29 May 2024, 16:54
By Charlotte and Peter Fiells Jan 31, 2014

Masterpieces of modern chair design

Throughout the history of design, designers have exploited cutting-edge materials and technologies to create groundbreaking solutions, and this has been no more true than in the realm of seating design. From the steam-bending of solid wood, to the compound moulding of plywood, to the injection-moulding of thermoplastics, each material innovation and new production technique widens the designer’s toolbox and enables him or her to create previously undreamt of seating solutions. Here, Charlotte and Peter Fiells present 10 landmark chairs, created by arguably the greatest maestros of modern seating design …

1. Model No.9 armchair manufactured by Gebrüder Thonet, c1904
Although the name of this chair’s designer has been lost in the dusty mists of time, it was one of the most successful seating models to have been manufactured by Gebrüder Thonet, that great Viennese pioneer of large-scale industrial furniture production.

Comprising only seven structural elements, the Model No.9 was certainly one of the most forward-looking chairs manufactured by Thonet, with its elemental simplification of construction. Indeed, during the 1920s it was deemed a proto-modern masterpiece, and Le Corbusier, believing that it possessed “nobility”, included it in many of his interior design installations, including the one for his Modernist masterpiece, the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau of 1925.

2. Side chair designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, 1940
This elegant and extremely rare side chair was one of a series of prize-winning seating designs created by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for MoMA’s 1940 Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition.

This chair – and the others in the series – employed for the first time ever single-form compound-moulded plywood seat shells, which were then covered with thin latex padding, thereby providing continuous contact and support without the need for any internal springing. Amongst the most important furniture designs of the 20th century, these revolutionary lightweight yet comfortable chairs heralded a totally new direction in Modern chair design.

3. DAW (Dining Armchair Wood), designed by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller, 1948-50
This armchair is from Charles and Ray Eames’ legendary Plastic Shell Group, which was without doubt the most revolutionary seating programme of all time. The Eameses developed their Plastic Shell Group in collaboration with Herman Miller, Zenith Plastics, and the engineering department of the University of California, Los Angeles. This project was based on the concept of a universal, single-form seat shell – with arms and without – that could be used with a variety of interchangeable bases to provide numerous variations.

Introduced by Herman Miller in 1950, this seating group – including the DAW – is amongst the most influential in the history of furniture, not only because it was the very first to be mass produced in plastic, but also because it introduced the concept of an integrated seating system.

4. Model No.50 task chair, designed by Hans Wegner for Johannes Hansen, 1955
One of the greatest chair designers of all time, Hans Wegner was exceptionally adept at producing seating designs that had an inherent ‘rightness’ – a sublime combination of materials, functionality and aesthetics.

Although he designed numerous landmark chairs during his long and prolific career, from the fan-backed Peacock chair to the masculine upholstered Ox chair, the Model no.50 was interestingly his only foray into the world of task seating – but what a tour-de-force of seating design it was, with its continuous yoke-shaped back-and-arm rail subtly contoured to provide elegant ergonomic comfort.

5. Aluminum Group lounge chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller, 1958
This example of an Aluminum Group lounge chair is a rare and early pre-production model with a sling seat made from a textile designed by Alexander Girard. Later mass-produced variants utilised instead a padded and ribbed sling often made of naugahyde (vinyl).

The Aluminum Group was Charles and Ray Eames’ response to the lack of availability of high-quality outdoor furniture, and as such was sometimes referred to as the Indoor Outdoor Group, or Leisure Line. This influential range of seating took three years to develop and incorporated an innovative way of invisibly attaching the sling seat to the frame. Ironically, although intended for outside use, it was subsequently almost exclusively used in office environments.

“Charles and Ray Eames’ legendary Plastic Shell Group was, without doubt, the most revolutionary seating programme of all time”

6. Panton chair designed by Verner Panton for Vitra, 1959-60
The immortal Panton chair, so beloved by the design cognoscenti, was the first-ever single-material, single-piece injection-moulded plastic chair. A seemingly simple design, it was in fact devilishly hard to produce. It took years to develop and a huge financial commitment from its manufacturer, Vitra, to overcome the enormous technological challenges of the plastic-moulding process that eventually allowed for its full-scale production.

After initially using rigid cold-pressed GRP (glass-reinforced polyester) in 1967 and then a year later moulded Baydur (polyurethane hard foam), in 1971 the design was modified to include strengthening ribs under its seat, which enabled it to be injection-moulded in Luran S – BASF’s acrylonitrile-styreneacrylate (ASA), which was the ideal material for the chair’s mass production. In fact, this change of polymer can be seen to have heralded the advent of the one-shot monobloc plastic chair, now seen everywhere from Monterey to Mozambique.

7. Polypropylene chair designed by Robin Day for Hille, 1962-63
The Polypropylene chair marked a landmark not only in seating design, but also in the use of modern plastics to create truly universal and democratic products. In 1962, Robin Day designed his ubiquitous plastic stacking chair, which went on to become the best-selling institutional/school chair of all time, with around 14 million having so far been sold worldwide.

Extraordinarily tough, yet lightweight and easy to transport, the Polypropylene armchair was designed five years after the initial side chair and was more suited to domestic interiors. The upholstered version of the armchair was also widely used for airport beam seating. A veritable classic of British design, the Polyprop (as it is commonly called) was the first mass-produced chair to incorporate a single-form injection-moulded polypropylene seat shell and, like the Eameses’ earlier Plastic Shell Group, incorporated a universal seat shell that could be used in conjunction with a wide variety of interchangeable bases that allowed it to be functionally adapted to all kinds of different uses.

8. Model No.582 Ribbon chair, designed by Pierre Paulin for Artifort, 1965
Our personal favourite chair of all time, being certainly one of the most comfortable seating solutions ever created, the Ribbon chair is a loop of upholstered foam that gently cradles the body and provides superlative ergonomic support. Highly sculptural, the Ribbon chair is a very bold aesthetic statement, especially when upholstered, as shown here, in psychedelic stretch-jersey fabric specially designed by Jack Lenor Larsen.

Despite its blatant space-age connotations, this remarkable chair has an enduring appeal thanks to its seductive and inviting organic form. Created by the sublimely talented French designer Pierre Paulin, it must be considered the absolute masterwork of his illustrious design career.

9. Supernatural chair, designed by Ross Lovegrove for Moroso, 2005-06
Inspired by the natural world, the Supernatural chair is a superb example of organic essentialist design, with its beautiful single-piece, single-material construction being informed by cellular forms found in nature.

Ross Lovegrove’s goal is to create “fat-free” designs that intelligently employ materials in a thoughtful and relevant way. His stackable indoor/outdoor Supernatural chair was the result of his desire to lighten the mass of a chair’s structure to produce a model weighing less than 2.5kg.

The form of the chair originated from the flow patterns of the polymer when it cools in the mould, resulting in a sufficiently rigid process-driven structure as well as a highly pleasing sensual organicism, with the shadows cast by its exquisitely perforated back reminding one of light filtering through leaves.

10. Tototo chair, designed by Hannes Wettstein for Max Design, 2007
Hannes Wettstein was one of the most influential Swiss designers of his generation, who approached the design process from a highly pragmatic viewpoint. As such, his designs not only functioned well, but also had an engaging stripped-down quality that resulted from his purging of any extraneous and superfluous detailing.

His Tototo chair was the perfect expression of this, with its stackable and highly rational single-material, single-form design that is perfectly suited for indoor or outdoor applications, thanks to its use of highly durable and fully-recyclable polypropylene. This essentialist design, with its distinctive slanting armrests, eloquently demonstrates that it is quite possible to create a monobloc chair – a one-shot plastic chair – that is both elegant and functional.

Charlotte and Peter Fiells’ 10 favourite chairs have been selected from their new book, Chairs: 1,000 Masterpieces of Modern Design, 1800 to the Present Day, published by Goodman Fiell, £30, out now. Charlotte and Peter are currently working on a new book, entitled The Story of Design.

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