Arne Jacobsen created the Egg. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the iconic Barcelona Chair, while Eero Saarinen defied the “slum of legs” with his Tulip Chair. As long as architects have been designing buildings, they’ve also been designing the chairs that feature within them.
Whether architecturally designed, or not, there’s something about chairs. They are a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives, appearing around the kitchen table, inviting you to rest your feet while waiting at the doctor or dentist and exercising power over the posture of office workers everywhere. The extremely broad genre of chair includes the most mundane plastic bucket seat through to the most recognisable design objects in the world.
In his book Now I Sit Me Down, American writer and professor of architecture Witold Rybczynski suggests “chairs are fascinating because they address both physiology and fashion. They represent an effort to balance multiple concerns: artistry, status, gravity, construction, and – not least – comfort.”
Robin Boyd’s Furniture Design at the Walsh Street House.
He goes on to discuss chairs don’t necessarily get “better”, which seems remarkable given most everything else in our lives is constantly being improved. A chair is still a chair – typically a seat attached to at least one leg with maybe a back, arms and footrest – though its design may respond to changes in fashion, availability of materials and other environmental elements.
It’s these constantly changing variables that perhaps hint at why architects continue to explore the design opportunities of the chair, a connection recently considered by art historian, Agata Toromanoff, in Chairs by Architects. Toromanoff juxtaposes chairs and buildings designed by architects and explores how the former can represent mini-manifestos of an individual’s architectural style. “The relationships and similarities are often surprising, and raise some interesting questions,” she writes. “What is it that distinguishes a chair designed by an architect, rather than a furniture designer? Why would an architect want to design one?”
As she explores the answers to these questions, she finds different motivations. Part of this is explained by the changing relationship between architect and chair. Many chairs are created as standalone designs, but for late 19th and early 20th century architects, it wasn’t unusual to design not only the building but all the furniture inside. Many modernist architects created furniture to complete their aesthetic. At the time, chairs were still exercises in carpentry and were often decorative and elaborate – a look that was at odds with the pure, clean forms of modernism. Architects like Le Corbusier, Jacobsen, Charles and Ray Eames and Saarinen realised they’d need to design the furniture to suit their buildings themselves.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s belief in the transformative power of architecture also led him to design every element of his buildings, outside and in. “In organic architecture then, it is quite impossible to consider the building as one thing, its furnishings another and its setting and environment still another,” said Lloyd Wright. “The spirit in which these buildings are conceived sees all these together at work as one thing.”
Despite claims, both serious and satirical, that there are more than enough chairs in the world, it seems they will continue to play an important role in many architects’ practices. As London-based architect David Adjaye explained to Toromanoff: “we will always need another chair, because design is a trajectory with energy and momentum.”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – Barcelona Chair
van der Rohe famously said “a chair is a difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.” Yet his Barcelona Chair exudes a sense of ease and elegance. Originally designed as a resting place for the King and Queen of Spain in the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Expo, the sweeping curves of the seat and footstool were inspired by the thrones of Ancient Egypt. While now one of the most recognisable chairs in the world, the Barcelona reportedly never hosted a royal behind.
Eero Saarinen – Tulip Chair
Tulip Arm Chair
Created as part of the Pedestal Collection for Knoll in 1955, Saarinen drew on his early training as a sculptor to design the Tulip Chair. Through his design process, he was primarily concerned with how his chairs would look in a room, casting ¼ scale models to be set up in a model room, before testing initial copies in his own dining room. “What interests me is when and where to use these sculptural plastic shapes,” Saarinen said. “Probing more deeply into different possibilities, one finds many different shapes are equally logical – some ugly, some exciting, some earthbound, some soaring. The choices become a sculptor’s choice.”
Charles and Ray Eames – Lounge chair and ottoman
Eames Lounge Chair
In 1956, Charles and Ray Eames created their lounge chair and ottoman in a highbrow response to the American craze for recliner chairs. Produced by the Herman Miller company, the chair was formed from three moulded plywood shells, veneered in Brazilian rosewood. The interior was heavily padded with foam and upholstered in soft, black tufted leather. Ray called the combination “comfortable and un-designy.” It was an extension of their approach to home, which they created to be “a special refuge from the strains of modern living”.
Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick – Aeron Chair
When it was first designed in 1994, the Aeron Chair changed office life as we know it. It represented a leap forward in ergonomics and material innovation and spawned a myriad of copy-chairs. While its instantly recognisable form has remained largely unchanged, the Aeron was completely re-mastered in 2016 by a team of engineers, scientists and materials specialists, led by original co-creator, Don Chadwick.
David Adjaye – Washington Skeleton Chair
Washington Skeleton Chair
Produced from die-cast aluminium, the geometric lattice work of the back and seat of Adjaye’s Washington Skeleton Chair floats over its curved legs. The chair was part of Adjaye’s debut furniture collection for Knoll in 2013. He explained the design process to Toromanoff: “designing a chair presents the opportunity to express my position,” he said. “It is like a testing ground for ideas that interest me.”
Words: Kate Le Gallez