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 Tolix chair was broadcast on the 12th February 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
The French have a particular liking for unadorned metal, like the zinc-topped counters in cafes, and the unembellished iron of the Eiffel Tower. They’ve also been good at producing metal furniture, like a particular chair often referred to as the Tolix chair. Its distinctive look has meant it’s been copied so much that the market has now become saturated in them. Does this diminish our appreciation of its uniqueness or does it in fact highlight just what a great design it is?
The Tolix chair, properly known as Chair A , looks as good in a dining room as it does in the garden. It was designed by Xavier Pauchard in 1925, his first foray into the mass market, and intended to become the essential café chair, strong enough to put up with rain, shine and careless customers.
Pauchard’s family had a roofing company in the Burgundy region, a few hours south of Paris, and used galvanised metal sheets. Young Xavier was interested in creating furniture from it, understanding that it would make it both practical and hardwearing. The original galvanising method was to dip metal in a molten bath of zinc, rendering the whole thing entirely weatherproof, even if chipped. When the First World War ended, Pauchard worked on a prototype chair, using metal snippers to cut up a sheet of galvanised steel, rolling the metal to form sturdy legs and gradually crafting a chair that looked a little like an updated version of that other great staple of the café interior, the bentwood chair, designed some seventy years earlier. By 1927, he had honed the design and began to sell it through his new company, which he called Tolix. Others were working on metal chairs elsewhere, like Marcel Breuer in Germany, with his cantilevered, tubular steel chair. Metal was seen as hygienic and industrial and therefore modern and the Tolix chair was intended for everywhere from cafes to hospitals. The initial response was muted. But in 1935, along with an armchair variant, it was used on the luxurious new transatlantic liner, the Normandie, and became hugely popular. Two years later, it was the official chair of the Paris World Fair. Pauchard also added a stylish table to his range, the Kub, which had an inverted pyramid pedestal that joyfully captured the Art Deco spirit of the time.
When Pauchard died in 1948, the company was taken over by his sons, Andre and Jean, and then divided into two businesses, one making steel tanks, the other continuing to produce the Tolix range. Jean Pauchard refined the shape of his father’s design and added an armchair version, naming it the A56 after the year it was released. While this has become the chair we perhaps know best today, it’s continued to evolve, subtly tweaked from time to time, making it taller, wider, more colourful and even available in perforated steel. And yet still it captures a moment of French design, a chair that echoes both the functionality and cleverness of the Citroen 2CV. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but in the design world it’s usually a way of making easy money. Cheap and often clumsily made copies shouldn’t dent the reputation of a design that aimed itself to be cheap and ubiquitous. The top-quality original is still made in France, much of it handmade. It remains, in fact, a classic that just keeps on going, almost despite its success.