Chair: 500 pieces of furniture that have shaped design history

A new book from Phaidon takes a journey through time to explore the humble chair, from pieces by Ray and Charles Eames and the Bouroullec brothers to 16th century relics.

The chair; a simple yet ubiquitous item of furniture that has served as something to sit on for thousands of years. From 16th century stone stools through to the technology-powered chairs of today which change shape, size or warmth to suit the person, there have been a myriad of styles and designs throughout the object’s history.

A new book from Phaidon – Chair: 500 Designs that Matter – written by the publisher’s editorial director Emilia Terragni delves into the object’s history and variety, exploring chairs that differ in material, shape, style, design and ergonomics.

Terragni picks out five classic designs from the book and explains why they have stood the test of time and are so important to furniture design today.

Chair n. 14, Thonet – 1859 to present

by Michael Thonet, 1859, courtesy of Gebrüder Thonet (1859 to 1976), Thonet (1976 to present), Gebrüder Thonet Vienna (1976 to present). © Gebruder Thonet Vienna.

When looking at this chair now, you might think it is a beautiful piece of craft design. In reality, while being similar in style to other chairs of the period, it is one of the first, fully industrially-manufactured chairs in history – designed to be produced and assembled on an unprecedented scale. Michael Thonet developed a process of steam-bending wooden strips and rods, that could then be put together with screws, without the need for carving or glue. This allowed the furniture to be mass-produced, easily-shipped, and put together at its end destination. Still in production over 150 years later, this beautiful and timeless object is a lasting testament to what good design can achieve.

1006 Navy Chair, Emeco – 1944 to present

1006 Navy Chair, 1944, US Navy Engineering Team, Emeco Design Team and Alcoa Design Team; Emeco (1944 to present). © Emeco.

Commissioned by the US Navy during the final years of World War Two, this chair was the result of a collaboration between furniture maker Emeco and Alcoa, an American aluminium production company. Designed to be used at sea – specifically on submarines – the brief was very precise: the chair needed to be light but durable, resistant to corrosion, and relatively cheap to produce. The choice of recycled aluminium and the straightforward shape ticked all the boxes. It’s a wonderful example of a chair designed for a very specific and focused use, that has become a ubiquitous object. Originally built to withstand tornadoes – and still boasting a lifetime warranty – today the chair is just as likely to be found in busy restaurants as it is in the family home.

Antelope Chair, Ernest Chair, Race furniture – 1951 to present

Antelope Chair, 1951, Ernest Race (1913–64); Race Furniture (1951 to present). © Race Furniture.

Designed for the outdoor spaces of the Royal Festival Hall in London, this chair soon became one of the symbols of the Festival of Britain exhibition. Less machine-like than previous metal furniture developed at the Bauhaus, the organic form of this chair and its friendly details such as the ball feet, succeeded in communicating the post-war optimism of the industry. Still in production, available with a powder-coated, steel-rod frame in a range of colours and a lacquered or painted wooden seat, the chair effortlessly captures the spirit of the time, playing its role in the massive, mid-century modern revival we’re experiencing today.

Panton Chair, Verner Panton, Vitra – 1967 to present

Panton Chair, 1967, Verner Panton (1926 – 1998); Herman Miller/Vitra (1967 to 1979), Horn/ WK-Verband (1983 to 1989), Vitra (1990 to present). © Vitra Design Museum, photos © Bill Sharpe and Charles Eames.

A chair normally has a seat, a back and four legs that are produced separately and then assembled together. This, however – the cantilevered, stacking Panton chair – is a continuous, un-jointed S, where the back flows seamlessly into seat, which in turn flows into base. Its beautiful, sculptural look makes this chair a unique object. Designed in the late 1950s, its manufacture was almost technologically impossible, and it was only due to the perseverance of the designer, Verner Panton, and the engineering capabilities of Vitra, that this chair was successfully realised. Today its production is much easier of course, but it is thanks to the collaborative efforts of designer and manufacturer that we can enjoy one of the most striking design icons of the 20th century.

Aeron Chair, Donald T Chadwick, Herman Miller 1994

Aaron Chair, 1994, Donald T Chadwick (1936–), William Stumpf (1936–2006); Herman Miller (1994 to present). © Herman Miller.

Probably one of the best-selling chairs ever produced, the Aeron chair was a new kind of office chair. Introduced during a period when people were beginning to spend more and more time in front of computers, this chair was the result of extensive ergonomic research, studies on incorrect posture and unsuitable seating, and a collective desire for extra comfort. Without added padding, but instead with an innovative and supporting net, the chair naturally follows the complex movement of the human body. Produced in three different sizes, and offering infinite possibilities for adjusting the seat, back and arm rests, this chair is suitable and comfortable for all kind of bodies and positions.

Chair: 500 Designs that Matter is available now through Phaidon’s website for £16.95. For more info, head here.

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