. The "Dining Chair" by the American Arts & Crafts architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright, illustrates the principles of unadorned natural materials and structural honesty. The back of the chair consists of a straight segment of board, angled to provide a slight incline for the sitter's back; clearly a functional solution which strives for efficiency and simplicity in materials and structure. Frank Lloyd Wright Larkin Dining Chair America, 1902-04 Slide10: Although the Arts & Craft Movement was an important initiative in demonstrating the need for quality design, it - and many of the movements which immediately followed it - did not successfully address the need for design which uses the machine as a production tool, and therefore improves the look, function and quality of machine-made goods. Frank Lloyd Wright Larkin Dining Chair America, 1902-04 C.R. Mackintosh Dining Chair Scotland, 1897: C.R. Mackintosh Dining Chair Scotland, 1897 It was not until later in the twentieth-century that the design of chairs for mass production became an issue. Following the Arts and Crafts Movement a related movement arose which took design a step further. Called "Art Nouveau" (meaning the "New Art"), this was the first international design movement, with each nation in Europe developing its own characteristic Art Nouveau style. Art Nouveau furniture followed many of the principles of Arts & Crafts furniture: use of natural materials, craft techniques, and stripped down form which revealed the constructive elements and which was free from surface (applied) decoration. Slide12: However, Art Nouveau furniture sought a more sophisticated use of design and abstract form. Furniture didn't have to be rustic or strictly utilitarian but could be expressive as well. This dining chair of 1897 by Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh shows an elegant use of material, form and symbolism. Like Arts & Crafts furniture, the chair is wood, but the use of negative space, and the tapering of certain members, creates a lightness and visual movement unlike the former heavy Arts & Crafts pieces. Its verticality and the oval headboard which frames the sitter's head, is rather throne-like, and the bird-like form cut out of the headboard provides a subtle decorative element without applying ornament to the surface. Unlike Arts & Crafts designers, Mackintosh would also paint many of his furniture pieces (white or black) so that the "honest display of materials" was less important for him than the visual composition the structural elements created. C.R. Mackintosh Dining Chair Scotland, 1897 Josef HoffmannCafe Fladermaus ChairAustria, 1905: Josef Hoffmann Cafe Fladermaus Chair Austria, 1905 Mackintosh exhibited his design work in Europe and his furniture design was very influential for a group of designers in Vienna who started a large design workshop called the Vienna Werkstatte (Vienna Workshops). One of the workshop founders and directors was the architect Josef Hoffmann, who designed this Art Nouveau chair for the Cafe Fladermaus ("flying mouse") night club in 1905. Slide14: The chair has some of the traits of Mackintosh's work but is more abstract and geometric. Although the chair is also crafted of wood, it seeks to use more standardized forms which we associate with industrial culture and production. Whereas Mackintosh loved details which evoked natural forms (such as the bird cut out in the headboard of his 1897 dining chair), Hoffmann placed pure Euclidean spheres (reminiscent of cue balls) at the junctures of his arms and legs and seat. Despite the use of craft techniques, we can see that design is moving away from the emotional and decorative references to nature and asymmetrical forms and toward the rational, symmetrical and inorganic world of the machine. Josef Hoffmann Cafe Fladermaus Chair Austria, 1905 Gerrit Reitveld Red & Blue ChairHolland, 1917-18 : Gerrit Reitveld Red & Blue Chair Holland, 1917-18 This move to rationalized form, and to abstraction (as opposed to natural organic shapes), is evident in the Red and Blue chair of 1917-18 by the Dutch cabinet maker turned designer and architect, Gerrit Reitveld. Despite Reitveld's use of wood, in all other respects this chair is entirely abstract and rational. First, the chair is concerned with pure visual composition, not with the comfort of the sitter (it is really more of a piece of sculpture than a functioning chair). Slide16: Reitveld developed the chair independently in 1917, but painted the chair to mimic the paintings of Piet Mondrian after learning of the artist's work in 1918. Both works consist of rectilinear shapes painted in primary colors, which are bounded by black bars. Reitveld's chair looks like a Mondrian painting brought into three-dimensional space, with the exception of the diagonal backrest. The space which flowed through the chair was like the negative white space of Mondrian's canvas. Gerrit Reitveld Red & Blue Chair Holland, 1917-18 Mondrian, Yellow and Blue Slide17: Mondrian's strict minimalism and mathematical rationalism was in part a reaction to the first World War, which had resulted from the nationalistic individualism of the separate European nations who were participating in the war. Mondrian wished to rise above these petty nationalisms and create a universal art form, and a group of like-minded Dutch artists and designers joined with the painter to form the De Stijl movement (meaning, simply, "The Style" or "New Style"). Gerrit Reitveld Red & Blue Chair Holland, 1917-18 Slide18: Like Mondrian's paintings, which "continued beyond the edge of the canvas," the axes of Reitveld's chair by-passed one another. The yellow painted ends of these axes were to indicate that the end was arbitrary, and that the axes and planes of the chair extended infinitely into mathematical-universal space. In essence, through the "exploded form" of the chair, Reitveld was implying that the chair was merely an arbitrary physical manifestation, at one point in space, of the rational laws of the universal mathematical continuum. The chair is thus a visual manifesto about the importance of art and design as an idea rather than in terms of its execution (which is how much art had been valued previously), and as a way of creating a new consciousness by which to view the world. Gerrit Reitveld Red & Blue Chair Holland, 1917-18 Marcel BreuerWassily ChairGermany, 1925: Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair Germany, 1925 The experiments of the De Stijl group influenced the German art and design school called the Bauhaus (House of Building). The school was established in 1919 in post World War I Germany to rebuild society in the wake of the war and the county's defeat. Bauhaus designers adopted the De Stijl interest in going beyond national styles and sought to create an international style that served the practical needs of people at large. Like the De Stijl group, they were not interested in the personal expressive stamp of the craftsperson, but favored instead a more "objective" or impersonal style based on artifacts produced by industrial mass production. Slide20: Germany was a heavily industrialized country and after the First World War rebuilding its industrial capacity was a key objective. An early Bauhaus design which embodied these ideals was the "Wassily Chair" designed for Bauhaus painting instructor Wassily Kandinsky by architect and industrial design student-turned-instructor, Marcel Breuer. This is the first modern chair made out of primarily industrial materials. Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair Germany, 1925 Slide21: The chair consists of a frame of bent tubular steel, a material quite foreign to domestic interiors of the time. It employed canvas slings for the back seat and arm rests. It used minimal materials, did not collect dust like heavy Victorian armchairs, and its "sled-base" made this light-weight chair easy to move for cleaning. In addition, its visually "transparent" design, was well-suited to the modern interiors Bauhaus architects were creating which had lots of windows, white walls, and uncluttered continuous spaces. In using the new industrial materials Breuer became aware of the need to adjust them for the special applications he was seeking. For example, he discovered that a length of tube steel will not lay flat on household floors because the floors are not perfectly flat in any area. Breuer needed to bend the sled base of his chair slightly so each runner actually rested on two points only. This allowed the chair to sit on the floor without rocking. Marcel Breuer Wassily Chair Germany, 1925 Marcel BreuerCeska ChairGermany, 1928: Marcel Breuer Ceska Chair Germany, 1928 As Breuer developed as a designer, he became more interested in the comfort of the sitter. His 1928 Ceska Chair (pronounced "Cheska" and named after his daughter) has several innovations in this regard. Like his 1925 chair, he used tube steel, but now he used a frame consisting of one continuous loop of steel, and he "cantilevered" the seat in space so that the springiness of the steel became an important part of the seating experience. Slide23: In addition, Breuer rounded the front lip of the seat so that the seat edge would not cut into the backs of the sitter's thighs, cutting off circulation and making their legs fall asleep. Early modern furniture designers like Breuer became very adept at managing such small design details because these details could make or break the success of a chair which would be manufactured in the thousands or even tens of thousands. Marcel Breuer Ceska Chair Germany, 1928 Alvar AaltoPaimio ChairFinland, 1931: Alvar Aalto Paimio Chair Finland, 1931 The stripped-down functionality of early Modern chair design at the Bauhaus stimulated experiments in other countries. One of these was the Paimio Chair by Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Aalto had designed a hospital for tuberculosis patients in the modern International Style and wanted to develop furniture for the patient rooms and lounges throughout the hospital. Slide25: He was inspired by the design of the Wassily Chair by Breuer but wanted to create a fully modern chair without, however, relying on industrial materials like tubular steel. Finland's climate was cold, and people wanted furniture to be warm to the touch. Also, Finland was rich in natural timber, so Aalto developed a design - based on Modernist principles of functional and efficient form - which used a new process of wood lamination he had developed. Alvar Aalto Paimio Chair Finland, 1931 Slide26: The resulting chair resembles the Wassily Chair, but substitutes plywood runners and a bent plywood plane to support the body. Where Breuer's chair is cold and rational in its geometry, Aalto's chair features expressive organic curves. The chair's sled base made it easy to slide about on carpeted floors, and its combination seat-back plane with large volutes at each end allowed the seat to flex when under the weight of a sitter. Alvar Aalto Paimio Chair Finland, 1931 Slide27: In addition, Aalto's research into the needs of tuberculosis patients caused him to the angle of the seat back at an incline of 110 degrees, the best angle for breathing for patients with congested lungs. By reducing the chair to a limited number of standardized structural components, Aalto could utilize a craft process to produce wooden chairs efficiently, in a way similar to industrial mass production. Aalto's example showed that Modernist design principles, though based on a machine-age model of industrial efficiency, could flexibly respond to the needs imposed by different places using different materials and processes. Alvar Aalto Paimio Chair Finland, 1931 Eileen GrayTransatlantic ChairFrance, 1927: Eileen Gray Transatlantic Chair France, 1927 Whereas Aalto developed a type of "Humanistic Modernism" in the design of his furniture, Irish designer Eileen Gray developed a kind of "Decorative Modernism" with her "Transatlantic Chair" of 1927. Slide29: Working in Paris, Gray was a self taught architect and furniture designer. She was influenced by the design work happening at the Bauhaus but felt that much of this work was too austere and impersonal in character. In comparison to Breuer's Wassily Chair, her Transatlantic Chair is much more sumptuous and inviting. Eileen Gray Transatlantic Chair France, 1927 Marcel Breuer, Wassily Chair, Germany Slide30: Although it partially evokes a similar "machine-like" efficiency in its use of a skeletal structure and simple forms suspended in space, the jewelry-like metal fittings of the legs of hand-lacquered wood, and the sewn leather cushion rolls, draw one's attention to the decorative details of the piece and the use of elegant materials. The use of a double leg support system at the rear of the chair looks less efficient than Breuer's use of a single piece of tube steel. With this chair, we see that Modern design could be adapted to a more decorative approach without forsaking Modernism's fundamental commitment to functional form. Eileen Gray Transatlantic Chair France, 1927 Charles EamesPlywood Dining ChairAmerica, 1946: Charles Eames Plywood Dining Chair America, 1946 In the work of American designer Charles Eames we see a combination of the "Humanistic Modernism" of Alvar Aalto, with the love of industrial materials and technology typical of Bauhaus designers like Marcel Breuer. Eames designed his dining chair for the Michigan office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller. The first version of the chair incorporated the research into molded plywood furniture he and his wife Ray conducted during the Second World War. Slide32: Also shown is the "Potato Chip" dining chair Eames designed the same year which combined the plywood seat and back of the fully plywood chair, but now with a supporting framework of industrial steel rods. The form of both chairs is similar, but by using rod steel the chair became much lighter, both physically and visually, was more suitable for the open interiors of modern postwar residential houses, and was quicker to manufacture (it was subsequently called the "Potato Chip" chair because the seat and back resembled potato chips). Charles Eames Plywood Dining Chair America, 1946 Charles Eames, "Potato Chip" Dining Chair, America, 1946 Slide33: The plywood seat of the chair took inspiration from tractor seats familiar to Charles who was from the mid-west. In the final version of the chair especially, the plywood seat and back sections appeared to float in space (similar to some fine art sculptures of the time). Charles Eames Plywood Dining Chair America, 1946 Slide34: The design of the dining chair was significant for several reasons. First, it combined natural and industrial materials. Second, it utilized materials innovations resulting from the war, applying these to peacetime commercial use. For example, the back of the seat was affixed to the frame by use of rubber "shock mounts." These were glued to the plywood using a special glue which could be dried instantly by sending an electric current through it. This process made quick mass-production of the chairs feasible. Charles Eames Plywood Dining Chair America, 1946 Close up of Shock Mounts on Seat Back Charles Eames Fiberglass Shell ChairAmerica, 1948-49: Charles Eames Fiberglass Shell Chair America, 1948-49 Eames also designed this fiberglass shell chair for mass production. It was completely made of synthetic materials, and used a fiberglass process developed during the Second World War for radar domes. Slide36: The chair represents the values of the post-war era in several respects. First, it was very sensitive to the growing post-war consumer culture and marketplace. The chair could be mass-produced in a variety of colors which was perfectly in tune with the optimism of the post-war era. The color could be added right to the fiberglass itself so that the color went all the way through the material Charles Eames Fiberglass Shell Chair America, 1948-49 Slide37: This meant that the chair did not show scratches, was extremely durable, and could be used in a variety of venues. The large production runs which were necessary to recoup the high cost of production molds could thus be offset because the chairs could be marketed to institutions (schools, hospitals), to corporations (offices and waiting rooms), and to households. Eames was a genius when it came to designing generic furniture forms that could work in multiple environments. The organic shape of the lightweight shell, and the absence of corners and sharp edges, also made the chair suitable for all types of users. Charles Eames Fiberglass Shell Chair America, 1948-49 SaccoBean Bag ChairItaly, 1968-69: Sacco Bean Bag Chair Italy, 1968-69 Whereas the chair design of Charles Eames is a perfect expression of the peaceful postwar consumer culture of America in the 1950s and its faith in corporate America and industrial-scientific progress, the 1960s brought an entirely new set of concerns. In 1961 Rachel Carson wrote the book, Silent Spring, which introduced many Americans for the first time to the fact that corporations were polluting the natural environment. Slide39: The beginning of the Vietnam War (1961 - 1973) under President John F. Kennedy, his own assassination in 1963, and the anti-big business policies of Lyndon B. Johnson who followed Kennedy as president, signaled an era of social strife and cataclysmic change. In reaction to the Vietnam War, the Youth Movement and "Counter-Culture" were fueled and anti-war protests were common. Young people especially were critical of all types of authority - governmental, institutional, corporate - and sought alternative lifestyles. Because youth were financially prosperous, they created a large market for a new kind of consumer goods geared to their lifestyles and values. Sacco Bean Bag Chair Italy, 1968-69 Slide40: Plastics technology by the early 1960s had reached a new level of sophistication, and Italy took the lead in the design of fresh new furniture forms which were individualistic and expressive. A team of Italian designers developed the popular Sacco "Bean Bag Chair" which totally abandoned the previous notion of the chair as a hard support structure for the body. Rather, the chair was a vinyl bag into which pellets of polyurethane plastic were placed. The chair had no form of its own but molded itself to the body of each sitter who used it. It was thus very individualistic, and its changing form mimicked the fluid social relationships which characterized the period. The fact that it placed the sitter close to the floor, and would accommodate all sorts of longing body positions, also meant that it was in tune with the casual social behavior of the period as well. Sacco Bean Bag Chair Italy, 1968-69 Slide41: Another Italian designer was Joe Columbo, who designed his unique "Additional Seating System" in 1968-9. It also utilized the new plastics and was very flexible to accommodate the rapidly changing needs and room layouts of young users living in shared apartments. The system consisted of support rails which could be laid on the floor into which cushion slabs of slip-covered polyurethane foam of various sizes and shapes could be connected. This modular system allowed users to compose their own furniture pieces as needed. One could make a chair, a sofa, or a bed just by reconfiguring the cushions. This furniture system expressed the emerging do-it-yourself culture of the sixties, and the "no limits' lifestyle which characterized it. Sacco Bean Bag Chair Italy, 1968-69 Columbo, "Additional Seating System” 1968-69 Michael McCoyDoor ChairAmerica, 1981 : Michael McCoy Door Chair America, 1981 The Counter-Culture of the Sixties did much to introduce freedom and fun into the design of everyday things. Counter-Culture design also showed that design artifacts could be fashioned as commentaries about values and ideas. In the late 1970s and early 80s, an extension of the Counter-Culture emerged in the West called "Post Modernism." Post Modernism was a critique of the values that had characterized Western and especially American culture during the earlier parts of the 20th century. Slide43: Put simply, the modern Western scientific-corporate-military "complex", with its emphasis on "rational control" and its often exclusionary policies seemed at odds with the growing recognition during the nineteen sixties and seventies that many groups - youth, women, racial minorities, non-western peoples and cultures, etc. - deserved a place and voice in contemporary society. In addition, the "Modern Movement's privileging of the "new" (as in our TV ads about "new and improved" products) was questioned. The Modern idea of "progress" (as Rachel Carson's book had shown) had problems, and Post Modernism was interested in looking to the past to understand the origins of our current situation in the effort to find solutions. Michael McCoy Door Chair America, 1981 Slide44: In design, Post Modernism expressed itself often as a playful critique of Modern values. Industrial designer Michael McCoy's "Door Chair" of 1981 was as much a clever conversation piece meant to stimulate thought and dialog than as a functional chair. First, it purposely was made of black painted wood and seemed a distant cousin to the similarly black wooden "Ladder Back" chair of Charles Rennie Mackintosh done at the very beginning of the 20th century. Michael McCoy Door Chair America, 1981 C.R. Mackintosh, Ladder-Back Chair, Scotland, 1904 Slide45: This reference flew in the face of most furniture designers in the late seventies and early eighties who were seeking to use high technology and advanced manufacturing techniques to create efficient seating for corporate clients. The use of hand crafting, and the "quoting" of an earlier design seemed to question the whole notion of "newness" and "originality" most Modernist designers were dedicated to. The "Door Chair" also expressed the interest of Post Modernism in language theory, and the idea that language can be ambiguous, poetic, and full of different meanings for different people, in contrast to the modern scientific desire that language be exact, precise, "objective" and impersonal. The chair begins as a single folded plane, and only "becomes" a chair through our interaction with it. Michael McCoy Door Chair America, 1981 Slide46: When one swings the inner plane of the construct outward - the "door" of the Door Chair... that is, when this piece becomes a door, at the same time it becomes a "chair" because the red quarter-circle seat, which actively defines the swing-path of the "door", hinges up to become the seat support. So it's a door, but it's not a door because it's a seat...and so on. This was a period when the field of architecture was similarly questioning itself and its "vocabulary' of functional forms ("is a wall always a wall, or can it be a window, or a doorway, and are these necessarily different"). This was an "unfreezing" period when designers questioned the concepts, influences, and values they had received from the past and evaluated them in terms of their social significance and meaning). Michael McCoy Door Chair America, 1981 Don Chadwick / Bill StumpfAeron ChairAmerica, 1994: Don Chadwick / Bill Stumpf Aeron Chair America, 1994 The more recent Aeron Chair, designed in 1994 by Dan Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, for the Herman Miller office furniture company, indicates design's focus on more contemporary issues. It represents the interest in "Universal Design," that is, in design which accommodates a range of different users without excluding anyone. Slide48: The Aeron Chair used extensive user research so as to develop a chair which would accommodate virtually all office workers across a range of body types and sizes. It also flexibly supports a wide variety of different types of work. The chair adjusts to the sitter as s/he moves, and so provides support which is dynamic and flexible. It also was designed for extended periods of time so as to reduce unnecessary fatigue. The chair dispenses with the fabric over foam composition of traditional office seating and substitutes a breathable membrane which adapts to the shape of each occupant then returns to its original form when vacated. This has allowed for a much more efficient manufacturing process in which the seat is molded in a single operation. Don Chadwick / Bill Stumpf Aeron Chair America, 1994 Slide49: In addition, the structure of the chair is aluminum, some of which comes from recycled soft drink cans, thus reducing energy consumed in the production process. The design of the chair thus speaks to a new awareness of different types of users, the importance of research in making design decisions, and the need to be environmentally responsible. Don Chadwick / Bill Stumpf Aeron Chair America, 1994 Conclusion: Conclusion As this brief and selective survey of modern chair design has shown, all design reflects the social concerns and technological capabilities of its particular time period. It also expresses the individual characters and priorities of the designers themselves. The survey reminds us that creative design decisions make up an important part of our everyday world, and that as either designers, or as consumers and users of design, these decisions exercise an important influence upon us which deserves our conscious attention and critical involvement.