Comment: There is much to learn about culture in the evolution of the modern chair


I’m always inspired by the exhibits at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Recently, I was inspired by “The Modern Chair” exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. It was a fabulous display of modern chairs that made me think about the origin of the chair and the history of the chair.

The study of chair history often has a Western focus since Asian cultures often have a preference for squatting, kneeling, or sitting on the floor and sometimes on mats. However, the history of the chair dates back five thousand years to ancient Egypt. Pharaohs, high priests and other dignitaries often sat on high thrones – for example, Your Highness. Romans and Greeks are often seen in artwork reclining on parlor type chairs or bench type chairs. The rise of religion and churches, of course, had pew type seats. And the industrial revolution saw the production of mass-produced chairs.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair and Charles Darwin invented a chair on casters which ultimately led to the creation of office chairs?

The Denver Art Museum recently held an exhibit on modern chairs, and a wall text read, “Chairs combine form and function in a way that’s easy for consumers to digest, but it’s incredibly difficult for designers to improve insofar as they encompass many challenges. of design, engineering, choice of materials, production method, style and functionality in a small package.”

We can learn more about culture as art and architecture evolve over time. We can learn the same from chair design.

I read an article on chairs in which the seven most famous chairs in history were listed:

Stool with 1 or 3 legs dating from 7500 BC.

2 – 6th century Tang dynasty mat – supposedly used by Buddha

3–Chair of St. Peter created in 875 AD

4 – Legendary coronation chair used by King Edward from 1200 AD

5–First wheeled chair created by Charles Darwin

6–In the 19th century, Otto von Bismarck introduced chairs to the masses

7–First side chair to fit into a home by Frank Lloyd Wright

Now, returning to the ‘Modern Chair’ exhibition, curator Brad Dunning says: “This exhibition follows the development of the modern chair, highlighting its evolution and progression from two outstanding early examples: a classic wooden Thonet curved from the dawn of the 20th century and Mart Stam’s first cantilever chair of the Bauhaus school – through the fertile and innovative years of the mid-century and ending with contemporary specimens. last, new industrial materials and technological and stylistic advancements have moved chair design forward faster than Chairs exemplify our inventiveness and changing sense of fashion, as well as architectural trends, socio-economic and societal concerns, symbolic content and aspirations. This eclectic overview does not claim to be comprehensive, authoritative or rigorously academic, but endeavors to illustrate how the challenge of chair design seems to continually stimulate creativity and experimentation. More than any other piece of furniture, chairs reflect and express the way we live and have lived.”

To name just a few of the chairs doesn’t do the exhibit justice, but I’ll do it anyway. The Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer is one of the most radical pieces of modernist furniture. It deconstructs a traditional upholstered club chair to its basic contour, “removing” all the upholstered padding. The Wassily Chair was an experiment in extreme reductionism. Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto’s masterpiece is glued laminated timber construction. The unique flowing line of the frame is both poetic and structurally supportive. Aalto was the first furniture designer to use wood for the modern cantilever principle in chair design. The Tremaine Chair by Richard Neutra was originally designed for the Tremaine House in Montecito, California. Neutra was so pleased with this design that they used it for years in their interiors. Jacque-Henri Varichon was an architect whose ingeniously designed chair is held in place by tension wires. This chair offers a striking example of aesthetic success in bridging the worlds of sculpture, technology and functional design. And this is just a taste of the fabulous exhibition.

And our very own St. Louis Art Museum has some amazing modern chairs in the collection. David Conradson, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, says: “Chairs have so much to say, they are full of information. We recently created an installation at SLAM based on this most familiar type of furniture – chairs – as an entry point to discuss the place of functional objects in an art museum. Using a range of chairs from different eras and traditions, we invite viewers to reflect on their form, technology and style. The selection is constantly changing and there are many types of chairs to discover throughout the galleries, from wood and plywood to metal and the latest digitally printed resin. There’s even a paper chair by Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka.”

Who would have thought that something as simple as a chair would have so many facets?

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for over forty years on numerous arts-related councils.

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