Obsessed by the challenge of designing a chair to be built in a factory like a Model T Ford car, Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) concentrated on two goals as head of the Bauhaus carpentry workshop. One was to develop furniture from the same tubular steel as the Adler bicycle which he rode around Dessau. The other was to design a cantilever chair, or one sup-
ported by a single base. His experiments produced the angular B3 chair, which he nicknamed the â€˜Wassilyâ€™ after his colleague tutor Wassily Kandinsky. Unfortunately for Breuer, the Dutch architect Mart Stam (1899-1986) completed the first cantilever chair before him by making the 1926 Model No. S33 from gas pipes.
Charles and Ray Eames (1907-1978 and 1912-1988) designed furniture to adapt to the owners’ changing needs. A practical way of achieving this was to create a series of components – such as the seats, legs and bases of chairs – for easy assembly and disassembly. Typical were the moulded fibreglass seats and metal rod bases of interchangeable chairs such as the DAR (Dining Armchair Rod) and LAR (Lounge Armchair Rod), developed for the 1948 Low Cost Furniture Design
Competition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Chrysler, the car maker, developed welded shock mounts to attach the fibreglass and, later, wire mesh seats to different bases, including Eiffel Tower-shaped legs and rockers for the RAR chairs given to Herman Miller employees when they had children. When the Eames went to the beach, they often sat on the sand in the fibreglass ‘bucket’ seats.
On a visit to England to research the Arts and Crafts Movement in 1902, Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) befriended the Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and was impressed by the bold, geometric style of his furniture. Mackintosh’s influence is readily apparent in the fine structure and clean lines of this beech chair that Hoffmann designed for
the Cabaret Fledermaus in Vienna. Hoffmann designed every element of the cabaret which he conceived as “a total work of art”. A critic of the time described it as being: “wonderful – the proportions, the light atmosphere, cheerful flowing lines, elegant light fixtures, comfortable chairs of new shape and, finally, the whole tasteful ensemble. Genuine Hoffmann.”
“If you look at these chairs, you will see that they are mainly made of air, just like light sculptures,” observed their designer Harry Bertoia (1915-1978). “Space goes clean through them.” Bertoia had started to develop light, airy furniture from wire as a student at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan during the late 1930s. After graduating, Bertoia taught at Cranbrook
and then moved to Venice, California, where he developed plywood furniture for the Evans Product Company, often in collaboration with the designers Charles and Ray Eames. When Bertoia set up his own studio in Pennsylvania in 1950, he returned to wire furniture and developed the elegant Diamond Chair for Knoll International.
When Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) won the commission to design the Paimio Sanatorium in the late 1920s, he approached the project as if he was a patient. No detail escaped him: from the meticulously planned lay-out of the building and canary yellow paint on the stairs with which he hoped to cheer up the patients,
to the robust, comfortable furniture made from Finnish birch. Aalto experimented with plywood for three years to develop a chair which would ease the breathing of tuberculosis patients and succeeded in producing the first pliant chair to be built without a rigid framework.
There can be few schools, factories and village halls in the UK which do not contain at least one Polyprop chair designed by Robin Day (1915-) for Hille International in the early 1960s. Day himself only realised how ubiquitous the Polyprop had become when he spotted the polypropylene seat shells in a makeshift canoe in Botswana. Hille’s objective was to de-
velop a cheaper version of the Eames’ fibreglass chairs for Herman Miller. Day determined to use the new technology of injection-moulding polypropylene to create a single form for the seat shell. The technology – and Day’s design – was so efficient that Hille could manufacture over 4,000 seat shells each week.
At a time when the monochrome palette of furniture designers such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland and Josef Hoffmann in Austria was considered to be startlingly innovative, the introduction of the primary coloured Red/Blue Chair in 1921 by the Dutch architect Gerrit Thomas Rietveld (1888-1964) caused a sensation. Conceived as an abstract composition of surfaces and lines in space,
this chair is Rietveldâ€™s three-dimensional vision of the minimalist paintings of Piet Mondrian, a fellow member of the De Stijl movement. Rietveld intended the chair for mass-production and it is made from standard lengths of wood, which require little skill to construct. Originally finished in natural wood, it was painted in thenradical bright by Rietveld in 1921.
This â€˜super-lightweightâ€™ chair designed by the architect, writer, artist and design theorist Gio Ponti (1891-1979) was inspired by the traditional rustic Italian chairs made by artisans in the fishing villages around Chiavari in Liguria. Determined to design a light, compact, inexpensive chair, Ponti reduced the weight to 1.7kg by using triangular-shaped legs and struts rather
than the usual round ones. Finely balanced as well as light, the Superleggera 699 can be lifted up with just one finger. One publicity photograph of the chair featured a young boy balancing one of the legs on his finger. Another featured a woman lifting it up using a single hook. It has been manufactured by Cassina since 1957.
Originally an artist, Joe Colombo (19301971) opened a design studio in Milan in 1962 to apply the bold, curvaceous forms â€“ and hatred of sharp corners and straight lines â€“ that had characterised his art to product design. He also strove to apply new technologies to develop new types of furniture. Obsessed by making a chair from a single piece of material, Colombo
first tried to develop the Universale stacking chair in aluminium, but then experimented with ABS plastic. Light, portable and easy to clean, the Universale is also adjustable as its legs can be unscrewed and replaced with longer ones. Colombo strove for two years to perfect it for massproduction.
Sexy, sleek and a technical first – as the first cantilevered chair to be made from a single piece of plastic – the Panton Chair epitomises the optimism of the 1960s. Inspired by the sight of a pile of plastic buckets stacked neatly on top of each other, Verner Panton (1926-1998) had struggled with ways of constructing a plastic canti-
levered chair since the 1950s. When the Panton Chair was finally unveiled in the Danish design journal Mobilia in August 1967, it caused a sensation. Equally memorable was its appearance as a prop in a 1970 issue of Nova, the British fashion magazine, in a fashion shoot entitled “How to undress in front of your husband”.