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Witold Rybczynski’s New Cultural History of the Chair

In his new book, the author Witold Rybczynski has pulled off a deft trick. Now I Sit Me Down, due out next month, feels loose and relaxed, as well as grounded and authoritative. In a way, it’s like a good chair. The book, a sweeping look, rendered in concise breezy prose, blends first person accounts of the author’s experience, with the cultural history of the chair, from the ancient Greeks, to the Eames and beyond. Here’s an edited version of our conversation from last week.

 

MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
WR: Witold Rybczynski

MCP:

Let’s start with the origin of the book. How did it evolve? Why chairs?

 

WR:

The question of how a book gets started is sometimes difficult to answer, but in the case of this one it’s easy. Two years ago I came across a press release about a new chair, the Dream Chair, designed by Tadao Ando. It caught my eye, because I hadn’t previously associated Ando with furniture, and the manufacturer, Carl Hansen & Søn, was a company that had pioneered Danish Modern furniture in the 1950s and 60s. I write for Architect magazine, and I proposed a story on chairs. Hansen has a showroom in New York, so I went there to try the chair out. I wasn’t impressed, but while I was there I sat in another molded plywood chair, the Shell Chair, designed by Hans Wegner more than 50 years ago. What a great chair!

 

MCP:

Wegner would be in your pantheon of great chair designers?

 

WR:

Yes, he’s one of the heroes in my book. Wegner combined design and workmanship, tradition and innovation, in a very elegant way.

 

Anyway, I wrote the Architect article, mentioning earlier architect chair designers such as Breuer and Aalto. I had dealt with chairs slightly in Home, an earlier book, and the article made me want to explore the subject further, and led directly to Now I Sit Me Down.

What fascinated me was that chairs go back to ancient times. They have to be functional, beautiful, and structural, and seating is a problem that gets solved and resolved by successive generations. There’s a remarkable consistency to the cultural function of the chair down through the years. Not only does it have a social role, there are certain chairs that are so successful that they never really disappear. The Egyptian X-frame folding stool, for example, is still around around today. So is the wing chair, which first appeared in England in the late 17th century, and remains popular.

 

 

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The author is sitting in Tadao Ando’s Dream Chair. Photograph by Adrian Gaut, via Architect magazine;

MCP:

How did you conduct research for the book? There are several points in the book where you talk about visiting museums and studying paintings, to see what chairs the people depicted in them were sitting on.

 

WR:

It’s important to see a chair in context. When you look at a chair in isolation, you’re missing the decor, and how the chair is used. Wall paintings in ancient Egyptian tombs, for example, show how everyday people used folding stools. By the time we get to the Romans, it’s more challenging; we have surviving Roman furniture, but we don’t have many depictions of Roman interiors and how furniture was used. I found 18th and 19th century paintings, both portraits and genre domestic scenes, particularly useful. Furniture is not the subject of these paintings, but you get a sense of how people used furniture, their behavior and dress, and their postures when they were sitting.

 

MCP:

The other major aspect of your research involved sitting in chairs.

 

WR:

Absolutely. You can’t write about chairs without sitting in them. Otherwise it becomes an art history book. Unfortunately, most museums display chairs like works of art; you can’t try them out. Knoll has a museum in East Greenville, Pa., which contains most of the major pieces that the company has produced since its beginning—Mies, Breuer, Saarinen. The wonderful thing about this museum is that you can sit on the chairs. I discovered what a good chair Mies’s Tugendhat Chair is, much better than his famous Barcelona Chair. I also wrote about my own chairs, because they’re the ones I sit in every day. Hans Wegner once said, “A chair is only finished when someone sits in it.” The person using the chair is always part of the equation. A chair is not a sculpture—or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

 

MCP:

The book includes many iconic architect-designed chairs. Why are so many of them so functionally deficient? They’re beautiful, oftentimes, but why are they a chore to sit in?

 

WR:

Many manufacturers today are selling chairs designed as long ago as the 1920s. To freshen their product line, they approach architects who are well-known, looking for recognizable names that will help market chairs. But these architects don’t necessarily have a background in furniture design, and their schemes are not the result of deep research. They make sketches, and then hand them over to the manufacturer, who figures out how to fabricate the things. Great chairs are  always the result of experimentation. That’s why the early chairs of Breuer, Aalto, and the Eames’ were so successful. The designers started by thinking about the material, they experimented, and eventually ended up with a chair. They didn’t start by saying, “We need an iconic chair, because we’re trying to sell a product.”

 

MCP:

I’m glad you devoted some space to Niels Diffrient. Why is he so important to the history of the chair?

 

WR:

Diffrient was an industrial designer, not an architect. He was not even a chair designer, per se. He started off working for Henry Dreyfus and designed all sorts of things: the Princess phone, the Polaroid Land camera, John Deere tractors. When he went on his own, he ended up focussing on office chairs. Diffrient’s approach to chair design was not the way an architect might approach it. He didn’t start with a visual concept; he worked out each functional part—arm, seat, back—and at the end of that process a chair emerged. Diffrient didn’t invent the ergonomic task chair, but his World Chair, which he designed when he was 80, is exceptional. He replaced the tilt mechanism with a simple mechanical linkage, and he got rid of most of the control levers and buttons. The chair adjusts itself to the sitter’s weight and size. It’s not as elegant as an Eames chair, but it’s beautiful because it’s so well thought out as a tool for sitting.

 

MCP:

The 20th century was the Century of the Designer Chair. Why was that?

 

WR:

The period 1920-1960 was a golden age of furniture. There was a balance between new materials, such as plywood and fiberglass, and traditional craftsmanship. Hans Wegner was a skilled carpenter and he combined old techniques with mass production, Alvar and Aino Aalto found a new way to bend wood, Charles and Ray Eames figured out how to form wood veneer, Arne Jacobsen figured out how to make the seat and back out of one piece. They weren’t just making shapes.

 

The history of chairs is marked by periods like this, when you have a strong link between design and fabrication. Danish Modern is a good example. Chair designers worked closely with small craft-oriented wood workshops. This made for a close relationship between design and making. It’s different from what happens today, when design is disconnected from the manufacturing process.

 

 

MCP:

The book contains a lot of historical nuggets. For example: certain things that are labelled today as “innovative,” such as flat packing, are a century and a half old. Or, the dentist chair was, in a way, one of the first “task” chairs. All of these strange threads run through the history of the chair.

 

WR:

The rocking chair, which is an American invention, is something of a mystery, since rockers on cradles existed since the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that someone  thought to add them to chairs. I also wrote about mobile chairs such as baby carriages and wheelchairs. That’s when I learned how old some of these designs are. Invalid chairs, for example, go back to the early 18th century. The wheelchair develops out of those chairs.

 

Michael Thonet gets a whole chapter to himself, because the bentwood chair represents an extraordinary shift, from handmade chairs to mass produced consumer products, virtually in one lifetime. Thonet, who pre-dates Henry Ford, integrated his business vertically, so that he had his own forests, factories, and showrooms. He had showrooms in all the major cities of the world. If it hadn’t been for the Second World War, the history of bentwood furniture would have been different. The bentwood furniture industry was based in eastern Europe, and his factories ended up behind the Iron Curtain. So the whole enterprise disintegrated.

 

 

 

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MCP:

Pick for me your Mount Rushmore of chair designers, the four or five greatest of all time.

 

WR:

That’s hard to do, because some of the greatest chair designs are anonymous. We don’t know who designed the ancient Greek klismos chair, for example. Or the Chinese folding chair, which is marvelous and influenced deck chairs, director’s chairs, and folding stools. The wing chair and the rocking chair are likewise anonymous designs, so is the Windsor chair. But in terms of  the late 19th and early 20th century, Thonet would certainly be on my list. So would Josef Frank, who designed the A811F chair, my favorite bentwood chair. I would include Wegner, who represents the connection between craft and industry, and Charles and Ray Eames, for a small number of extremely well-designed chairs. I don’t think all of Marcel Breuer’s chairs are great, but he had a lot of influence, particularly on tubular steel furniture. His Cesca chair is wonderful. It’s a modern chair that uses wood and rattan, which are traditional furniture materials, and combines them with a cantilever and tubular metal in an interesting way. It’s old and new in one chair.

 

Featured image: Schaukensofa, designed in 1883 by August Thonet, son of Michael; drawing by Witold Rybczynski. 

 

 

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