Before the digital revolution changed everything, it used to be possible to tell the story of design through a sequence of chairs. They could take you from the start of mass production, when the Thonet family set up their first factory in the beech forests on the edge of the Austro-Hungarian empire, to the most recent experiments in blow-moulded plastic – originally developed for making components for car interiors and by Jasper Morrison for his Air-Chair. Between the two, every movement in architecture and design has left its mark. You might not want to sit in it but Gerrit Rietveld’s Red Blue chair summed up the De Stijl movement in the early 20th century as effectively as a painting by Piet Mondrian, and you can own a version for a lot less.
At the Bauhaus school in Germany, Marcel Breuer saw the creative possibilities of tubular steel. The story goes that, while cycling, he looked down at his handlebars and realised that the same material could be used for furniture. The result was the Wassily armchair, designed for his friend, the painter Wassily Kandinsky, who was also teaching at the school.
Charles and Ray Eames’ Lounge chair serves to define modern splendour. It was designed over a long period in the 1950s through a process of refining timber moulding techniques and developing a rubber mounting that gave the chair enough yield to make it comfortable. But while a car or a refrigerator from the same moment has turned into a period piece, the Eames’ work looks as if it still belongs to the present. Robin Day was responsible for the cheap, tough and stylish Polyprop chair that sums up everything that was optimistic about Britain in the 1960s.
Sceptics claim that the world has no need for yet another designer to design yet another chair. There are, of course, countless numbers of four-legged chairs but there are almost as many three-legged chairs, cantilevered ones, and chairs on wheels. There are chairs made of wood, steel, aluminium, cardboard, glass and plastic in every permutation. There are chairs for dental surgeries, and for studies, for dining rooms and schoolrooms. There are chairs designed to be comfortable, and chairs designed to look comfortable. There are chairs to sit in, and chairs to hang your jacket on. There are chairs that sell at auction for the price of a major work of art, and there are disposable chairs.
And yet even if design is no longer only about physical objects, designers go on creating chairs, sometimes going to extreme lengths. The Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata, for example, once wrapped a classic wooden café chair in wire and then set fire to it, leaving behind just the metal. He also made a chair out of clear acrylic slabs, into which he dropped artificial roses while they were setting. The chair was sold at Christie’s for £46,000 in 1997.
Unlike almost any other piece of domestic equipment, you don’t just buy chairs, you collect them. Peter Smithson, one of the more sophisticated British architects of the 1960s, who designed the suave Economist building on St James’s Street, believed it was because they looked cute. “It is probable that we see them as domestic pets – they have legs, feet, arms, and backs,” he wrote. “They are symmetrical in one direction, like animals, or like ourselves. The act of marking territory starts with our clothes, with our style, with our gestures and postures when we wear them. With a chair we extend our sense of territory beyond our skin.”
It’s not hard to see the appeal of a chair to a designer: they make them famous and if they are good, they don’t date. Chairs last for so much longer than mobile phones or laptops or washing machines. And not just physically; the idea behind a chair stays relevant too. The first modern chair, the Thonet café chair, known simply as the number 14, has been in continuous production for a century and a half and has been made in its millions.
If chairs have become collectors’ pieces, they have also become the subject of acrimonious arguments and court cases about what is genuine, and what is not – a difficult concept when applied to objects that were intended to be mass-produced. English model Christine Keeler made Arne Jacobsen’s curvaceous plywood Ant chair famous when she was photographed sitting naked on one in 1963. Except that it was a fake. Jacobsen’s original version doesn’t have a slot in the back.
Alvar Aalto, the architect who was enough of a national hero in Finland to appear on a banknote, designed a simple stool for Artek with bent plywood legs. Ikea does a version that is far cheaper but put the two versions together and you immediately know it is worth paying for the genuine article.
Designers can’t help themselves but go on designing chairs, even if they no longer define the landscape of design. For the rest of us, we are going to go on sitting in them, and using them to say something about the look of our homes, and about who we think we are.
Deyan Sudjic is director of the Design Museum in London