Please Be Seated

When artists design chairs, comfort isn't always a high priority

The chair figured as a central allegory in Plato's legendary Theory of Forms. Marcel Proust once observed there was something unique about this piece of furniture that elicited people's temperament. In Artificial Paradises, French poet Charles Baudelaire equated a chair's form to that of a seductive woman. Finnish poet Bo Carpelan declared there is "nothing better than a fine armchair to brood over one's misery."

Why the fascination? Perhaps it's our cultural perception of the chair -- as expressive symbol -- that's so captivating. While Robin Day's ubiquitous Polyprop chair (1962) puts us in mind of boring waits at the doctor's office, Harry Bertoia's wire-mesh Diamond Chair (1952) can transport us to a sunny pool deck. You can feel "butt-kissed" by a Studio 65's Marilyn sofa (1971) or uneasily regal on the metallic surface of Shiro Kuramata's How High the Moon chair.

There are as many chairs as there are designers. Frank Lloyd Wright considered them a challenge, whereas Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh regarded them as archetypes. The rigid seat and back of Gerrit Rietveld's radical Red Blue Chair (1917) may "bring focus to our senses," as critic Paul Overy asserts, but it's used mainly as a sculptural model. In fact a large part of chair design is not so much about seating comfortably as it is a vehicle for aesthetic invention. No influential designer today would forgo the opportunity to make a sitting statement.

Carlo Bugatti's 1890 stool
Carlo Bugatti's 1890 stool
Peter Behrens's 1902 chair
Peter Behrens's 1902 chair

Chairs support our weight, respond to our body, and present (in their outward appearance) surprising expressive possibilities. Seating addresses a wide range of social and practical functions. An equivalent of the column in architecture, or the string quartet in music composition, the chair was the Twentieth Century's most basic unit for design experimentation and development, at least as regards the human environment.

The exhibition "Evolution/Revolution: A Century of Modern Seating" at the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum in Miami Beach is a great opportunity to see some of the most outstanding pieces from 1849 to 1946. Divided into didactic sections such as "selling design," "politics and economics," "fairs and expositions," "designers," "patents," and so on, the show examines not only the evolution of seating but also its various contexts -- social, historic, technological.

Under the theme "selling design," we see the famous 1888 reclining couch attributed to Austrian designer August Thonet. Made with beech and woven cane, the piece's suave and undulating form is the result of a technological innovation (bending wood by soaking it in boiling glue) that Thonet had begun testing in 1836. The couch is a forerunner of Modernism icons such as Le Corbusier's 1928 chaise lounge and Mies van der Rohe's eponymous reclining divan from 1931. One of Europe's most important furniture makers, the Thonet firm also had an impact on the avant-garde art establishment.

Stop by Carlo Bugatti's 1890 stool, crafted from walnut, ebony, pewter, copper, and parchment. With its capriciously ornate forms, the piece, "designed to accommodate a sitter playing guitar," looks like something from the set of Rudolph Valentino's Son of the Sheik, though Bugatti was one of the first Italian designers to break from the flamboyant fin-de-sicle Baroque and Rococo. Bugatti (not to be confused with his grandson Ettore, designer and manufacturer of superb racing cars) won international acclaim for his exotic furnishings and interior designs, drawn from Islamic and Japanese sources. Bugatti's stool goes well with the show's suggested topic of "exoticism," as does Sir Edwin L. Lutyens's armchair from 1931, made in the so-called Delhi order.

Enjoy Peter Behrens's renowned 1902 chair, which the architect designed for the dining room of his Darmstadt home (the piece's shape reminded me of a Greek amphora). A period photo showing Behrens's dining room gives us a hint of the architect's program of "high standard Kulturmilieu," as his contemporaries perceived it. It consisted of "staging" environments whereby ornament, function, and beauty become one. Behrens's house was part of a movement that included residences designed by Henry van de Velde and Victor Orta in Belgium.

As modish as it looks, Frank Lloyd Wright's 1937 armchair is not as ergonomic as the 1994 popular SoHo chair by Roberto Lucci and Paolo Orlandini (not in the show). More streamlined than his earlier designs, this tubular metal frame (with upholstered seat and back) had points in common with Behrens's dining chair -- if only in its concept of being part of a "total environment." Wright's intentions (more utilitarian than those of the German architect) were akin to a "capitalist paternalism" in vogue during the early period of American Industrialism. His S.C. Johnson & Son Co. administration building, like his earlier Larkin building, was referred to at the time as a "cathedral of work."

I truly enjoyed a 1903 piece by Charles Rohlfs, one of America's most creative craftsmen working in the Arts and Crafts movement. Upholstered in sumptuous leather and framed with thick wood, this divan comes with adjustable book holder and small drawers on each side (for smoking accessories). Rohlfs's armchair is a hedonistic display of craftsmanship and gravitas.

My favorite section at "Evolution/Revolution" was a room devoted to Dutch architect Michel de Klerk's outstanding pieces made with mahogany, reddish velvet upholstery, leather, and brass. One of the founding architects of the Amsterdam School (and perhaps its most talented member), de Klerk's unique style mixed expressionistic soberness with a feel for the Dutch's vernacular past. His armchair evokes a kind of dramatic snow sleigh with its hand rests made into ashtrays and carved in the shape of a frog's gaping mouth.

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