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Decades After Their Unveiling, These Free-Form Chairs Still Have the Power to Amuse

March 16, 1997|Emily Young

First bell-bottoms and white leather boots returned from the dead. Then the Brady Bunch and the Monkees got into the act. Could the far-out, futuristic furniture of the grooviest period in history be far behind?

Not (perish the thought) beanbag chairs and lava lamps. We're talking some of the era's most sculptural, most adventurous chairs--five by French artist Pierre Paulin and one by British designer Geoffrey Harcourt--all recently resurrected by Sitag International in Irvine. Like rock 'n' roll, these chairs dared to thumb their nose at tradition. But unlike tie-dyed T-shirts and micro-miniskirts, they are back as enduring hallmarks of a golden age of creative experimentation.

"People had a lot of fun and took more risks back then," Sitag president Reto Eberle says of furniture designers in the late '50s, '60s and early '70s. "To me, design right now is in limbo, with more people revisiting the past." Still, what's rolling off the assembly line remains as stunning as it was decades ago:

Paulin's throne-like "Ribbon" chair--at $2,900, the priciest of the bunch--is tubular steel covered with foam and a hand-sewn slipcover. Imagine a Mobius strip on a lacquered wood base or, if you stand in front of it and squint a little, an upholstered grin. His wavy "Tongue" chaise is part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection and calls to mind, especially in hot pink, Michael Jordan driving to the hoop. The padded cylindrical "Round Lounge" chair looks like a stylized tuffet for Miss Muffett. The "Easy" armchair, used in recent ads for Pioneer CD players, is reminiscent of a cozy cradle perched on slender exposed chrome legs, while the no-name "Armchair" evokes two lengths of cloth, draped and frozen in place. Last but not least, Harcourt's sleek "Cleopatra" sofa invites one to sit on the palm of an abstract hand.

Flashbacks from "2001: A Space Odyssey"? Hardly. In fact, the Sitag chairs are part of a growing market for mid-century modern classics: Last year, an original "Ribbon" chair brought $4,125 at auction, according to Echoes Magazine, a publication devoted to 20th century design; in 1995, a George Nelson "Marshmallow" sofa sold for $16,500. With prices for vintage stock ratcheting upward and knockoffs of dubious quality creeping onto the scene, several manufacturers have begun to reissue licensed originals. Herman Miller has resumed production of, among other icons, Nelson's platform bench, Charles and Ray Eames' molded plywood chair and Isamu Noguchi's biomorphic coffee table. Cassina continues to add Frank Lloyd Wright pieces to its lineup, and South Beach Furniture in Miami has revived more than 30 Heywood-Wakefield designs.

"The renaissance in our lifetime has been recognized," says Jay Novak of Modernica, a furniture showroom in Los Angeles and New York. "Modernism was clean, sophisticated design that affected the way we live. I think it was more important even than Deco or Streamline."

Eberle clearly agrees. It was his own lifelong passion for Paulin's work that sparked the Sitag venture. "My parents had a furniture company in Switzerland, so I grew up around these pieces," he says. "I was very little, but I always liked the 'Ribbon' chair. The shapes and colors make it happen. They're fun. When I found myself in a position to bring them back, I did."

He secured the rights from the chairs' first maker, Artifort in the Netherlands, then sent two factory workers there to be trained in the construction techniques, and after tracking down the mill that supplied Artifort, he arranged to get wool in 10 of the original eye-popping colors. Given today's foam formulas and state-of-the-art injection-molding technology, Eberle is confident that the new pieces will last as long as the old ones. Maybe even longer.

Postwar synthetic materials that made furniture innovation possible in the first place have started aging faster than the picture of Dorian Gray, transforming design collections around the world into so many piles of pedigreed junk. Plastic and foam are turning brittle; polyurethane is stinking up the joint; naugahyde has become tacky--literally. Sitag has seen time take its toll, too. Take the case of the New York attorney who showed up with an old "Easy" armchair. "The fabric was sagging, and he asked, 'Can it be reupholstered?"' Eberle recalls. "I told him that if we tried that, the foam inside would fall apart. So he bought a new 'Ribbon' chair instead and went home happy."

Eberle says he'd someday like to negotiate rights to the "Bocca" chair, a larger-than-life pair of lips, and the "Joe" chair, a giant baseball mitt said to be named after Joe DiMaggio, but for now he'll pursue more designs by Paulin. And continue showcasing the chairs he's rescued from obscurity: "People like me will always love them. They may never be as popular as the Eames chair. And maybe in four or five years, people won't want them anymore, but now these chairs will never really disappear."

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