In art, unlike design, the line dividing great work from the merely popular is most often drawn by our aesthetic institutions: Critics, academics, historians, and collectors—collectors, especially. After that, if a work can withstand the vagaries of the market and time then it may, at last, be something for the ages. What's conspicuously missing from this list is the public. In the final tally, they matter little.
But what if the mass market was the decider? Using reproduction numbers as a gauge, choosing a winner wouldn't be much of a contest.
On the left below, a Christ by painter Warner Sallman (that's his pic above, right) from 1940. He was once declared "the best known artist of the century" by The New York Times. His painting has been reproduced more than 500 million times to date. (During WW II alone, one printing shop kept two shifts of press laborers running on this image alone.)
On the right, La Gioconde, the best known painting in the world, Christendom and beyond, and source material for incalculable mountains of kitsch. (Leonardo's pic is above, left.)
As for critical acclaim, that's another matter. Just for argument's sake, let's say we let the pointy heads of the institution decide: In 2004 a group of 500 selected British art world professionals were asked to vote on what they thought was the most influential artwork of the 20th century. Their winner?
The inventor of conceptual art and the self-proclaimed de-deifier of the artist, Marcel Duchamp and his infamous Fountain. (You were thinking Norman Rockwell perhaps?)
Design, on the other hand, needs more than critical acclaim. It needs sales. (As Henrik Fiskar said design that isn't profitable we call art.) However the critics and taste-makers enthuse about a particular designer object, without public support it's dead as Dada. Still, there's no reason to fear a cultural takeover by bean bags and barcaloungers: While the plebeians may get the final word on pop culture, aesthetic culture is another matter entirely.
This may go a ways to explain why furniture design remains fixed in the traditional and why we can't seem to move away from mid-century. As we've discussed before, most chairs inhabiting our spaces these days have pedigrees extending back generations if not thousands of years. Prior to mid-century, the last furniture revolution coincided with the rise of industrialization and the materials it made available. Since then, the tried and true have prevailed. With few exceptions, the edgy rarely finds its way to our dinner tables or living rooms.
To wit: Phillipe Starke's Louis Ghost Chair. A streamlined dining table version of the Louis XIV warhorse reimagined in plexi.
As flexible as it is invisible.
Below, Starke's creation infiltrates the set of Gossip Girl.
Given the mantle of founder of American Modernism, George Nelson's designs manage to work slightly outside the sphere of the traditional form.
Below, the Coconut chair from 1955 (still available from Herman Miller): Nelson also gave us the first modular storage system and a forerunner of systems furniture.
Nelson argued that a design could push all extremes except the one that sacrifices its humanity: [A designer] must first make a radical, conscious break with all values he identifies as antihuman... total design is nothing more or less than a process of relating everything to everything." There, you see: It's easy.
Above, the Marshmallow sofa by George Nelson and Irving Harper from 1956:
Below, decorator Billy Baldwin's famous slipper chair: A crisp and prim accent chair that takes its upholstery to the floor. There's a reason for that. Baldwin believed exposed legs gave a room the appearance of restlessness. Furniture should be designed first and foremost for comfort. The Slipper was designed for short term seating, low enough to make it easy for putting on shoes, no arms for easy in and out access, and look that was sharp and plush.
Below, the Cotton Candy version currently available at Urban Outfitters (with its un-Baldwinesque exposed legs). The legacy of the chair also continues at Target, Crate and Barrel, and Pottery Barn. The Slipper is still hot, it seems.
One of the founders of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius interprets the Chesterfield. The style, named after England's Earls of Chesterfield, goes back over 200 years and describes seating with arms and back of the same height.
A more recent reworking of the design concept in the B & B Italia Tulip chair:
The Chesterfield, the traditional and a modern reimagining:
In an earlier post we discussed Harry Bertoia's Diamond chair, a chair known for its innovative use of steel wire. Other versions would include the Bird chair with ottoman and the Café chair.
Bertoia was also a college classmate of Florence Knoll. It was Knoll who offered to manufacture Bertoia's chair. His pioneering work would bring him many laurels including an AIA Gold Medal and Designer of the Year.
Below, the Bird chair under a disguise of upholstery:
Bertoia was a multi-hyphenated sculptor, furniture designer, creator of wedding rings for Charles and Ray Eames, and college lecturer. (Bertoia also created a series of 10 Sonambient record albums based on the sounds of his wire Sounding Sculptures. See a demonstration of the sound here.) The Diamond chair has been in production since 1952.
Below, fiberglass Shell side chairs:
An important part of the mid-century style explosion was Danish Modern, a form epitomized by countrymen Arne Jacobsen (featured here), Finn Juhl (as seen here), Arne Vodder, and Arne Hovmand-Olsen. All four designers would enjoy international recognition and all owe a large debt to their forbear, Kaare Klint.
Below, Klint's Faaborg chair.
Klint's Propeller stool, owing much to the Egyptians:
While Klint and the Danish Modernists agreed with much that was going with Bauhaus, there were stark differences. The Bauhaus style stressed form and function as a singularity, minimalistic design without adornment, and industrial materials, especially steel tubing and glass. Bauhaus also represented a conscious break from Art Nouveau which had begun to fade with the beginning of the 20th century. Klint and other Danes were less inclined to let go of Nouveau's naturalistic motifs and organic forms. They preferred wood as a material and hand-crafted over the industrial as well as having design respond to the human body and its behaviors more than efficiency of industrial fabrication.
The Safari Chair from 1933:
The Safari reimagined (with a little Chinese style thrown in) from 1984 by Dutch designer Ruud-Jan Kokke:
Below, a Klint Lounger:
Bauhaus was founded in 1919 as a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art, the former directed by Belgian Henry van de Velde. Velde would also be the Bauhaus school's first director, a job he would be forced from as the nationalists rose to power in Germany. Van de Velde would choose Walter Gropius to be his successor. The change over would also bring an end to the influence of Nouveau.
Henry van de Velde's work would bridge Nouveau and Bauhaus:
The chair on the left is from a pre-Bauhaus period of 1897; On the right, Velde eschews the organic for a more industrial look:
More chairs to come in Part 4.