Please Be Seated

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

In a portion of the exhibit devoted to materials, you'll find Gerald Summers's striking armchair from 1933. Built from a single piece of plywood, parallel cuts separate the legs from the seat and arms, the elements having been bent in opposite directions to create a template of fluid shapes. Summers intended the chair to be used in the tropics, where joinery and upholstery would have been plagued by humidity and rot. Unfortunately fewer than 150 chairs were made before production was ceased in 1940 owing to wartime rationing of building materials.

Not unlike Summers, but following a different technique, is Alvar Aalto's Paimio armchair from 1930. Aalto, whose style combines elegant simplicity with sensitivity to wood, was praised for the careful study of mechanical and mass-production methods. The Paimio seat and back are made from a single piece of laminated wood, bent and rolled (Aalto's success was creating a 90-degree bend that could withstand compression), supported by looped frames on either side, which become both armrest and leg.

Other pieces of note in the exhibit are a quirky, late-nineteenth-century wheelchair (much better looking than many of today's dreadful designs); a pair of theater chairs (circa 1901) from the Humbert de Romans Concert Hall in Paris by French architect Hector Guimard; and American designer Cevedra B. Sheldon's extraordinary adjustable folding chair from 1876 -- in iron frame, wood, cane, upholstery, and oilcloth.

August Thonet's 1888 reclining couch
August Thonet's 1888 reclining couch
Gerald Summers's 1933 armchair
Gerald Summers's 1933 armchair

As I left the building, I overheard a young couple enthusiastically talking about the possibility of purchasing some of the pieces. Indeed several of the chairs in the show are available (as replicas, of course) through leading furniture companies. You can find some of the most important at www.themagazine.info.

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