This week’s Design File is about Mies van der Rohe’s classic Barcelona chair.
I have a total thing about chairs and did a piece a few years back for By Design about my lust for them (which is in Podcasts: Collecting Chairs). Fast forward to today and I’m still a lover of chairs. As I age, though, I become more hung-up on comfort.
Perhaps the most extreme example of early twentieth century discomfort is the chair designed by the De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld in 1917. His Red Blue chair is hard and flat but wow, the colour and the way the planes seem to float free of the frame. Placed on the dark floor of his Schroeder House of 1924, it would have looked extraordinary. Comfort level: 0% Style: 100%
Another favourite is the Grand Confort chair by Le Corbusier (or, to be strictly accurate, Charlotte Perriand, who designed all the furniture that came out of LC’s atelier). It’s a wonderfully simple idea – a tubular steel cubic frame into which boxy leather-covered cushions are placed. It’s mass-production heaven, so easy to replicate, which is why you see so many cheap copies. And it’s comfy, at least for the first few minutes, until you notice that the flat seat slopes forward with your weight and you start slipping forward towards the floor. The flat back cushion gives little support so you really need a squishy cushion to fit in the gaps and give you some lumbar support. So the chair looks great but doesn’t perform. But does that make me like it less? Absolutely not, because I am very forgiving when it comes to early Modernism. This is pioneering stuff and designers were experimenting, coming up with new shapes and forms that simply hadn’t been seen before.
Here are three chairs with which I have a particular affinity:
1: Arts & Crafts chair
This chair is one of my favourite possessions. I think it’s by the Arts and Crafts designer Ernest Gimson because it follows the precise measurements of the same chair in Gimson’s sketchbook (which is in the RIBA collection).
It would appear to be made around the 1890s. I picked it up in a market in London, thinking it looked familiar. Whether it’s a Gimson or not, it is a lovely, honest piece of furniture. You can see precisely how it’s made (the score marks are still visible where the pieces fit together) and the grain in the ash wood and waxed finish mean that you cannot sit in it without running your hands along its arms. It’s not a lounging chair but a serious, upright chair. The seat is at a good height, too, enabling perching rather than a full-on commitment to sitting. When my partner counselled clients from his office at home, he chose to sit in this chair – he felt empowered by its simplicity.
2: Pat Conley II chair
I sold this chair before I emigrated to Australia and wish I hadn’t. Designed by Philippe Starck in 1985, it’s an example of a chair that looks supremely impractical and yet is oddly comfortable. Made from sheet steel, that sloping rear seat gave everyone the willies. Just as a child thinks he’ll slip through an open-tread staircase, everyone who sat on this thought they would slip down the back of this chair and get wedged in the framing. The metal was chilly on a winter’s morning but it was a lovely piece, a touch of the Cyberman but with better legs. I regret selling it (especially when I see what they fetch these days; I just breathe in and try to think non-materialistic thoughts).
3: Costes chair
Another Philippe Starck chair, the Costes chair appeared first as a dining chair in 1984 with three legs to reduce the tripping hazard of four legs in a busy cafe environment. The Cafe Costes was a marvellous cafe close to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. With its sweeping staircase, acid pastels and clear graphics, it felt so fresh, especially among the traditional large cafes of Paris. The men’s lavatories were challenging, the first of that type with running water on the walls and oddly angled glass receptacles so you were not quite sure which was a basin and which a urinal (and I’m pretty sure many got it the wrong way round).
The chair was my desk chair when I worked at Designers Guild. The rounded back was supportive, the leather seat pad comfortable for a whole day’s sitting, and I just loved the look of it. The only slight drawback was the stability. You had to remember it lacked a fourth leg. Several times I was on the telephone and leaned back without thinking, promptly disappearing under the table. One might say it was a Buddhist chair in that it encouraged mindfulness.
A chair is a like a person. Its legs and arms give it personality. Just as we all have favourite people in our lives, don’t we also have favourite chairs?
So what’s yours?