Over the years, architects have designed chairs for many reasons. For the early moderns, it was a way to furnish their own buildings: one thinks of Josef Hoffmann and the Café Fledermaus Chair, or Mies van der Rohe and the Barcelona Chair. For some, like Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen, chair design was a productive sideline; for others it was a temporary distraction, a way of making a statement in the absence of major building commissions. Today, when well-known architects are being invited to design motor yachts and plane interiors, designing a chair might seem like small beer. But the age-old problem of sitting comfort remains a worthy design challenge.
To the long list of architects who have had a go at designing a chair, we can now add Tadao Ando, Hon. FAIA. Carl Hansen & Søn, a Danish manufacturer known for its long association with the great Hans J. Wegner, recently unveiled Ando’s Dream Chair. I visited Hansen’s Hudson Street showroom in New York City to see the chair—and to sit in it. The Dream Chair consists of a molded plywood shell as the seat, attached to a second shell that forms the base. In frontal silhouette, the sculptural shape reminded me of a traditional Japanese kimono and hakama. The forms are punctuated by three ovals: a head rest, a hole cut into the seat, and an identical hole in the base. The padded headrest is adjustable, like a car seat, a mechanical feature that I found mildly disturbing in a lounge chair. The base is cantilevered, so that when I sat down the chair flexed pleasantly. The problem was that the edge of the hole that is cut into the seat also cut into my tail bone, and I couldn’t find a comfortable position. It was a small but persistent irritation, like having a tiny stone in one’s shoe.
When Wegner introduced the Shell Chair—in 1963—he had more than 20 years of experience designing chairs, whereas the Dream Chair is Ando’s first production chair. But the difference between the two designs is not merely the difference between the work of an old pro and of a neophyte. Wegner was not an architect; he came out of a craft tradition. His father was a master cobbler, and Wegner apprenticed as a carpenter before studying cabinetwork at Copenhagen’s School of Arts and Crafts, now known as the Danish Design School. Perhaps that’s why, unlike the Dream Chair, the Shell Chair doesn’t look like a sculpture. It looks like something to sit in. The offending oval hole in the Dream Chair is a mannerist gesture that has nothing to do with the chair’s function. Wegner’s chair, on the other hand, includes only what is required for sitting. The single rear leg doubles as a support for the back; the decorative “wings” that flare out on each side turn out to be pleasant places to rest one’s hands; and the wings also work as aids in pushing oneself out of what is a particularly low chair, only 14 inches off the ground.
Because of background, training, and sensibility, furniture designers and architects approach chair design differently. For example, architects are by habit customizers, since each building is a one-off project; production, therefore, is a means to an end. But modern chairs, unlike modern buildings, are mass produced, so manufacturing is an integral part of the design. Ando achieved the evocative shape of his chair by using three-dimensional plywood shells, which are difficult to mold and require additional sheets of veneer compared to Wegner’s two-dimensional design for the Shell Chair. As a result, Ando's chair incurred a considerable increase in manufacturing cost: In walnut and upholstered, the Dream chair retails for $5345, the Shell Chair for $3075. But what practical end was achieved by using the more expensive shells?
On the other hand, consider Marcel Breuer’s version of the cantilevered chair, the B32 (now called the Cesca). At the time he designed the chair, his architectural career had yet to begin; he was a teacher at the Bauhaus, in charge of the cabinetry program. This may explain why the Cesca pragmatically combines a seat and shaped back made out of bent beechwood and traditional woven cane inserts with the tubular steel frame. The armchair model has curved wood armrests, which likewise add to its sitting comfort.
When Charles and Ray Eames designed what would be the world’s first mass-produced plastic chair, the DSR, in the late 1940s, like Breuer they separated the seat (originally metal, then molded fiberglass, today polypropylene) from the base. This separation accounts in part for the chair’s longevity, since the same shell can be mated with different bases: steel rods, tubular legs, wooden dowels, stackable frames, or even rockers. Conversely, when Eero Saarinen, who had collaborated with the Eameses on chairs at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, designed his version of a molded fiberglass side chair, he was preoccupied with a singular concept. “I wanted to clear up the slum of legs,” he said. “I wanted to make the chair all one thing again.”
His solution to this somewhat obscure “problem” was the Tulip Chair, which is supported by a single leg that flares out of a circular pedestal, like the foot of a wine glass. The chair was originally intended to be entirely fiberglass, but since that material is not strong enough for such a slender leg, the base is fabricated out of cast aluminum, painted white to give the impression that base and seat are one. Sitting down and getting up at a table both require moving one’s chair, but a chair with a heavy circular base is awkward to move, so Saarinen included a swiveling option. Making the chair “all one thing” proved to be complicated.
I thought of Thonet in connection with a recent series of bentwood chairs designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, for Knoll. There are several models—a side chair, as well as an armchair, a highback chair, and a club chair. All are made of curved laminated maple veneer strips (less than a quarter inch thick) glued together. The playful designs, which resemble bushel baskets, are extremely light, surprisingly strong, and the flexible material makes the chairs very comfortable.
Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that Knoll will sell millions of them since, like most architect-designed chairs today, they are very expensive. One Gehry side chair costs more than a dozen Nr. 14s. Whether the high price is a marketing strategy, or because the complicated design is costly to fabricate, is unclear, although I would guess the latter. Wegner once remarked, “If you knew how much polishing work goes into making a Barcelona Chair, you wouldn’t call it an industrially made chair.”