How did the Poet Sofa get its name? How did a Japanese farmer’s straw raincoat inspire Charlotte Perriand? And what do the 18 circular poufs that comprise George Nelson’s Marshmallow Sofa represent? (Hint: not marshmallows.)
A book published earlier this year by Gibbs Smith relays these tales, and many more, as it explores the history of a very particular corner of midcentury design: the furniture on which we rest our behinds. 100 Midcentury Chairs, written by Lucy Ryder Richardson, tells the stories behind 100 chairs created between the 1930s and 1970s as well as those of their designers.
At 200 pages long, don’t expect it to provide extensive profiles of these seats; what you receive instead are bite-sized tales on their origins, their materials, and construction, peppered with telling quotes from designers, their partners, children, and grandchildren. It makes for an informative, light read, and one that is certainly well-timed as our obsession with midcentury modern design won’t quit anytime soon. Richardson, who cofounded the UK-based Modern Shows, invites us to celebrate our favorite chairs beyond their looks and comfort; to understand them as innovative products of problem-solvers who were challenged with limited sources or new materials, changes in consumer demands, or simply a desire to be make our thrones less boring.
100 Midcentury Chairs progresses chronologically, beginning with Alvar Aalto’s wooden Paimio Chair — originally designed for tuberculosis patients at the eponymous sanitorium in Findland — to Frank Gehry’s Wiggle Side Chair — a layer of corrugated cardboard that folds against itself like rolls of belly, or a fat noodle of lasagna. Richardson explains in her introduction that she arrived at the final 100 as she wanted to steer clear of prototypes not often found in museums, since she primarily intends for the book to serve as a guide for people in the market for authentic chairs. In its pages, she also provides tips on how to spot a real Eames and how to care for a Hans Wegner.
This is all helpful for a certain kind of reader, but I can’t help but see a missed opportunity to highlight some lesser known chairs — those designed by women, who have long taken a back seat (sorry) in the design world. Richardson highlights just a handful of female designers — Perriand, Aino Aalto, Grete Jalk, Nanna Ditzel, and, of course, Ray Eames (the latter two appear paired with their husbands) — but includes no chairs by, to name a few talents, Florence Knoll, Eva Zeisel, Lilly Reich, or Gae Aulenti. Lists, of course, are subjective. However, Richardson’s decision to focus on designs that feature in museums, where women are notoriously underrepresented, seems more retrograde than inspired. Institutions themselves are increasingly working on this problem, such as the Museum of Modern Art, which staged an entire show last year on female designers.
And so we receive many expected chairs, from a number of designs by Arne Jacobsen to Wegner to plenty of Eames. Richardson, though, is a compelling storyteller, and provides enlightening anecdotes on each page. She recalls, for instance, that through the mid-’80s, Herman Miller’s pregnant employees often received an Eames Rocking Armchair Rod (RAR) as a company gift. How Italian architect Gio Ponti apparently dropped his Supperleggera chair out an office window, and it bounced rather than splintered, because it was that sturdy. And then there’s the surreal tale of Verner Panton’s Cone Chair in a New York City storefront, which so distracted drivers and passersby that police had to intervene to break up the road traffic. Richardson also proves that her pop culture savvy, noting the many cameos these chairs make in TV shows and movies. Joe Colombo’s Elda Armchair was in the Hunger Games; Wegner’s Papa Bear was at home in the living room of Bewitched‘s main pad. This is the Buzzfeed listicle design nerds need.
These factual tidbits comprise the most fascinating portions of 100 Midcentury Chairs, particularly for the average reader who isn’t a collector of midcentury furniture. And they’re especially helpful to know today — as Richardson emphasizes, many of these chairs have been copied and slightly adapted over time. With shows like Mad Men fueling our obsession for the original designs, their cheaper knockoffs are now seemingly everywhere, from Amazon to Wayfair — even Target is appealing to millennials hot for midcentury modern wares. How many of us own some affordable version of an Eames molded chair? (I’m raising my hand.) 100 Midcentury Chairs provides the context for these seemingly ubiquitous designs in compact and colorful accounts. If we can’t afford the real thing, perhaps we should at least understand the story behind the seats beneath us.
100 Midcentury Chairs is available through Gibbs Smith.
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