Legs Eleven

Choosing ten top chairs of the decade proved too much for Jeremy Myerson. He eventually managed to narrow a huge array of contenders down to eleven

In the ten years that Design Week has been published, the chair has been a constant creative challenge to designers of every kind. Architects regard it as a miniature building or city; artists see it as a sculptural statement; craftsmen, as a platform to display skill and technique; and engineers, as an exercise in fitting technology to the human body. The result of so much innovation and creativity is a valuable barometer of new design trends. My selection of the landmarks of the decade is an unashamedly personal one. But wherever possible I have mentioned other designs which attracted attention alongside the chair chosen as the most significant.

1986

Ron Arad

Well-Tempered Chair

Manufacturer: Vitra, Germany

Materials: Folded and cut sheet steel

Dimensions: 98cm (height) x 78cm (width) x 90cm (depth)

‘Most new designs are surplus to requirements and therefore, though design objects do fulfill a function, their main raison d’être is not purely functional. They are there to enrich our lives’ – Ron Arad

The first ever issue of Design Week, in September 1986, kicked off with a report direct from the Milan Furniture Fair. But while the Italians were sobering up after the colourful Memphis-induced riot of the early Eighties, the real action in chair design was ironically starting to happen back in London. Not only was Rodney Kinsman’s minimalist black steel Tokyo chair becoming the ultimate in cool, but word was emerging from London’s Chalk Farm about Israeli designer Ron Arad’s latest move. The man who had made his name with klee-klamp scaffold beds was experimenting with cutting, folding and welding sheet steel. The materially sophisticated result – the Well-Tempered Chair – set everyone talking. Over the next few years, we were to become familiar with his heavy metal creations, as his Big Easy chairs and gravity-defying recliners tested the properties of woven, sprung and polished steel to the limit, introducing a new vocabulary to chair design in the process.

1986 was a competitive year for chair design internationally, with Shiro Kuramata’s expanded metal How High The Moon armchair and Mario Botta’s supremely architectural Quinta chair for Alias both attracting widespread attention. But Arad’s steel-edged thrust into the limelight was destined to prove most significant as the decade unfolded.

1987

Gaetano Pesce

Feltri Armchair

Manufacturer: Cassina, Italy

Materials: Woollen felt, polyester resin

Dimensions: 140cm (height) x 74cm (width) x 64cm (depth)

‘Design must be open and the designer has to experiment with all the fields of creative activity’ – Gaetano Pesce

The Italian fight-back at the 1987 Milan

Furniture Fair reflected the determination of major national companies to hold on to Milan’s crown as design capital of Europe in the face of growing competition from Barcelona, Paris and

London. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the showroom of Cassina, which showed new work by the artist Gaetano Pesce. One piece, the Feltri armchair, introduced the aesthetic of the American Indian to European furniture in a bravado form.

Pesce revelled in the unity between what he describes as innovative design content and novel materials and techniques. He envisaged the Feltri furniture as clothes. Indeed, the pieces are made from a thick woollen felt, shaped on a mould and painted with a spray gun. It revealed a unique creative vision in the furniture field. Feltri was no flash in the design pan. Pesce proved to be a powerful influence over the decade – and ended it on a high. His interiors work for the New York offices of the advertising agency Chiat Day in 1995 is widely regarded as the most vivid expression of tomorrow’s workplace seen to date.

1988

Jorge Pensi

Toledo

Manufacturer: Amat, Spain

Materials: Aluminium

Dimensions: 76cm (height) x 55cm (width)

x 54cm (depth)

‘Everyone wants chairs’ – Jorge Pensi

As Spanish design reached its zenith in the late Eighties, one of its most prolific furniture designers created an icon that would symbolise the Catalonian influence on European open-air lifestyle. Jorge Pensi, an Argentinian architect resident in Barcelona, designed the all aluminium Toledo restaurant chair for Amat. The designer Richard Sapper recalls the first time he caught sight of it: “I suddenly found myself standing in front of a chair I had never seen before, designed by a man I had never heard of, but so beautiful, practical, sensible, original and well-made that I thought; this, then, is the famous Barcelona design phenomenon.”

Amat’s market acceptance in 1988 was one outstanding feature of a distinctive year in chair design, in which André Dubreuil’s ornate wrought-iron pieces for Personalities of Japan marked a new spirit in metal furniture and Frank Gehry’s recycled corrugated cardboard Little Beaver armchair for Vitra was a signal of more creative things to come.

1989

Philippe Starck

Dr Glob stacking chair

Manufacturer: Kartell, Italy

Materials: Polypropylene, steel tubing

Dimensions: 46cm (height) x 47.5cm (width) x 48cm (depth)

‘I dream weird dreams

I dream of chairs

Rather than weep

I have made them my trade

While on the Paris-Tokyo flight

– too long – I dreamt of a small solid chair, so serviceable and considerate,

she wanted to be plastic and not kill trees’ – Philippe Starck

Who else but Philippe Starck could write a prose-poem to celebrate the design of a small plastic chair? This is the designer who began the decade with his Café Costes chair – designated as the ultimate in chic – and ended it as the world’s most famous stylist. And he has a special relationship with the chair.

Dr Glob is a special Starck icon. It portrays all of his quirky sensibilities, and the story that surrounds its creation is the stuff of design legend. Starck claims to have designed Dr Glob on a plane in the time it took for the seatbelt signs to go on and off. He regards speed of thought as essential because he wants to “capture the violence of the idea”. Everyone has their favourite Starck chair. Dr Glob is mine. It outweighs other important claims for attention in 1989 – most notably, Nigel Coates’ Noah armchair for SCP, Jasper Morrison’s Three Chair in aluminium and ash plywood for Cappelini and Shuro Kuramata’s Miss Blanche chair with paper flowers cast in acrylic resin.

1990

Rodney Kinsman

Trax

Manufacturer: OMK Design, UK

Materials: Perforated stainless steel, cast aluminium, composite granite

Dimensions: 76.5cm (height) x 73.5cm (width) x 184cm (length) for 3-seat unit

‘I approached the project as a piece of architecture rather than simply as a piece of furniture’ – Rodney Kinsman

Nearly 30 airports around the world feature Rodney Kinsman’s Trax contract seating. But the project started life more modestly in autumn 1988, when Jane Priestman at British Rail commissioned a new seat which could be used equally well in the refurbished Victorian splendour of Liverpool Street Station and the high-tech modernity of Stansted Airport’s new terminal. In trying to bridge the two, Kinsman developed a cast aluminium seat bracket which resembled not only the truss beams of Victorian ironwork, but also the structure of an aircraft wing. This, he explains, “became the motif for a crossover point to which both the old and new could relate”.

Today, the system comes in an almost endless variety of configurations and upholstered finishes. But Kinsman’s original prototype design – featuring three quilted stainless steel seats on the bracket – still has the most conceptual appeal to my mind. It set a standard for contract seating which has not been surpassed over the decade, despite valiant attempts by others, most notably Alan Zoeftig and Terence Woodgate (for SCP).

1991

Nana Ditzel

Bench for Two

Manufacturer: Gorm Lindum, Denmark

Materials: Maple frame, maple-veneered plywood seat and back

Dimensions: 97cm (height) x 145cm (width) x 65cm (depth)

‘In her quest for beauty she retains a sense of realism, utility and relevance’ – journalist Henrik Sten Moller on Nana Ditzel

Nana Ditzel is a living link with the golden era of Scandinavian design. She was designing for manufacturers such as Fritz Hansen and Georg Jensen in the Fifties, and her work has found a new creative lease of life in the Nineties. No object symbolises Ditzel’s belief that “it’s important not to sit back” as much as Bench for Two, which reflects her control of form and image to create a striking artistic statement. Bench for Two is op art in flavour, but more recent Ditzel chairs show how she gains inspiration from the natural world.

1992

Frank Gehry

Power Play Chair

Manufacturer: Knoll Group, USA

Materials: Laminated bentwood maple

Dimensions: 83.5cm (height) x 79.5cm (width) x 76.5cm (depth)

‘Bentwood furniture, until now, has always relied on a thick and heavy main structure for the seating. The difference in my chairs is that the structure and the seat are formed of the same lightweight slender wood strips which serve both functions’ – Frank Gehry

US architect Frank Gehry’s infrequent forays into furniture and interiors over the past decade have been notable for the intensity of the new ideas projected. Michael Thonet, Alvar Aalto, Arne

Jacobsen and Charles and Ray Eames all experimented with techniques to mould and bend plywood. But Gehry’s design of interwoven lightweight wooden strips in his Power Play chair introduced a remarkable new vocabulary to the genre.

In all, Gehry created seven sinuous maplewood shapes – four chairs, two tables and a chaise longue. In each piece, the weave is the structure. Gehry built more than 100 different prototypes to achieve the precise visual compositions he required. Such craft-like endeavour excited much comment in the UK about the resurgence of unique craft ideals in furniture, at a time when John Makepeace’s Millennium Chair in English holly was drawing attention to the trend. Tom Dixon’s steel-wire Pylon chair of 1992 expressed the same self-made idea, but using a very different industrial aesthetic.

1993

Marc Newson

Sofa Gluon

Manufacturer: Moroso, Italy

Materials: Metal, polyurethane foam, cotton

Dimensions: 86.5cm (height) x 133cm (length) x 86cm (depth)

‘He mixes a liking for the swollen, organic shapes of the Fifties with an open-air enthusiasm for the surfing culture of Bondi Beach’ – critic Rick Poynor on Mark Newson

In a yeaR in which the international furniture industry struggled to emerge from recession, Australian Marc Newson brought genuine star quality to the scene, confirming early promise as a potential Starck or Sipek with the Sofa Gluon. His powerful manipulation of form also reminded commentators of Ron Arad, for whom he once worked. Arad in fact has a revealing insight into Newson’s work. While other designers treat the chair as subject matter, says Arad, Newson goes a stage further to create entirely new shapes. Perhaps his background as a jewellery designer accounts for the skilled resolution of details. Perhaps it is simply innate flair. Either way, he dominated a year in which Andrea Branzi’s Revers Chair for Cassina and Pietro Arosio’s Mirandolina chair for Zanotta also showed that the Italians were still in business.

1994

Bill Stumph and Don Chadwick

Aeron office chair

Manufacturer: Herman Miller, USA

Materials: Recycled aluminium, recycled plastics, polyester mesh

Dimensions: 107.5cm (height) x 68.5cm (width) x 56.5cm (depth)

‘The last thing you want to do is come out with a yawn’ – Bill Stumph

At a time when office furniture was becoming simpler, more human, less engineered and less technological, along came Aeron – a monster machine for sitting on. Its subsequent market acceptance is testament to Herman Miller’s instincts, as the entire project was a multi-million dollar gamble on new design. As US critic Chee Pearlman comments: “It breaks radically with traditional notions about workplace chairs. It does away with cultural expectations about the comfort of fabric and foam.”

Aeron’s big breakthrough was the use of a specially developed breathable membrane skin, dubbed the Pellicle, which is stretched across the seat and back. This cradles the body so that it “floats” in the seat without touching the frame. Adjustable seat-height, arm and lumbar support add to the technological sophistication. There have been other commendable office chairs, from the Picto by Wilkahn to Antonio Citterio’s designs for Vitra. But nothing quite like Aeron. “People see it and many times they are bewildered,” says Don Chadwick. Quite.

1995

Jane Atfield

RCP Chair

Manufacturer: One-off, limited batch

production

Materials: Recyled plastics

Dimensions: 63cm (height) x 80cm (width) x 80cm (depth)

Mary Little

Tom armchair (from the Coat of Arms collection)

Manufacturer: One-off limited batch production

Materials: Steel, polyurethane foam, fabric

Dimensions: 90cm (height) x 60cm (width) x 60cm (depth)

Two women designers working on limited batch-produced furniture bring my selection of chairs up to the present day. Jane Atfield is experimenting with recycled plastic chairs produced from heat-compressed shampoo and detergent bottles. Mary Little, meanwhile, used tailoring techniques to make six anthropomorphic chairs, the Coat of Arms collection (below). This is where fashion design meets furniture – steel skeletons are fleshed out by shaped foam and clothed in rich wools, silks and satins.

Although Atfield and Little’s pieces are very different in material and aesthetic, they share a common philosophy of the handmade artistic statement which suggests new directions for the chair. They also reflect the philosophy expressed at the 1993 Design Renaissance conference by Green designer Victor Papanek: “The rise of a new aesthetic that is formed by environmental and ecological considerations will be unpredictable in its shapes, forms, colours, textures and varieties, and – at the same time – enormously exciting.”

Latest articles

The biggest product launches of 2017

We look at some of the most exciting product design stories from this year, including a reincarnated version of the Nokia 3310 handset, a touchscreen projector from Sony and a smart