Case study – Wait chair for Authentics

Matthew Hilton is, so far as his laid-back demeanour allows, cock-a-hoop about Wait. It has taken him two years to perfect. This must have been nerve-racking at a time when plenty of designers have been toying afresh with the idea of the cheap moulded plastic chair. But he has stolen a march on them.

The problem is making them both good and cheap, and Hilton has cracked it. Authentics’ annual production of around 50 000 means that in Britain, the chairs will retail at just 30 – compared with 80 or 90 for other ‘designer’ attempts in this area by the likes of Starck and Bellini. It will also be around half the price of the ingenious two-piece rotationally-moulded plastic chair by One Foot Taller, part of the forthcoming Glasgow Collection. That Hilton describes dispassionately as ‘interesting, but not commercially interesting’.

Hilton has achieved what so many have tried to do, not by trying to reinvent the technology of the plastic chair, but by refining it. As with so many designers, he found himself sitting on ghastly white plastic outdoor furniture while on holiday, and becoming intrigued by the prospect of producing something better. He took the idea to Authentics, retained control of the design process, and negotiated hard for what he describes as a ‘good deal’ on royalties. This is only the second piece of furniture Authentics has produced.

All he has done – it seems so simple, but it needed a clear mind to accomplish – is to look at the structure of the one-piece, injection-moulded chair, simplify it to a near-platonic square-backed form, and then make it as rigid as possible. Strengthening fins run down the back and under the seat. The key to the chair’s durability, however, lies in the moulding at the point where back and seat join. At this crucial angle, Hilton has introduced an open box section that absorbs the stresses of use, while still allowing the right degree of flexibility.

The pre-production version I tried in Hilton’s studio was in translucent polypropylene (which is, apparently, bendier than the solid-colour type) and had about the same degree of flex as a classic Arne Jacobsen moulded-plywood chair. The production versions will be slightly more rigid, says Hilton, and will be offered in both translucent and solid plastic types.

This, however, is a chair which is likely to find its way into homes, cafés and offices, as well as into gardens. It is stackable, of course, lightweight, strong, and will look good in a range of colours. Hilton has now been asked by Authentics to design a fabric cover for another, ‘posher’ indoor version.

The chair posed a new challenge for Hilton, since the tooling necessary for mass production is very expensive – so there was no room for the last-minute changes that more traditional furniture-making processes allow. The use of computer programs to create a fully-designed, stress-tested and costed ‘model’ of the chair before prototyping was crucial, and the design of the tooling was as important as the design of the chair itself.

‘It’s not easy, but I’m surprised no one’s done it before,’ says Hilton. ‘It’s thinking about the market in a different way, being convinced that there was a market for it.’

And as usual, he is against visual extremism. ‘It’s not about making a screaming, shouting design statement. It’s about using that standard technology to make something that works, is comfortable, strong enough, quietly decent-looking. It can’t be a fashion thing – with that tooling, they’ve got to be making these chairs for ten years.’

This is the Holy Grail of the furniture designer – high volume, low cost. If the Wait chair succeeds – and it certainly deserves to, so long as they can keep the price at that level – then Hilton will have moved a step forward in his career. After all these years of sofas, can we expect him to move back towards the broader area of industrial design?

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