From straw rocking chairs to flying carpets: the evolution of outdoor furniture

From the 1930s to the 1970s, a journey through the projects of designers for outdoor living: light, colorful and transportable furniture that become toys. From Domus Archive.

Dal dondolo in vimini al tappeto volante: evoluzione dell’arredo outdoor

Today it is summed up in the term “outdoor furniture”, in the Thirties it was more simply called “garden and terrace furniture”. Whatever its definition, Domus has constantly updated its readers on the arrangement of outdoor spaces, “the most beloved rooms during summer months”.

Gardens and terraces are “among the most cordial discoveries of modern architecture,” and as spaces to be lived in, they require special furniture that is easy to move, light and durable. At the end of the 1930s, with a colorful sequence of hand drawings, Domus illustrates a collection of furniture made of iron rods: chairs, rocking chairs and sofas with fabric cushions, modern solutions alternating with “pieces that were in fashion in the late nineteenth century.” But how do we make the pieces more modern? By painting them in white or green, the colors most in vogue at the time. (Domus 125, May 1938)

From the 1940s onwards, “materials and colors take away the weight of furniture”: straw, raffia and bamboo are used extensively for sofas, tables and rockers. The new furnishings required functionality and simplicity of form: “everything must become clear, crystal clear, without jaggedness or weight,” we read in the issue of August 1943, “without neglecting the search for harmonious and innovative forms. The photographs illustrate bentwood seats, straw armchairs that slide on wheels and small tables that can be carried away with one hand, like baskets: “thus lightened and refreshed, the piece of furniture often becomes a large toy” (Domus 188, August 1943).

Across the suggestions, there are also some proposals taken from the pages of foreign magazines, such as House and Garden: equipment for the sea and outdoor living, sun loungers, wicker sunbeds and “sailing sledges” for competing on the beaches. (Domus 163, July 1941).

A collection of garden and terrace furniture published on Domus 125, May 1938.
A collection of garden and terrace furniture published on Domus 125, May 1938.
Thus lightened and refreshed, the piece of furniture often becomes a large toy

Since the 1950s, the sceptre of outdoor furniture has been in the hands of Vittorio Bonacina: Domus constantly publishes the refined solutions in cane and bamboo of the craftsman from Lurago d’Elba, Italy, who in 1951 presents to the public what will be remembered in history as the “first chair without legs”, and an icon of Italian design: the Margherita wicker armchair, designed by Franco Albini. Bonacina’s extensive catalog also includes furniture in wicker and Indian cane designed by Franca Helg (Domus 358, September 1959), and a ‘round’ wicker rocking chair with a sunroof, designed by Franco Bettonica. (Domus 429, August 1965)

The extensive proposals in rushes from the catalog of Vittorio Bonacina, who in the 1950s presented the Margherita armchair, designed by Franco Albini. From Domus 405, August 1963
The extensive proposals in rushes from the catalog of Vittorio Bonacina, who in the 1950s presented the Margherita armchair, designed by Franco Albini. From Domus 405, August 1963

Interesting proposals also came from all over the world, such as those of the Japanese painter and designer Geniciro Inokuma, who in 1955 designed deckchairs in metal mesh and leather, a hammock in pneumatic fabric and a tea table in plywood (Domus 308, July 1955), while from Denmark the elegant solutions proposed by Mary Bloch stand out, with tables and chairs in bamboo and beautiful mobile cabins to shelter from the wind on the beaches of the North. The base is made of wicker and the walls of canvas, while two small windows and a frontal visor provide a view of the panorama. (Domus 373, December 1960)

The American company Mc Guyre, on the other hand, works on an innovative joint, solid and elastic: the elements of the folding armchairs in oak wood are held together by leather ligaments, knotted wet around the Philippine rattan, “a jungle liana, full hard and flexible.” (Domus 1965, 429)

The wicker swing chair by Franco Bettonica for Bonacina, with the movable sunshade roof, published in Domus 439, August 1965
The wicker swing chair by Franco Bettonica for Bonacina, with the movable sunshade roof, published in Domus 439, August 1965

In Italy, Roberto Mango’s formal experiments reach original results, in the wake of the American lesson, which has been able to refine practical, modular and stackable mass production. Mango designs practical outdoor chairs, transforming the nature of the chair, which becomes a cone resting on a metal support and thus transforms itself from a piece of furniture to “a fantastic and ephemeral object”, “a living part of lifestyle” (Domus 285, August 1954 ). A further development of the project is the “umbrella armchair”, made of a canvas cone and wooden slats: it opens, closes and is carried under the arm. (Domus 296, July 1954).

The outdoor furniture from the Locus Solus collection, designed by Gae Aulenti for Poltronova, in a scene from the 1969 film La Piscine, with Alain Delon.
The outdoor furniture from the Locus Solus collection, designed by Gae Aulenti for Poltronova, in a scene from the 1969 film La Piscine, with Alain Delon

In August 1965, the garden furniture designed by Gae Aulenti made its first appearance, in curved and fire-painted steel tube, with removable upholstery: dining table, chairs, armchair and footstool, provided in the lively combinations, plum and yellow, hazelnut and white. They will become the pieces of the famous “Locus Solus” collection for Poltronova, orange and lemon yellow: in 1969, Alain Delon also sat on the chair of the Gae, in the film La Piscine, by Jacques Deray.

The proposals for life in the open air are increasingly agile and light, up to the French provocations of the Seventies. The Flying Carpet by Pierre Paulin, made of padded elements connected by hinges “when it does not fly it is a bed, also comfortable for resting after picnics”; after use, it rolls up in a Citroen Mehari, leaving for Eze-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera. The piece of furniture leaves the garden, and sets off for the beach. (Domus 490, September 1970).

The flying carpet by Pierre Cardin, when it does not fly, is a bed, also comfortable for resting after picnics

Opening image: outdoor armchair by Gae Aulenti for Poltronova, published on Domus 429, 1963. Photo Muzii

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