Who designed the first plastic chair?

Thrones of creation

    The eye sits with it. That has always been the case, but at the moment it is particularly striking: the chair as a status symbol and accessory is the new eye-catcher in private staging. Fired by living magazines and design blogs, many a living room in Berlin Mitte or in Munich's Glockenbachviertel is now more like a showroom for design furniture, especially for selected classic chairs. They are the it-furniture of our time, because they are more affordable than a Persian rug or sofa, but above all easier to arrange. For a long time, moving chairs was a hobby of architects, designers and gallery owners. Today the market for designer furniture is so broad that manufacturers are successfully reviving old classics in re-editions or revised new editions. We like to put them around tables that are as long as possible: the Eames next to the Ant by Arne Jacobsen, next to the Vintage Thonet. The deliberately thrown together chair arrangement is the counterpart to the St. Petersburg hanging of young art as a proof of cultural certainty of taste.

    Nobody can say with certainty when it all started, one thing is certain: Chairs have shaped our existence for a long time. It had taken evolution for millions of years to make us proud and upright striding creatures. No sooner had we got up than we started building chairs to rest from the hardships of walking and standing. And show off with them. We have been sitting on furniture at least since the Neolithic Age, because excavations have unearthed simple stools and stools. The first chair in today's sense, with four legs and a backrest, was a throne. Egyptian pharaohs looked down from him at the simple (and standing or crouching on the ground) people. Tutankhamun was enthroned on a golden chair with armrests and footrests, a kind of pre-form of the lounge chair, but also had all sorts of majestic folding chairs for on the go. Even then, the chair was a feature of rank, but reserved only for rulers and other godlike figures.

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    Long, very long, he stayed that way. In the medieval church, only monks and priests were allowed to sit in the choir stalls, while the faithful had to stand or kneel. Not even the knights at the famous round table got the benefit of sitting back and sitting on stools.

    The chair demonstrated power. A legacy that has established itself in linguistic usage to this day, for example in the chairman who sits enthroned over his employees. It was not until the 16th century that it found its way into the homes of normal mortals. The English carpenter Thomas Chippendale was one of the first in the mid-18th century to turn the throne into furniture that could be mass-produced. His chairs were a mix of Rococo, Gothic and Chinese carpentry and quickly spread, initially only among aristocrats and those who believed they were.

    The chair only became a piece of furniture for everyone about 100 years later, when Michael Thonet invented a technique in Vienna to bend round wood so that it could be used to manufacture large numbers of simple, dismountable, but above all affordable coffee house chairs. "No. 14 «, the famous one with the double curved backrest, was a mega-seller: by 1930 his company had sold more than 50 million copies. For the cultural historian Gert Selle, he also changed the social form of sitting forever "because it (and the body sitting on it) was so flexible that interactive situations could be easily established and quickly resolved". In other words: His contribution to international understanding as the basis of European coffee house culture, where people sit together and chat, cannot be overestimated. Today the »No. 14 «, as the first iconic chair in design history, even if its creator wasn't a designer, but a clever carpenter.

    After that, it was the architects of the modern age who revolutionized sitting. Mostly out of sheer necessity, and also out of vanity: They simply couldn't find any furniture that was good, new and radical enough to adorn their bold buildings. So they just did it themselves and quickly cleared away the dusty clutter of an entire century.

    When Marcel Breuer presented his tubular steel chair “B3” in 1925, which he had designed for Wassily Kandinsky's Bauhaus studio in Dessau, it was a culture shock because it heralded nothing less than the end of comfort. Breuer himself affectionately called it a "club chair", but the cool construction of bent tubular steel, over which thin strips of fabric were stretched, resembled the skeleton of an armchair and seemed like an intermediate step on the way to make it disappear completely. For many who grew up with massive wingback chairs and Biedermeier chairs, it must have been irritating to sit in industrially manufactured furniture that was neither upholstered nor exuded the aura of the handmade. The »B3« reflected the enthusiasm for technology and the simplicity of the modern machine age. And the less-is-more vision of a designer who secretly dreamed of only "sitting on an elastic column of air" at some point.

    The chair is the most expressive furniture we have.

    In the search for new materials and production processes, designers experimented with everything that progress had to offer: Charles and Ray Eames, for example, managed to deform plywood, later fiberglass and plastic so that it clung to the body like an imprint. Her “Lounge Chair Wood” from 1946 and the chairs of the “Plastic Shell Group” are now icons of organic design and show that you don't need upholstery to sit comfortably. They were also the first attempts to produce designer furniture so cheaply that everyone could afford it. An idea that a certain Ingvar Kamprad in Sweden tackled in the same year with his company Ikea, but that is a different story.

    The new variety of shapes made possible by plastic since the sixties let the pop age dawn also in chair design. Verner Panton's expansive, colorful cantilever chairs, Eero Aarnio's floating seat balls furnished a world in which utopias still seemed possible. They ushered in postmodernism, in which the play of forms was pushed a little further, true to the motto: "Less is boring". Today it is therefore already more difficult to cause a stir with a chair. Also because there are so many. You get almost 16,000 hits if you search the product catalog on the “Architonic” website for seating furniture that designers have designed over the past 150 years, 5,400 of which are different chair models. There are hundreds more with every furniture fair.

    If you believe Rolf Fehlbaum, the former boss of the furniture and chair manufacturer Vitra, the topic of seating is still far from over, yes it will probably never be, even if the basics - a horizontal line for the buttocks, a vertical line to lean on, probably always will remain the same: »The chair reflects the personality of the designer, and it is one too: it has arms, legs, feet, its own character. The chair is the most expressive furniture we have. This complex being can be reinvented over and over again. "

    The British industrial designer Sam Hecht sees the chair as a “canvas” on which every generation of designers realizes itself anew. So the chair became the supreme discipline, precisely because everyone tries their hand at it. Which is not surprising, because we are no longer connected to any piece of furniture. Our chair career begins with the Maxi-Cosi and ends with the wheelchair. Our relationship with him is more than close, it is physical: he is a kind of full contact piece of furniture that holds and surrounds us, almost like clothing. The increase in these are office chairs that are ergonomically so sophisticated that they look like high-tech prostheses. You don't have a chair, you "own" it and therefore like to show it off. It says something about us, including our attitude.

    Every time is different. In courtly society one sat upright, usually a little stiffly. In the Biedermeier period it was a bit more relaxed and cozy. Today there are no more rules, flailing and lounging around became the lifestyle of a whole generation whose motto was the »lounge«. This is the only way to understand the sensation caused by a chair in 2004, which at first glance was an impertinence. Konstantin Grcic's “Chair One”, a honeycomb-shaped seat shell made of steel mesh that rested on a concrete cone, was bulky and at first glance looked more like a cubist sculpture. However, this is exactly what made its liberating effect. The message was: Now is the end of the lounge.

    For Grcic, one thing is certain: »There will always be new chairs because the way we sit changes constantly. If there are really cars that can drive themselves soon, we will need new seats. Which ones in which one is agile. After all, you no longer have to have your hands on the wheel. The chair reacts to technical change, sometimes it even anticipates it. "Industrial designer Stefan Diez sees it a bit more philosophically:" Of course one could say: Why progress, what is the effort, everything is already there? But that's not how people work. There are also a million songs. And still it's not enough for us. "

    So the seating of the world will continue. In a hundred years, our chairs of today will either be forgotten or admired in museums. Perhaps you will also be amazed at the quirky retro lust of the post-zero years, when a whole generation only had eyes for well-deserved but old design classics instead of turning to the great designs of their time. Where are they all? Just turn the page.

    (Photo: Axel Roe / Italy Chronicles)