“Who’s in the chair for style?”, The Australian, 8-9 Jan, 1994.

Chair City.

Ross Harley

In theory, people can sit on just about anything. In practice, most of us pull up a chair.

Not many agree what makes the perfect chair. Anyone who has been to a design warehouse recently will testify that such an ideal is virtually impossible to define. Should it be padded, moulded, wooden, metal, plastic, four-legged, three-legged, bendy, rigid, vertical, reclining, plain, ornate, brightly patterned, minimal, modern, postmodern, antique, mass-produced, a one-off, swivelling, folding, built to last, or built to last about five minutes?

Comfort and style are high on everyone’s list. Ultimately however, the physical, aesthetic, and cultural values we find in the modern chair are not based on function. They’re more about expression, about how we feel even before we sit down. Comfort’s a matter of meaning and symbolism as well as shape, material and touch. No amount of ergonomic measurement can save an stupid piece of twisted metal and foam.

The chair remains one of the few everyday objects that encapsulates the entire spectrum of design. Beautiful to look at or lethal to sit on, the chair conveys the essence of a period’s style.

According to British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, “the act of making territory starts with our clothes. With a chair we extend our sense of territory beyond our skin. It could be said that when we design a chair, we make a society and a city in miniature.” Around the chair, new buildings are built.

Unlike watches, pens, shoes or other more decorative functional objects, the chair suggests a certain approach to space and drama. The principles of construction, gravity, and engineering are held together by a few strips of leather, metal joints, moulded timber or extruded plastics. To make a chair is to recast all ideas of functionality anew.

If the history of modern architecture coincides with that of the modern chair, we could say that chairs are the only complete work of architects like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Gerrit Rietveld, Charles and Ray Eames, Eileen Gray, Zaha Hadid, or Marcel Breuer. While modern urban planning has headed straight down the road of failure, the chair remains the only structure of habitation that has truly undergone a complete and successful revolution.

A perfectly controllable minimal structure, the chair offers countless opportunities to modify morphology in the name of design. Its shape, material and dimension convey the modern designer’s signature. No wonder every architect wants to cut their teeth on a chair.

Some chairs are instant classics, like Danish designer Arne Jacobsen’s free-form stacking chairs. In production since their debut in 1955, these all-purpose multicoloured moulded plywood chairs can still be spotted around many a public or private dining table.

The upholstered bent plywood chairs of Melbourne’s Grant Featherston (known as the Contour range) have also been available since the 50s. Like Peter Makeig’s Descon label , which manufactured very successful copies of Eames’ moulded plywood chairs in Sydney during the 50s, Featherston struck a chord with the modern desire for abstract elegance and plain old-fashioned comfort. Sydney architect Douglas Snelling’s rectilinear Line chairs, characteristically upholstered in parachute webbing since the 40s, are also perfectly functional and ‘non-obstructive’. With such chairs, small domestic interiors breathe a little easier.

Iraqi Zaha Hadid’s amorphic furniture depicts fantastic silhouette cities in miniature. Her work is about a particular way of seeing space, and the long sweeping lines of her 80s chairs are part of her challenging, if slightly unbuildable, architectural project.

Britain’s post-industrialist Ron Arad has made jokey but comfy machines-to-sit-in by incorporating the leather car seat of a Rover. This early 80s crossing of boundaries brought the support and sumptuousness of the automobile into the immobile space of the lounge.

Such novelty was toyed with earlier by Italian designers like Achille Castiglione. His high-tech tractor seat stool for example (produced during the late 50s) can be seen as a pop industrial response to the artist Marcel Duchamp’s controversial readymades. A more recent revival of the idea can be found the in mountain bike seats stools that sometimes populate fashion stores.

Of course, asking designers to stop coming up with novel chair designs is a bit like asking pop stars to stop making records and movies. I often think of all those media moments that have heightened the popularity and significance of the designer’s chair beyond a small coterie. Images of French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard sitting on a Harry Bertoia wire mesh chair, of Robert Taylor bouncing off a springy Saarinen womb chair in the 50s Hollywood film “Rogue Cop”, or of Santa Claus ho-hoing in an Eames chair for a 50s Coca Cola ad helped bring the modern chair to a mass audience.

Today a similar status has been granted Sydney- (now Paris-) based Marc Newson’s aluminium Lockheed lounge, which recently starred in Madonna’s clip for her song “Rain”. What better way to elevate Newson’s one-off shiny smooth aluminium torso to the level of unattainable cult status?

As Danish furniture designer Hans Wegner put it, sitting is basically a compromise between standing up and lying down. Though there will remain many who’d rather sit on the ground than suffer the occasional undignified compromise of a modern chair, the designer will without doubt continue to find novel and imaginative ways for us to park our seats.