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Sitting Pretty

April 13, 1991|JANET KINOSIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chances are, when you sit in a chair the last thing you think about is its architectural history. Is the chair comfortable? Then it's a good chair.

But if it weren't for an international group of designers--dubbed modernists--you would probably be sitting in a very different chair right now.

"Most people, whether they ever think about it or not, somehow imagine that furniture just sort of appears," says Jimmy Napoli of Palazzetti, a modern furniture design firm in Los Angeles.

"They don't realize that furniture, like fashion design, architecture and science, is developed through challenging all the little (rules) of the day, like a chair must be round and soft. We owe a lot to the modernists who said, 'Look, this is my vision, and we're going to try it this way.' "

How did the modern chair evolve? It took a century of refinement and a squadron of designers with skill and courage.

And lots of vision.

Modernism in furniture design is derived from concepts that were developed in the early 20th Century by a group of international architects and interior and furniture designers in the years leading up to World War I. They took hold of a radical new idea: Utility and space function are more important than ornamentation and decoration. Straight lines are good. Less is more.

The industrial revolution changed not only the way people worked, lived and related to one another, but also how they dressed and decorated their homes. The excesses of the Victorian era were tossed out.

The modernist designers were determined that what people sat on would reflect their new-found streamlined lives: if people were now anonymous cogs in the mass-producing wheels of industry, then furniture would likewise be mass-produced and made from modern industrial materials--aluminum, steel, bent plywood, glass, or plexiglass--and would be inexpensive and available to the middle- and lower-income classes.

The movement came to fruition in the late '20s with the widely influential Bauhaus school in Germany. The designers who heralded its successes were globally scattered: Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland, Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Eames in the United States, Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier in France, Gerrit Rietveld in the Netherlands, Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe in Germany and Alvar Aalto in Finland.

The chair became a vehicle for many of these designers to implement their new approach and strategies.

One of the greatest American architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, first worked as a draftsman for the Chicago firm Adler & Sullivan. His revolutionary approach to home design--as well as furniture design--made an early impression on the modernism movement.

Wright had great respect for natural colors and materials, especially wood and stone, and used both in his furniture design, even during the '20s and '30s when metal and glass were the preferred materials.

An early landmark in Wright's career and in the story of modern furniture was his cube chair (1895). It is a remarkable design for its time and has been described by his son, John, as "the first piece of modern furniture made in this country." A small block chair made of angular wood design, it was remarkable in its uncompromising and undecorated angularity.

Most prominent in the early exploitation of metal for furniture was designer Marcel Breuer, who joined the Bauhaus as a student in 1920. Using metal for chairs might seem like an uninspired idea today, but his experiments and ideas were so original that he is often thought of as the proponent of modernism in furniture design. His modular and tubular furniture revolutionized the furniture design industries in America and Europe.

His first chair, the Wassily (1925), is a complex one made of tubular steel and canvas or hide. It has been widely mass-produced since its inception. His cantilever chair (1928), the first cantilever tubular chair, is probably the most classic, mass-produced chair in the modern day.

The Breuer chair (1928) is typical of the time. It was easy to build (bent steel tubing), easy to clean, comfortable, and its modular aesthetic expressed the industrial world that produced it. It is still mass-produced on a large scale today.

Charles Mackintosh is the leading figure in the British modernism movement. His ladder-back chair (1903-1928) is his most distinctive trademark. With it, he changed the way furniture designers used space around and within the chair, making them compositional elements as important as the wood or fabric. In keeping with his native Scottish tradition, stained oak was Mackintosh's favored wood.

After Ireland's Eileen Gray transplanted herself to Paris in 1907, she became a highly influential practitioner of the modern movement. Hers was a personal touch that involved Art Deco, functional and machine aesthetics, intelligent use of new materials (cork, aluminum, suede, leather, lacquer), and a fusion of formal and craftsman-oriented skills.

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