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Fifty Years of Chair Design on View at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg
Frank Gehry (*1929), Stuhl “Wiggle Side Chair“, Los Angeles/ Cal., U.S.A., 1972. Ausf. Fa. Easy Edges Inc., New York, U.S.A., 1972. Wellkarton, Hartfaserplatte, 84 x 37 x 59 cm. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. Foto: Jörg Arend/Maria Thrun.
HAMBURG.- With ”Ideen sitzen. 50 Years of Chair Design“ the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe present the first large exhibition on recent seat design dating from 1960 to the present day. The exhibition is on view until 13th March 2011. One hundred exceptional exhibits selected from the high-calibre collection held by the MKG, among them chairs, arm chairs, chaise longues and stools, offer an insight into the most diverse approaches and motivations of design during five eventful decades. The focus lies on the chair as contemporary witness be it as expression of a utopian idea or instrument in political protest, a reaction to ecological changes or a calculated business idea, an experiment with the most recent technologies or a sculptural art object, where the chair – divorced from its function – can only just be recognised as the source of inspiration. Chairs are regarded as the business card of any designer. They are visually more attractive than tables, wardrobes, settees or kitchen furniture and exemplify the increasingly blurry demarcation between art and design.

Designing a chair forms part of the great challenge of any designer. In modernity it seemed to have found its perfect answer in Michael Thonet’s Coffee House Chair Model No. 14, made in the revolutionary bentwood technique. Today, 150 years on, a multitude of new chair designs are demonstrating artistic, technical and social changes. No other object juxtaposes the conflicting interests of design as directly: appropriate functionality versus the free reign of fantasy and autonomous artistic form. A new idea lies at the core of any new seating furniture, which will then be moulded by factors such as use, the market, the target group, the company’s philosophy, materials, production methods, technological progress and not least the designers interests, depending on whether he or she is an artist, sculptor, director, architect or simply a product designer. The expression “same, same – but different” is particularly valid when it comes to chairs: an intellectual and a practical product, which is manifest in hundreds of forms. The exhibition “Ideen sitzen. 50 Years of Chair Design “ therefore becomes a reflection of time and its self-concept, its necessities and the longing for freedom of artistic expression.

The design exhibition turns into an art exhibition once it presents autonomous sculpture. The chair freed from its functional requirements becomes a source of information only. The MKG’s most recent acquisitions illustrate this phenomenon of contemporary chair design and demonstrate the increasingly blurred demarcation of art and design. Some of them are design classics: the famous spherical ”Sunball“ lounge chair by Günter Fedinand Ris, the ”Well Tempered Chair“ by Ron Arad, chairs by Stefan Wewerka and Alessandro Mendini’s ”Proust Armchair“ – the latter combining baroque opulence of Louis XV style with an impressionist colour scheme referencing Marcel Proust’s time. The design positions represented in the collection are expanded by Joris Laarman’s ”Bone Chair“, which was inspired by the natural growth of bone. Vladi Rapaport turned an oversized skull and an oversized brain into seats called ”The skull chair“ and ”The brain footstool“ respectively. Tord Boontje created the bench ”Petit Jardin“ where a tender web of leaves, flowers and twigs made of white coated laser cut steel is embracing the sitter. For “Veryround“ Louise Campbell interlinked 240 steel circles to form an ornamental seat sculpture.

Putting the various ideas and trends in design into their historical context, highlights how directly it is informed by social and economic trends. At the beginning of the 20th Century chair design was dictated by social factors and functionality: good quality seats had to be produced at low cost for the masses. New materials such as steel tube and multiplex warranted new production techniques. The introduction of injection-moulding for plastic chairs in the early 1960s revolutionised ideas yet again. The 1960s are determined by the new prosperity after the war, but also by burgeoning social unrest. The exhibition presents some increasingly unconventional types of armchair, which reflect the tensions of the period. Gaetano Pesce’s “Donna”, 1969 is both: a comfortable armchair and a biting political criticism of women’s role in modern society. The prospect of growing markets led the chemical and furniture industry to invest in the production of plastic chairs, a development, which found its preliminary end in the oil crisis of 1973.

The 1970s produced relatively few sweeping designs; the decade is characterised by the criticism of capitalism, consumerism and a heightened sense of uncertainty in manufacturing. Stefan Wewerka created an icon of instability when he came up with “Classroom Chair”; the tried and trusted breaks away, dissolves. The American architect Frank Gehry on the other hand developed new chairs from corrugated cardboard, constructing and gluing the layers so they withhold the greatest pressure; his “Wiggle Side Chair” is a trendsetting seat constructed with minimal material investment and an original design idea. Towards the end of the century Alessandro Mendini created its antithesis when he combined a neo-baroque silhouette with light colours quoting Impressionism – “Proust”’s purpose is the quotation of historic style, which makes it one of the early classics of post-modernism. The architectural and design-movement deliberately cited traditional style elements to reinterpret or pass ironic comment on their meaning. Architecture and interior design were turned into an intellectual game.

Around 1980 the postmodernist approach set off the Italian artists group Memphis led by Ettore Sottsass and Michele de Lucchi. Sottsass turned to the past and to architectural evidence of the world’s cultural heritage. He achieved new singular pieces of furniture inspired by sculpture and architecture – colourful monuments that for a few years were recognised as style icons. Memphis introduced fun and joy into the hitherto predominantly grey and brown furniture scene. Their products offer entertainment value. They are evocative of ideas, full of allusions to earlier cultures, hip, they cherish masquerade and express a way of thinking clearly opposed to industrialism and market strategies. Memphis’ furniture is simply made, using MDF laminated in bright colours. It is to Sottsass’ credit, that against the Zeitgeist Memphis made use of ornament.

While the group’s unique furnishing objects created a lust for new furniture, designers in Germany, England, Japan or Switzerland who followed contemporary product design conceived chairs from metal – tubular steel, steel panel or metal mesh. Intellectually these designers are followers of the Bauhaus creations from the 1920s and 1930s and their proposals are accordingly ambitious. Apart from Northern Italy Paris with Philippe Starck and Barcelona established themselves as the new centres of design. Starck designed numerous new models of chairs from various materials – metal, wood and plastic – within only a few years. His philosophy is to offer to the market ideas that are as innovative as possible while being fairly priced. He formed the counterpart to a fad from the 1980s, where design objects were produced in limited editions and offered to an exclusive clientele. Artists such as Donald Judd, Franz West and Bob Wilson were designing chairs and fittingly documenta in 1989 had a focus on design.

The 1990s return to a design ethos bethinking simplicity and rediscovering natural wood. Pale woods and a concise and rational tenor respond to the demand for clear shapes with a warm and natural character. Numerous designers, including Jasper Morrison or Axel Kufus, turn against the euphoria and affluence of the fin de siècle. Rifts within the structure of society are addressed by works such as Tejo Remy’s “Rug Chair” made of leftover shred reinforced by a carbon core and s of fabric. In Brazil the Campana brothers conceive an armchair from waste wood of the slums called “Favela”. The seat is pointing at the destitution of the residents of the slums as well as the creative possibilities inherent in poor materials. Equally Marcel Wanders’ “Knotted Chair” makes use of the simplest rope; its carbon core and hardened epoxy fix the knotted structure in the shape of a chair giving the illusion of the sitter being suspended on a soft hanging structure.

In the first decade of the 21st century designers like Konstantin Grcic or the Bouroullec Brothers continued to work on intelligent solutions for large social groups. At the same time young designers such as the Dutchman Joris Laarman or the Frenchman Patrick Jouin employ digital methods of design, which allow them to calculate new ways of construction. They also make use of Rapid Prototyping. Their objects are highly experimental and seem to offer a glimpse of the world of tomorrow. Other designers like Tord Boontje work with laser cut metal sheet to create ornamental compositions. Most designs by the younger scene are produced in small numbers and are distributed largely by design galleries. The seating furniture of a new era is taking up the elitist impulse of the 1980s – produced in highly limited numbers they are treated as unique art works. Museums who manage to acquire such pieces directly from the artists are thus in a position to present models that are wholly fresh to the eye and provoke spontaneous responses.


Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe | Hamburg | "50 Years of Chair Design" |




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