Take a seat
And consider the concept of chair-ness, the subject of designer Kevin Walz's recent exhibit at the American Academy in Rome
Kevin Walz -- Interior Design, 3/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
The chair is a servile object, made to support human forms of all sizes and status levels. It's also a measure of the human spirit—contemplating beauty and balance, expressing aspirations, and celebrating cultural values via materials, technology, and craftsmanship.
When I was asked to curate "Designer's Eye: The Chair" at the American Academy in Rome, I didn't set out to present the best new designer chairs. Nor was this an academic survey of a period of time, a specific society, or a particular design movement. Instead, I made a garden of what delights this designer—chairs I find to be leaps of the imagination, technical wonders, follies. As well as noble, poetic, prophetic, flip, or ominous.
Asking visitors to forget all they knew about the chair icons of our Western consumer culture, I cast the net widely. Not only did designers range from Arne Jacobsen to, yes, Kevin Walz—getting us from A to Z—but the selection also included chairs from five centuries and four continents. Some of the designers are renowned; some are not. Others cannot be identified.
Each is a kind of cultural portrait, a marker of time and place. The Ashanti chair from Ghana, circa 1890, demonstrates a mastery of composition and craft. A single piece of carved wood, it expresses a sophisticated understanding of materials, geometry, and traditions as well as a joy in the rhythms of life.
Many agricultural societies prefer their chairs lower to the ground. Just look at the Lobi chair from Burkina Faso, circa 1950. Hovering just 4 inches off the floor, the shallow sweep of the carved seat barely supports the buttocks. Other groups have never understood the need for backrests. The figure-eight seat of a 100-year-old chair from Kenya calls for a straddle position, giving flexibility and balance to craftsmen as they cut, carve, and pound.
Another anonymous chair, an important representation of Czechoslovakian deco, is innovative and space-conscious: The seat opens into a narrow bed. Despite a naive desire to be modern, the fabrication remains traditional. Czechoslovakia was far from the influence of the Bauhaus.
Authorship by a "name" designer is no guarantee of comfort. Charles Rennie Macintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mario Botta all designed models as famous as they are difficult to sit in. But Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier have created chairs that support not only the body but also their architectural theories. Frank Gehry's corrugated-cardboard Little Beaver lounge is a perfect example of his "architecture is art" philosophy.
Several well known contemporary designers have looked outside their own societies for inspiration. Recalling the wisdom and restraint of older Eastern 'cultures—and celebrating the resonance found in reduction—Maya Lin has turned fiberglass into a series of low stools and tables called Stones.
Imagine Boris Tabacoff's 1973 Sphere chair in a hip Parisian apartment—Serge Gainsbourg on the stereo, miniskirts, white suits, champagne. The smoked-acrylic shell encases a shearling-covered seat, and the chromed pedestal curls like something eaten with dip. Talk about an exercise in extreme style.
For form, comfort, and convenience, my favorite chair is Arne Jacobsen's stacking Series 7, Model 3107. Because it uses the resiliency of bent plywood to flex, one can sit for hours. (I do, in my studio, and I never tire of looking at the form.)
Creating a chair is the most complex engineering effort a furniture designer can undertake. In the industrialized world, chairs are expected to allow occupants to sit with their feet flat on the floor when the legs are bent at the knee by the front edge of the seat. Sitters' thighs should continue to the back of the seat, with the upper portion of the buttocks touching but not pressing the lower part of the backrest. At the same time, the top of the backrest should support the shoulder blades, and the elbows should meet the armrest. All this should occur with some degree of comfort.
Studies show that Westerners have become physically dependent on the chair—it has become a prosthesis. There are dining chairs, lounge chairs, and chaise longues. There are portable and folding chairs. There are task chairs for the office, more complex than the desk chair of old. Chairs in the airport allow us to wait for our chairs on the plane. We have chairs for dental procedures and beauty appointments. To hold small children for eating, there are high chairs. A French example, circa 1880, flips over onto itself to become a wagon, a desk, and a rocking chair.
For my own collection, I went to the Italian island of Sardinia to manufacture chairs of 100 percent cork, using heat and pressure to strengthen a substance with natural resilience and perfect memory. I admit I have a big prejudice against plastic, but it's often the material of choice in Milan. A compression mold created Vico Magistretti's 1969 Selene stacking chair in reinforced fiberglass—and paved the way for a design process that's become the low-cost standard.
This type of "generic" chair, which concludes my exhibition, can be found around the world, from Venice's Piazza San Marco to—rumor has it—the private wing of the White House. There must be more of these chairs than the next 50 most popular ones combined. Without the assistance of being branded, the generics are multiplying geometrically. We give them no thought. And they may be lurking in our own backyards.
What do these "generic" chairs say about the future of humanity? Are they a symbol of the dissolution of the richness of our pasts, a sacrificing of diverse points of view for the sake of low-cost globalization? Or is this the first worldwide agreement on an essential subject?