The chair, undisputed queen of Salone

For Milan Design Week 2021, three very different exhibitions shared a common focus on the piece of furniture that most symbolises design, and its combination of aesthetics and function.

“The design of a chair has always been considered the most demanding and interesting of challenges for a designer. The chair is the object which best represents Western civilisation (as on reflection, not all the peoples of the world use chairs in order to sit!).” So wrote our friend and colleague Marco Romanelli in a recent article in Domus. He added that "the chair is therefore a 'summarising' object, a perfect storyteller": we use it not just to sit on, but as a tool for meeting and telling stories. We don't just have single chairs, but also systems of two, four or eight chairs, arranged in different ways: in line, in a circle, around a table... Beyond typological and formal issues, the chair can be subject to very different interpretations, as happened during Milan Design Week 2021. There were three exhibitions in particular – “Cross Cultural Chairs” at BASE Milano, “Take Your Seat” at the “supersalone” and “The Dior Medallion Chair Exhibition” at Palazzo Citterio – that used furniture as a narrative tool.

Cross Cultural Chairs

“Cross Cultural Chairs aims to understand how people sit around the world, how chairs are produced in different parts of the planet and which relevance they have as an object in different cultures,” designer Matteo Guarnaccia tells us. In 2017 he travelled around the world, passing through the eight most populated countries: Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Indonesia, China, India, Russia and Nigeria. Personal and emotional components are a key part of the research. “The idea of the project is to create a chair for each country starting from my personal experience and not from bibliographic or scientific research. The relationship between a person and his or her perception of a country therefore becomes fundamental. The outcome depends on the fact that I am white, European and heterosexual,” says Guarnaccia.

Cross Cultural Chairs
Cross Cultural Chairs

It is through chairs that Guarnaccia succeeds in talking about various contemporary issues: cultural appropriation, mass production, the copy industry, stereotypes, power relations... “One of the conclusions I came to is that the chair could be the physical representation of modern colonisation, because many of the countries I've been to only adopted the chair with the arrival of Western ‘guests’. Almost all Asian countries did not use it until they were colonised. It is a purely Western object that is then modified according to local materials and knowledge.”

Take Your Seat

“The Compasso d'Oro ADI archive, with all the awards since 1954, is a heritage that tells the evolutionary path of our society. To represent it, we have chosen a single object, the chair, which is the one that best symbolises design,” explains Nina Bassoli, curator of the “Take Your Seat” exhibition.

“By examining the chair from the point of view of human behaviour, we are able to talk about different topics. In the exhibition we can see how design has been able to respond to crises and changes in lifestyles. Every object is always a product of its time but we continue to use it many years later, possibly in a different way,” says Bassoli. “For example, in the section dedicated to work we find office chairs but also chaise longues – typically designed for idleness. This is because our way of working has changed and lately we are doing it more and more from home, sitting on the armchair or the sofa.”

Take Your Seat

The title of the exhibition is accompanied by a representative photo by Uliano Lucas, depicting a 1968 sit-in in Milan. “To sit means to take a position in the world, making an action that is also political and changes the existing relations between public and private. The large crowd portrayed by Lucas demonstrates the possibility of exercising power through the action of sitting. The chair is an object that is both simple and powerful”.

The Dior Medallion Chair Exhibition

Slender, with an oval back and topped with a Fontanges bow, the Medallion Chair is a symbol of the Louis XVI style. In the 1940s, it was chosen by fashion guru Christian Dior as the iconic piece of furniture for the brand's headquarters in the historic location of 30 avenue Montagne in Paris and to welcome visitors to his fashion shows. The same oval also featured on product packaging and in communications - and still stands today.

For "The Dior Medallion Chair Exhibition", 17 internationally renowned designers or artists have transformed, deformed, decomposed and reassembled the classic chair, creating as many sculptural and experimental pieces of furniture. In some cases, the shape of the medallion is the only remaining component of the model (in the case of Nendo), at other times the chairs are linked together to become interconnecting elements (as Sam Baron has done), or reupholstered using fabrics and colours from the other side of the world (see India Mahdavi's chairs). Dior's immense iconographic heritage is (almost) always the starting point for design reinterpretations, which nevertheless maintain their freedom and contemporaneity.

The brand directed by Maria Grazia Chiuri is thus telling its story through a symbolic object in an exclusive setting (Palazzo Citterio, in Milan, is open for the first time for a public event) during one of the world' s most important industry events.

The Medallion Chair in a vintage photo.
The Medallion Chair in a vintage photo.

A chair can be used to represent ourselves, perhaps discovering hidden aspects of our own personality; it can be a tool for travelling and getting to know the world; it can serve as a starting point for telling the story of an entire country and its very personal journey towards contemporaneity.

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