By Giorgia Pizzato
Picture: Chair by Morten Stenbaek, Denmark
Strolling down a city’s streets, entering a house, a bar or a station it is almost impossible not to come across a chair or its variant. There are hundreds, if not thousands of types, designed for as many purposes: Cantilever, stuffed, ergonomic, monoblock, office, rocking, director’s, camping, barber, chaise longue, armchair, stool, seat, pouf … These are just a few examples of the wide range available to us.
One might think that chairs are everyday objects, banal at times. It is interesting to find out how among the different adjectives that can be used to describe it, “trivial” is not one of these.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Although it is difficult to identify with absolute certainty the historical moment in which the chair has its roots, the first documentations date back to ancient Egyptians (about 3100 BC) when pharaohs and high priests began to sit on elevated thrones as an expression of their power and will to rise to the divine. Another stage is represented by the sella curullis, a chiasmos folding chair reserved for the Roman magistrates, then followed by the Greek klismos. The chair will continue to remain a prerogative reserved for the clergy and members of the aristocracy over the centuries while common people sit on benches, stools … or on the ground.
The chair, with the meaning of piece of furniture that we know today, was born in Italy in 1807 in the Ligurian village of Chiavari. The Marquis Stefano Rivarola returning from Paris had brought some Empire-style chairs with him and had then commissioned the ebanist Giuseppe Gaetano Descalzi to reproduce them. The result was a functional chair devoid of any ornamental element in favor of lightness and strength since then and forever known as “chiavarina”, today an unquestioned style icon.
In 1957, the Cassina company produced the now famous Superleggera, conceived by Gio Ponti who had revisited the traditional Chiavarina, light to the point of being raised by a child with just one finger!
NOT TO BE MISSED : A GIO PONTI RETROSPECTIVE
“TUTTO PONTI, GIO PONTI ARCHI-DESIGNER”
from October the 19th 2018 to May 5 2019
Musée des Arts Décoratifs – Paris
In the Modernist period linked to minimalism and rationalism, the chair became the object of study and visiting card through which architects and interior designers could assert themselves. The protagonist of this historical period was Germany with Bauhaus which focuses on the concepts of functionality and aesthetics. Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier and other characters of the Weimar school will introduce steel for the structural components of the chair and opened the doors to materials such as plastic, glass and plywood which, although unconventional, facilitated and gave a boost to the mass-production of the chair converting it into an accessible and constant object of furniture. It is impossible not to mention Thonet as well: a pioneer and milestone of industrial design and leader in the industrial manufacture of furniture. Always characterized by the use of tubular steel and bent wood, this company pours over 200 years of tradition and experience in its production and blends it with innovation and technology, still maintaining its avant-garde spirit.
BUT HOW IS A CHAIR MADE?
The encyclopaedia defines it as a piece of furniture on which only one person can sit, consisting of a horizontal plane (seat) resting on a variable number of legs (four in general) and a backrest. It would seem rather easy to do. To help us really understand the complexity behind the design and construction of a chair we can think of it from another point of view, its function: support. This object must be resistant but flexible, robust but comfortable to support the weight of those who sit, stand, rock… on it repeatedly and for several hours. And do not forget that even the eye wants its part! We must therefore add other characteristics related to materials, texture and design.
At this point perhaps the chair is no longer just a chair. Witold Rybczynski, renowned architect and author of the book Now I Sit Me Down (2016) Farrar Straus & Giroux, cleverly compares the chair to a miniature building, which brings the aesthetic and structural challenge with.
CRAFTMANSHIP AND INNOVATION: THE CHAIR TODAY
Last century’s result was the series-production chair: conceptual, industrial, decorative, with decidedly technical materials and advanced instruments, but … what about the craft chair? Do we still find the man’s hand on a chair today? Is it possible to reconcile modernity with tradition and uniqueness? Today’s chair is a blend of technology, craftsmanship, modernity and tradition.
This is also the opinion of Ernesto Contessa an upholstery master with over forty years of experience who in his workshop “L’artigiano tappezziere” in the Veneto region (Italy) is able to combine the most traditional processes using spring seats and horsehair to modern techniques such as digital embroidery, ranging from materials such as fabrics, leathers and woods.
Giovanni Battista Rea (Laboratorio Wachtmeister Werkstatt, Lazio region) also works in Italy. Among other things, he creates monumental chairs inspired by the richness of nature, its colors and forms through the formal combination of sculpture and mosaic, using ceramics, raku and concrete.
In the United Kingdom Nick Barberton (Nick Barberton Woodworker) is inspired by mid-century Scandinavian furniture and the Californian designer Sam Maloof and makes wooden chairs and more characterized by a unique pattern obtained through the carving technique.
Starting from a 50mm thick board, Nick designs and makes every single component hence each chair is a unique piece that takes up to three weeks of work. His chairs are made of English Walnut, Rippled Sycamore, Quartersawn Oak, Rippled ash.
For Francisco Barroso Roman, chair seat weaver in Spain (Castelló d’Empúries), the creative process begins in the period June-August when it’s time to mow the bulrush (marsh plant) that must then be left in the sun to dry and whiten, left to rest and finally moistened before the use to give it more flexibility.
The realization of a seat requires great patience and attention as each strip is individually intertwined, without resorting to glue or staples, but with the only help of a hook to compress the fibers.
INNOVATION = UPCYCLING!
François Rossier in Germany (Upcycling, Berlin) realizes his creations following a very precise philosophy, that of upcycling, which consists in reinventing and revitalizing products and materials that have exhausted their initial function and are destined to be thrown or abandoned. This is how a concrete column and a plexiglass waste become, for example, a chair that tomorrow could turn into yet something else.
CRAFTSMEN OF THE CHAIR
- Furniture restorer, Carpenter, cabinetmaker, carver,
- Mason, stonecutter
- Upholster, chair seat weaver, leather worker, tailor, weaver
- Decorator, varnisher, gilder, enamekler…
CHAIRS & LITTERATURE
What can we say, the chair in its infinite forms and materials has always been – and will always – be there. Because the way we choose to sit, and what we choose to sit on, says a lot about us: our values, our tastes, the things we hold dear (W. Rybczynski, 2016, Now I Sit Me Down, Farrar Straus & Giroux). Perfect storyteller of the man and his evolution, container and content of tradition, technique, design, beliefs and ideals: the chair is much more than a simple chair.