From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The Louis Ghost chair was broadcast on 27th November 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
When the Louis Ghost chair was released in 2002, it seemed the perfect symbol of a new millennium. It was jokey but posh and it reinvented the past. This was an era when everything old was new again, breathing new life into the old Mini and revelling in the raw wood and jaunty colourings of mid-century modern furnishings. Designer Philippe Starck went back much further, though, to the grand salons of Paris in the 18th century. The small armchair that was popular at Versailles had never really fallen out of fashion. Its carved and sometimes gilded wooden frame had an upholstered seat and back as well as padded armrests. It became a byword for French taste and so ubiquitous that anywhere with the least pretentions to style had them. The Ghost chair stole its familiar form and recast it in a single moulded piece of crystal-clear polycarbonate. It did the unthinkable and made a bourgeois cliché into a minimalist hero.
That wasn’t entirely a surprise. Starck made his name by subverting familiar things, transforming Paris cafes and New York hotels with his signature cleverness and whimsy and even basing a range of table lamps on guns, including a gold-plated Kalashnikov. His designs make you smile and they always make you think. With the Ghost chair, it was hard to tell if he was making a jokey one-liner or actually embracing the past, showing that a icon of French taste really was timeless. The fact that the Ghost chair fitted so well within so many diverse interiors just added to the conundrum.
It quickly became the darling of the interior design set and, to date, over two million of them have been sold, although there are countless rip-offs so it might easily be the most popular chair of the century thus far. The Ghost chair’s genius was in the use of polycarbonate so that the chair almost disappears, becoming the ghost at the feast. The use of polycarbonate in furniture has long been close to the French heart. Invented in the 1950s, it followed acrylics such as Plexiglass and Perspex which appeared in the ‘30s and which were used in aircraft for shatterproof windshield and cockpit canopies. Polycarbonate was more flexible but equally strong, perfect for electrical housings, bulletproof screens and, as seen lately, infection barriers. In 1980s France it was fashionable in everything from dining tables to candlesticks, so it could be argued that Starck was actually working within a tradition.
The Louis Ghost chair is, in some ways, the perfect design, being both classic and contemporary. Whether we see it as a joke or honouring the past hardly matters. Its refusal to fit just one category will guarantee its place as one of the notable chairs of the century, something to laugh at, maybe, but comfortable to sit in, too. And that, in the poker-faced world of chair design, is no small feat.