A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.
- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Thomas Chippendale speaks for himself from a upholstered dining chair, above.
Is there another designed object in human history that can compare with the aesthetic tenacity of a well designed chair? The chair isn't subject to the same vagaries and fashionable whims that rule the best in other disciplines. Instead, a great chair seems to operate in a kind of geological time; Through thousands of years we see the same forms popping-up again and again, as if its DNA were as indefatigable as that of the cockroach.
To wit, the Egyptian chair:
This from the tomb of Hatnofer and Ramose, western Thebes ca. 1479–1473 BCE: Chair made from boxwood, cypress, ebony, and linen cord.
Egyptians began metal toolmaking around 4500 BCE and woodworking wouldn't have been far behind. Their aesthetic influence on furniture has proven to be nearly as long. Wood furniture produced at the time incorporated mortise and tenon joints and inlay.
Above: An ornate acacia stool.
Danish designer Finn Juhl created the Egyptian chair in 1949:
And, the Chieftain chair in the same year:
Another enduring Egyptian form is the X-chair or stool, (AKA as the Savonarola, Dante, and Scissors chairs). This, a Roman version:
A Louis XV styled version:
The Barcelona was awarded with the Museum of Modern Art Award in 1977.
The Greek Klismos chair and its successors:
If you attended school on the planet Earth anytime in the last 50 years it's likely you sat on a chair like this:
(A injection molded plastic version is the one I remember....)
But before this chair became the ubiquitous and nearly invisible object of our collective consciousnesses, it had a designer and a name: The Revolt by legendary designer and Amsterdammer Friso Kramer. (Ironic title given its eventual institutional use.) Designed in 1953 to compete with a chair already popular in its time by Wilhelm Gispen. Though the differences between the Kramers and the Gispens may be mostly academic, in the world of institutional Chair-dom the contest definitely had a winner. Manufacture of the Gispen would end by 1963.
Gispen may be better remembered for his Art Deco-y bent tubular steel armchairs; A chair that may've gone on to its final rest in the hair salons of the world.
Mid-century Modernism may prove to be the Classic era of chair design. Peruse the catalog of any furniture manufacturer of quality these days and take note how the Mid-century aesthetic still rules. If the recent exhibition at LACMA on mid-century design in California is any indication, the honeymoon has yet to show signs of fatigue.
Another case in point, Charles and Ray Eames:
To start, the Eames Management office chair: The multitude of products borne of this design are still infiltrating offices from Madison Avenue to Shibuya and many points in between. The Eames Greatest Hits album would require at least a boxed-set: Their list of successes was a long one.
Throwing all industrial design under one tiny umbrella in its Best Design category, Time Magazine's Best of the Century listing gave the Eames molded plywood dining chair (1946) the singular distinction of being design's acme : "Much copied, never bettered."
The LCW (Lounge Chair Wood above in dark wood) and the DCM (Dining Chair Metal; above in blond wood) from 1948. There'd be variations, like a three-legged version, but this was the Mama to the many babies that would follow. Kramer's more vernacular Revolt remix (as seen at top of this post) would be one example.
Then, of course, there was that iconic lounger from 1956:
Originally designed for Chicago's O'Hare airport in 1962, the Eames's Tandem Sling seating is still comforting the weary derrières of traveling millions daily. And more than likely, yours too on occasion.
And then, their contribution to the rarefied field of Chairs of Near Invisible Ubiquity: The molded-plastic with Eiffel Tower wired base DSR also from 1948.
British designer Robin Day, generously borrowing from the Eames's and taking it one step further, created this stackable polypropylene version on an enameled tubular steel base. Introduced in 1963 when injection-molded polypropylene was a new technology. Injection allowed speedier production of numbers not possible with their wooden counterparts: 4,000 shells a week. At present, something like 14 to 20 million (depending on whom you believe) units have been produced making this the most mass produced chair ever.
It wouldn't be hard to imagine that both Eames and Day's chairs didn't borrow some of its form from a much older ancestor, the Windsor chair:
With origins that date back to the 16th century, the Windsor would've been all the rage in the colonial U.S. Also, you won't be surprised to learn that Windsors were originally built by wheelrights who coped out its spindles in the same way they did wheel spokes for wagons. Another obvious progeny of the Windsor is the Konsumstuhl Nr. 14, otherwise known as the café chair from 1859:
Developed by German-Austrian cabinet maker Michael Thonet the chair's breakthrough was in its use of steam bent wood. This "chair of chairs" (Le Corbusier was a fan), once unavoidable in cafés and dining rooms throughout the world, would have a pretty good run of its own with 50 million units produced by 1930.
Designed for Herman Miller by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf in 1994, the Aeron has won heaps of praise and troves of accolades for both its design and ergonomics. Among them: “Designs Greatest Hits” by Your Company magazine; “Design of the Decade” gold award winner by Business Week & Industrial Designers Society of America; IDSA "Design of the Decade" winner; Also, it's the only desk chair to gain a spot in the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Upholstered armchairs also have a demonstrated aesthetic sustainability. In most cases you could follow the lineage of just about every chair from Levitz warehouses to Design Within Reach showrooms, in markets both up and down, to examples below.
Judging from it's evergreen popularity you wouldn't know the design of Le Corbusier's so called LC2 - Fauteuil Grand confort, petit modèle (in collaboration with Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeannerrat) was a relic from 1928.
This candy-colored array is now available from Cassina.
These archtypal Club Chairs were from designer Jean-Michel Frank ca. 1930. Frank, who'd become a successful interior designer (he did Nelson Rockefeller's Fifth Avenue digs) was also a first cousin once removed to Anne Frank, designed a collection of minimalist furniture for Hermès beginning in 1924; More evergreen: The line was introduced by Hermès once again in 2011.
Frank's rounded armchair showing the contemporary influence of Art Deco.
Le Corbusier mentor and Moravian-born Josef Hoffmann was nicknamed "Quadratl-Hoffmann" (little squares) for his apparent fixation. This, the Kubus armchair, was from 1910 and appears to have had more than a little influence over his famous protégé. The Kubus is still in production.
Next in Chairs, Part 2: More history and more living room icons from Arne Jacobsen and Eero Saarinen as well as sixties whimsy and beyond.