States of Design 08: Après moi, le déluge

Has chair design really been done to death? From the informal seats of the radical movements of the Sixties to Konstantin Grcic's exercises in technological elegance, a survey of one of industrial design's archetypal challenges.

This article was originally published in Domus 953, December 2011

I have a favourite chair. Actually, calling it a chair is slightly ludicrous, as it's more like a throne. It is the Sacco bean bag, the deconstructed, liquefied, huggable seat after which came the deluge. It is ingenious, nonchalantly elegant, simple and sublime, and it embodies all the ideals that designers have been pursuing since before the day it was born in 1968—from mass-customisation to adaptability, not to mention cultural and social relevance. It does not score very high on the sustainability scale, but it has potential—truth be told, it could be packaged and distributed empty and there could be special neighbourhood centres that mince domestic debris into pellets that could substitute the polystyrene.

There aren't many chairs and furnishings that can spark the imagination as powerfully as Sacco does, perhaps because there are so many, too many of them. Chairs are the staple of design, one of the first categories of objects (together with cars) that people all over the world think of when confronted with the "D" word. In a designer's life, the chair is also a ritual of initiation, the first truly mature challenge that involves the responsibilities that come with the design profession. In chairs, more than in any other designed object, human beings are the unit of measure to which everything must defer—including all economical considerations regarding the manufacturing process and marketing.
Top and above: Joris Laarman, Bone
Chair, 2006. Using a dynamic digital
instrument created by the
International Development
Centre Adam Opel Gmbh,
Laarman virtually “carved”
the chair while searching
for “an implicit form of
legitimation”.
Top and above: Joris Laarman, Bone Chair, 2006. Using a dynamic digital instrument created by the International Development Centre Adam Opel Gmbh, Laarman virtually “carved” the chair while searching for “an implicit form of legitimation”.
Chairs are omnipresent in the history of design, so much so that they can be used as keys to an extended narration of its events. Or they can be appreciated as technical-artistic or technical-functional objects. In any case, they stand in for a whole industry and culture. What do chairs say about the past ten years, and about the present? They speak of a crisis of identity and purpose, and they carry the scars of an ongoing natural selection of the species that is no longer led by "consumers", but rather by users and owners who have become either less affluent or more demanding, or both. This is of course a generalisation, or perhaps even wishful thinking, but just like dead-tree books, chairs and other furnishings today have to prove that they deserve to exist, whether because they embody extreme refinements, technical or typological innovation, better ergonomics, higher artistic expression or social purpose. In this essay, we gather a few examples of "meaningful additions" to the world and interesting directions for the future.
Tokujin Yoshioka,
Venus—Natural Crystal Chair
(2008). The chair’s form gradually
emerges from the water with
the process of crystallisation.
The chair was presented at
the <i>Second Nature</i> exhibition,
21_21 Design Sight, Tokyo. Courtesy of Tokujin Yoshioka Inc.
Tokujin Yoshioka, Venus—Natural Crystal Chair (2008). The chair’s form gradually emerges from the water with the process of crystallisation. The chair was presented at the Second Nature exhibition, 21_21 Design Sight, Tokyo. Courtesy of Tokujin Yoshioka Inc.
When it comes to technological innovation and refinement, Konstantin Grcic immediately springs to mind. Grcic is a "slow" designer, the good kind of "slow" (conscientious, rigorous, attentive to details, aware of consequences) that we have come to appreciate for instance in food and tourism. He gives the impression—only he and his office know whether this is really the truth—of taking his time and focusing on process. At the 2008 Milan Furniture Fair he devoted a whole exhibition to one chair, Myto, commissioned after a call for entries by the chemical giant BASF to make good new use of their Ultradur® plastic, traditionally used for car parts. He showed models and prototypes, celebrated its manufacturing process, which uses as little material as possible, explained and caressed the beautiful cantilever (not what you'd expect from a plastic chair) and delved into the stacking features, offering a master class in industrial design that will not be forgotten.
What do chairs say about the past ten years, and about the present? They speak of a crisis of identity and purpose, and they carry the scars of an ongoing natural selection of the species that is no longer led by "consumers", but rather by users and owners who have become either less affluent or more demanding, or both.
Yuya Ushida, XXXX_Sofa
(2011). The seating programme
is based on the assembly
of eight single injectionmoulded
components.
Produced in collaboration
with Ahrend. Courtesy of Yuya Ushida.
Yuya Ushida, XXXX_Sofa (2011). The seating programme is based on the assembly of eight single injectionmoulded components. Produced in collaboration with Ahrend. Courtesy of Yuya Ushida.
Refinement of pre-existing typologies—the redesign category that Achille Castiglioni legitimised in words and actions with his double-takes on French cafe tables and wooden folding chairs—has recently taken counter-intuitive turns, harking back to the future as opposed to embracing the old-fashioned shape of things to come. Hella Jongerius's 2006 Worker Armchair celebrates solid wood, the material of training for this designer who studied carpentry. It is an armchair full of contrasts and endearing idiosyncrasies, from the odd proportions between the low seat and the high back, to the matching and unmatched fabrics, and the juxtaposition between the timber structure of the base frame, showing in the back, and the aluminium armature of the flying armrests. It is a chair that we have never seen before but also that distils the essence of centuries of armchairs.
Konstantin Grcic, Myto, Plank (2008). The cantilever chair is
conceived as a monoblock
of injection-moulded plastic.
Its design was influenced
by the material, Ultradur®
High Speed plastic made by
BASF. The material’s high
flowability allows an elegant
transition from thick to thin
cross-sections. Courtesy of KGID.
Konstantin Grcic, Myto, Plank (2008). The cantilever chair is conceived as a monoblock of injection-moulded plastic. Its design was influenced by the material, Ultradur® High Speed plastic made by BASF. The material’s high flowability allows an elegant transition from thick to thin cross-sections. Courtesy of KGID.
Hella Jongerius is among the most enlightened and forward-looking designers, powerfully showing the fundamental importance of marrying tradition with innovation and digging deep into local culture in order to achieve the universal sublime. For design and architecture alike, local traditions have in recent decades proved to be the most meaningful way to move beyond modernism without giving up the great qualities of modern design. Some countries whose material tradition is based on craftsmanship and whose economy is based on necessity, such as Brazil and India, are indeed being viewed as new paradigms in architecture and design. Subtle accents of material culture surface in the albeit elegantly superfluous work not only of this movement's champions Fernando and Humberto Campana, but also of designers like Doshi Levien or Satyendra Pakhalé.
Thomas Heatherwick,
Spun, Magis (2010). Extracting the item from
the aluminium mould used
in the seat’s rotational
moulding process. Courtesy of Magis.
Thomas Heatherwick, Spun, Magis (2010). Extracting the item from the aluminium mould used in the seat’s rotational moulding process. Courtesy of Magis.
Shiro Kuramata, the late Japanese master, was among the first to exemplify the notion of learning from local tradition without sacrificing contemporaneity. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kuramata took the most established rules of modernist design and tilted them by means of his Japanese sensitivity. He took a classic black-and-white cubic dresser, for instance, and deformed it gently by making it wave on its own axis. By attacking only one of the variables in the modernist equation, instead of many at a time, he created surprise and enlightenment, and he did so by learning from his local tradition. Kuramata's example is useful to understand that, from our point of view, the term "nationalism" in the equation between nationalism and globalism coincides with material culture and with spontaneous production to address real local needs. It is also useful in setting the bar really high when it comes to objects of pure poetry and beauty, acceptable and even welcome additions to the world when truly sublime.
Oskar Zieta, Chippensteel
0.5, (2008). The chair is the product
of FiDU technology developed
by Zieta Prozessdesign:
an innovative process
of blowing metal sheets. Courtesy of Zieta Prozessdesign.
Oskar Zieta, Chippensteel 0.5, (2008). The chair is the product of FiDU technology developed by Zieta Prozessdesign: an innovative process of blowing metal sheets. Courtesy of Zieta Prozessdesign.
Kuramata has left a whole school of thought and action that counts pupils all over the world, but none more incisive than Tokujin Yoshioka , who not only worked with him but also continues to embody his relentless research into form and especially into technology and materials. Staring at Yoshioka's arresting white or transparent seats, one realises that form is almost the last of the designer's concerns—function being the very last. It is all about the surprise of the process. Honey Pop is made of a paper honeycomb and comes flattened. Once peeled open like an accordion and prepared, it accepts the impression of the first body that sits on it, a permanent stamp of ownership. The same element of wonder at the performance of materials happens in the Chair that Disappears on a Rainy Day, a glass outdoor bench— or the ghost of a bench—designed for the new Roppongi Hills area of Tokyo and now in use at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, or the Pane Chair, so called because it needs to be baked like bread, or the next project, Venus, a chair made by growing natural crystals, "the first growing chair in the world".
Martino Gamper, Conran
Inspirations (2008). Invited by Terence Conran
to reinterpret the great
design classic of the Thonet
chair, Gamper visited the
Mundus factory in Croatia,
where he collected about
100 single parts which he
then reassembled in new
chairs. Courtesy of Martino Gamper Studio.
Martino Gamper, Conran Inspirations (2008). Invited by Terence Conran to reinterpret the great design classic of the Thonet chair, Gamper visited the Mundus factory in Croatia, where he collected about 100 single parts which he then reassembled in new chairs. Courtesy of Martino Gamper Studio.
The fact that Venus grows connects Yoshioka to another group of designers obsessed with the same idea and, differently from Yoshioka, relying on software to achieve their creations. Ammar Eloueini's 2006 CoReFab #71 chair, 3D printed in polyamide resin, is actually "one chair with an infinite series of possibilities", as the designer describes it. #71 starts out in the computer as an animated character, and, like the frames of a movie, the animation can be paused at any point to "capture" a particular version for production. The digital still file is then transferred to a selective laser-sintering machine. For his Bone Chair (2006), Joris Laarman used 3D optimisation software that mimics biological growth and applies its rules to objects of all kinds, originally designed for automotive chassis components. As bones grow, areas not exposed to high stress develop less mass, while areas that bear more stress develop added mass for greater strength. Doing away with the superfluous results in an optimised structure that performs with the least amount of material. Passion for technology and materials can also be found in the work of Oskar Zieta and Bertjan Pot , who take furniture archetypes and revolutionise them by using completely new techniques, as in Zieta's arresting blown-steel-sheet tree-legged stools or in Pot's carbon-fibre take on a classic Eames chair. As a design stratagem, however, caricature/homage/desecration is often abused and points at a dangerous void of ideas. Maarten Baas's Smoke furniture, which began as an intellectually interesting experiment, has morphed into limited series and, even worse, products, losing its "manifesto" cultural ballast in the process.
Bertjan Pot, Carbon Copy (2003). The self-produced model
inspired the later Carbon
Chair (2004) manufactured
by Moooi. Photo Ramak Fazel.
Bertjan Pot, Carbon Copy (2003). The self-produced model inspired the later Carbon Chair (2004) manufactured by Moooi. Photo Ramak Fazel.
If manifesto seats often indicate new expressive avenues— Jurgen Bey's or Nacho Carbonell's works are good examples— entirely new typologies are hard to come by in "useable" chairs. Grcic once again comes to the rescue with his 360° chair, the only task chair in this review. By designing a seat that is explicitly uncomfortable if used in only one position for long periods of time, Grcic forces users to change their posture and fiddle and move, a stratagem for better physical health. The opposite of "task" but similarly relying playfully on the idea of continuous movement is Thomas Heatherwick's Spun, an amusement park- like spinning top. And even though the act of sitting is traditionally performed, the construction process—based on eight injection-moulded elements—and the DIY philosophy of the XXXX_Sofa and _Stool designed by Yuya Ushida and recently introduced at the Milan Salone give it an innovative and exquisitely contemporary brand of cred.
Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini,
Franco Teodoro, Sacco,
Zanotta, 1968. Inspired by sacks filled
with chestnut leaves that
peasants used as mattresses,
Sacco engages an interest
in ergonomics and informal
behaviour. Courtesy of Zanotta spa-Italy.
Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, Franco Teodoro, Sacco, Zanotta, 1968. Inspired by sacks filled with chestnut leaves that peasants used as mattresses, Sacco engages an interest in ergonomics and informal behaviour. Courtesy of Zanotta spa-Italy.
The DIY movement has also touched the furniture world, with important episodes like Martino Gamper's 100 Chairs in 100 Days exhibition, the re-issue of Enzo Mari's Autoprogettazione, and a number of tinkerers setting out to hack IKEA furnishings (see Domus 948, June 2011), a testament to a different world where furniture is no longer a mindless and disposable acquisition, but rather follows a demand for stronger, better, durable and permanent, and thus more ethically sound design. In some cases, this type of design is the middle ground that we have not dutifully covered in this essay of extremes; it is the work of reliable professionals like Antonio Citterio, Piero Lissoni or Patricia Urquiola, whose seats and couches can last a family a whole lifetime.
Chris Kabel, Seam Chair
(2009). The design exploits a
special, fully recyclable
polypropylene woven fabric.
Used by the military industry
for ballistic protection, this
material becomes rigid
when exposed to the right
temperature and pressure.
Chris Kabel, Seam Chair (2009). The design exploits a special, fully recyclable polypropylene woven fabric. Used by the military industry for ballistic protection, this material becomes rigid when exposed to the right temperature and pressure.
Is design relevant, now that we have so many bigger thoughts to think? Can a beautiful chair reach beyond its immediacy and be something more than just beautiful—and comfortable? Can a handsome space teach us something about life, and possibly inform our future actions in a positive way? The answer is yes, sometimes. When they are really meaningful. Any designer who is able to present us with a deep, transformative experience or with an enduring and comfortable element of familiarity and connection is adding something special to the world. It is up to us, the users, to reject anything less.
— Paola Antonelli
Critic and curator, MoMA
Hella Jongerius, Worker
Armchair, Vitra (2006). An exercise in assembly
between carpentry and
fashion, inspired by workers’
overalls and Rietveld’s
Utrecht Chair (1936).
Hella Jongerius, Worker Armchair, Vitra (2006). An exercise in assembly between carpentry and fashion, inspired by workers’ overalls and Rietveld’s Utrecht Chair (1936).

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