In 2010, in a preview of the Milan Furniture Fair, design critic Alice Rawsthorn asked: "Does the world need another chair?" When she asked the question, Jonathan Olivares had already embarked on a two-part answer: his book A Taxonomy of Office Chairs, published by Phaidon Press in 2011, and his chair in die-cast and extruded aluminium, introduced by Knoll at NeoCon in Chicago in June 2012. Olivares's six-year-old award-winning practice is called Jonathan Olivares Design Research for a reason, as the two projects informed each other and resulted in a colourful, technically advanced, indoor/outdoor stackable seat the world might actually need.
"Design is about searching for something we don't know. If someone said to me, make me a steel tube chair or a fibreglass chair, I would say no, because there is going to be no updating of the craft," Olivares says, sitting in an upholstered Eero Saarinen office chair at Knoll's New York showroom, with more model Saarinens, Platners and Bertoias lurking beyond the glass doors. "Furniture is interesting only insofar as it relates to the world around it. Too many chairs live and die as jpegs."
Olivares sat in 90 per cent of the 130 chairs in Taxonomy, dating from the 1840s to the present. So, when he began working on his own chair, he was freed from the anxiety of influence by hands-on knowledge. "In the Eames house there is a photo of an old African chair on the floor. I always wondered why they had that," he says. "When I found one in a museum I realised it was a very complicated weave." He had recently taken apart an Eames Aluminum Group chair (his workspace is dotted with rolling classics), and admired the similarly forthright way the fabric was screwed to the frame. "Craft can be something made by machines or by hand, it's just about updating technique."
Knoll Design Director Benjamin Pardo initiated first book, then chair after meeting Olivares, who at the time was writing a survey of the American furniture industry for Domus. "I work with people like Richard Sapper and Cini Boeri," explains Pardo, "and they are my tie back to Marco Zanuso and a whole lot of people I could never meet. Then you work with guys in the middle. Then you say, 'Who am I investing in? Who do I want to make bets on for the future?' It is very rare to meet a young designer who is articulate and intelligent."
After graduating from the Pratt Institute in 2004, Olivares worked for Konstantin Grcic in Munich, where he learned about die-casting via Grcic's Chair_ONE. "That's not the most comfortable chair in the world," Olivares says. "The idea was to bring comfort into the equation and try to find a method of manufacturing that was new."
The long march of attempts by Olivares and his studio, thoroughly documented in sketch, photograph and model (once a taxonomist, always a taxonomist), began with a hardware store wheelbarrow, hammered into a seat, and included a clunky steel chair with a T-shaped back, a two-part plastic chair with a thin moulded seat and thick cast legs, and a two-part aluminium chair with a hydroformed seat and die-cast frame. It was this latter that led to a breakthrough: there was trouble attaching the seat to the frame at the corners, and the aluminium casting supplier Leggett & Platt suggested they cast the whole thing themselves — frame, seat and back. The final chair is a refinement of that experiment. Back and seat have become one solid piece; the legs are extruded aluminium rectangles. Black injection-moulded nylon rails, the same as those on skateboards, keep the chairs from scratching when stacked. They are also 100 per cent recyclable.
"You usually think of aluminium casting as like bone; you don't think of it as skin," says Olivares. Back at his studio, he shows me a drawing of the centre line section of a chair, dated 12 April 2011, which is thick at the outer edge and whisper thin in the middle. The real chair slims to three millimetres at its narrowest. This allows Olivares's skinned chair to weigh less than Harry Bertoia's 1955 mesh chair at 14,75 pounds (6,6 kilos). Light enough to move, heavy enough not to blow around. "Part of the project was understanding the nature of chairs," says Olivares. "Why is that chair inviting? It was about growing a character." The final shape looks a bit like that of a proscenium arch, broad and inviting. The upper edge curves well back to provide a handhold. The chair looks soft, despite its metallic nature. The chairs will be sold powder-coated in different colours on seat and frame, suggesting upholstery. "In some of the early feedback, before anyone said anything they smiled," Pardo says. "It's approachable."
The complete colour selection is still up in the air, but will definitely include white with a yellow interior, white with green, magenta with pink, plus solid yellow, green and grey. "Inside relates to man-made objects," says Pardo, referring to the grey. "Outside relates to a tree or to a flower." Can a chair compete with a peony? Or a tree? At least, given the lacquer, sitting on the chair won't remind you of one of aluminium's other uses in the kitchen. Given the thinness of the seat, the chair adjusts quickly to body temperature. Olivares says, "You don't want to sit on a frying pan." Alexandra Lange (@LangeAlexandra)