Throughout the 20th century, chairs have embodied the changing fashions and styles of their surrounding world.
Their design, the materials from they were made, and the techniques used to craft them–every aspect of the chair has progressed with the times.
In many ways, the evolution of the chair mirrors the history of design.
Eileen Grey’s Bibendum chair, named ironically after the well-rounded Michelin figure it resembles, is a timeless piece.
The leather upholstered armchair has a backrest made from padded tubes bent into a semi-circle that seems to beg onlookers to sit down and get comfortable.
Created in the 1900s, the Bibendum chair continues to leave its mark on the world of design, with a style that would not look out of place in the 21st century.
Three decades later, Le Cobusier took the basic premise of the Bibendum’s thick padding and leather upholstery, but placed the frame on the outside, integrating it into the design, and sharpening the overall look with more geometric lines.
In the early years of the 20th century, designers were in a race to create a cantilevered chair, one that was supported on a single base.
It was a challenge that drew many designers. Breuer’s Wassily chair rose to the challenge.
Its beauty is such that it has remained in production continuously since the 1950s.
The Barcelona chair, designed in 1929, again combined metal and leather but the seat was throne-like in form, while the base was modelled on the stool system. The distinctive chair can still be found in foyers and offices around the world.
The 1930s witnessed a return to wood, testing its tensile qualities, bending and shaping frames from a single piece of wood. The austerity of the designs from this era reflect the economic hardship of the years that preceded the Second World War.
In the later years of the 20th century, Charles and Ray Eames were at the forefront of the fledgling chair industry, producing a number of designs that are widely recognisable. Among their best known are the Eames lounge chair and ottoman, and the curvy wire mesh chair, both of which are typical of the changing outlook of the 1950s and 1960s.
However, it was the arrival of plastic in the 1960s that truly revolutionised the chair industry and inspired a wave of unique designs that remain some of the best known chairs of all time. Plastic was versatile, could be moulded into any form, and could be produced in bold and vibrant colours, which ideally suited the fun, playful mood of the era.
Vernon Panton’s S chair with its sweeping lines and cantilevered design, was a true icon of 1960s design, as was the slender and elegant tulip chair by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. The design of the Tulip chair, which was created with fibreglass and aluminium, won prestigious awards and was so futuristic in concept that it appeared in the television series, Star Trek.
Arnie Jacobsen’s Swan and Egg chairs, and Eerio Arnio’s Ball chair, with their deep, curved shapes almost required climbing into, rather than sitting on.
More recently, designers have experimented with unconventional materials and forms that are arresting, if not ergonomic. One of the 21st century designs that stands out for its enduring popularity is Philippe Starck’s Ghost chair which, inspired by the Louis XV chair, has a regal bearing, yet is made from clear plastic.
The chair, a relatively simple piece of household furniture, has been reinterpreted and reinvented countless times throughout its history. Indeed, entire exhibitions and books are devoted to this humble object.
The diversity of materials, colours and forms with which chairs have been created in the previous century would appear to have exhausted every possible variation. Fresh new talents, however, are sure to conjure up a wealth of previously inconceivable designs. And the history of the chair, and of design, continues.