Alvar and I

Musings about vintage design furniture

Archive for February 2011

Look, don’t sit

leave a comment »

Like old relatives, vintage chairs, couches, and sideboards appreciate a little respect and attention.

It’s all fine for tidy couples who dine out with friends and insist on having the family reunions at the house of grandma and pa. What when kids, pets, friends, house workers and other hazards lurk around?

Furniture was first designed to be used before being fetischized, unless you call home a museum. Granted, special items need a bit of extra care. They cannot suffer the same abuse as the old couch that mum and dad gave you to keep company to your game console and empty beer cans in your student pad. Still, vintage pieces have to coexist with unruly kids or careless visitors.

First, let’s pass on the über-sensitive and emotional topic of pets, of which we have no experience so far  (the blog sphere is actually replete with photos of Rex and Fluffy on the Eames rocker). Our best proxy are kids.

Kids, as would be expected, have no concept of vintage furniture, nor of any thing that Mum and Dad might find precious besides themselves — and they famously also lack a sense of danger (yes, that includes climbing on and jumping off your plywood couch, magic markers in hand). Here it is necessary to draw a fundamental distinction between one’s kids — perfectly well educated — and the annoying offspring of other people. Actually, when talking of vintage furniture, there is an element of truth in that distinction. Our kids have learned quite rapidly what is permitted and forbidden in terms of our most fragile pieces. Of course, they test the limit regularly, but a bit of attention and appropriate use of language does the trick: “Poul (not his real name) climb off the couch immediately or I’ll kill you!”; “Tapio (still not his real name): last warning; if you come within 2 meters of the credenza, we’ll send you to orphanage”.

As for other kids, well… If the parents are around, we suggest keeping your eyes on them first to ensure that they are constantly on their progeny’s case. It is amazing how parents immediately become more relaxed and liberal around other people’s furniture: washing hands becomes optional, and of course the poor kids must spend their energy on something since they don’t have their toys around (yes, your Nelson sofa with its mint Kvadrat upholstery will do). If parents are not there, containment in a kid-proof part of the house works very well.

Guests enjoy this delicious sense of ease brought by the knowledge of not being at home. And so friendships get frayed as you keep pushing coasters under your friends’ drinks. Adults in our experience are as dangerous — if not more — as kids for our fragile friends. But when you start wondering why people cannot lower their posterior gently onto your fifties couch, rather than flinging themselves onto it as if it were an eighties’ waterbed, it might be time for a change of tack.  After a couple of near-misses and genuine accidents we opted for preventive strategies, including  moving some of our most sensitive pieces out of sight. What a pity that not only can you not sit, you can’t even look. But we have found that there is no way to really give an adult a dose of tactful reminder without appearing fussy.

Similarly, your beloved Aalto does not necessarily welcome a vigorous Pledge polish. Better to remove everything but the fabric wipes from the cleaning closet and pretend that it’s all out of care for the environment.

Do not believe that this is pure paranoia: those measures were taken after a hefty glass of wine nearly ruined a non-varnished wood tabletop, and the original webbing of a thirties’ couch gave way after not one but two friends sank into it with blissful abandon. Not so long ago, the original fabric of newly purchased chairs was baptized in its new home with chocolate ice cream. In all these cases we had bought the furniture only a few days before.

We are now warned and ready. You’d better be as well…


Written by Alvar and I

February 13, 2011 at 2:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Critique of Tubular Steel

leave a comment »

“In 1925 modern tubular furniture was born. Its birthplace was the Bauhaus, famed German school of architecture and design which Nazis later turned into a domestic science school for girls. It had a bony infancy. Fad-hungry interior decorators pounced on its chromium steel chairs and glass-topped tables. But many a buyer found it short on fun, however long on function. Trouble was – and still is – that metal furniture was cold in surface and line, clammy or hot according to the weather.

Alvar Aalto – Model No. 21

Meanwhile, in Finland, a brilliant young architect named Alvar Aalto and his architect wife, Aino, really got somewhere with modern furniture. Influenced by the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier (real name: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), but experimenting in plywood instead of steel, they smoothed out geometric kinks, turned out chairs which combined the functional with good sense and charm. The Aaltos were the first to make chairs with pliant one-piece backs and resilient seats. They pioneered also in welding together layers of plywood with synthetic cement, cold-pressing them for six weeks into posture-pleasing shapes.

Alvar Aalto – Model No. 31

Exhibited on the Continent, in London, at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (in 1938), their light, satiny furniture brought the Aaltos international renown, put them in the front rank of modern furniture designers. (Also well acknowledged by then was stocky, bush-browed Alvar Aalto’s high rank among living architects.)

Alvar Aalto – Model No. 42

Last week Alvar and Aino Aalto opened their own furniture store (Artek-Pascoe, Inc.) in Manhattan. The Aaltos’ plywood sandwiches of maple and birch are shaped in Wisconsin, shipped East for assembly. Colors of the finished pieces of furniture – many of them Aalto-patented – ranged from natural finish through cellulosed red and blue to black. On display also went Aalto-designed screens and glassware.

Alvar Aalto – Lounge Chair Model No. 43

The excellence of the Aalto furniture may help to discourage manufacture of some furniture that now passes for modern. The Aalto purpose is to use U. S. mass production to get their designs into ordinary U. S. homes. Though their simple, substantial furniture is well fitted for mass production, the Aalto assembly line has not yet cut prices to the ordinary buyer’s range. In full operation, it will retail an armchair now priced at $29.50 for $19, a $47 chest of drawers for $24, a $15 side table for $9. The Aaltos have already attained space-saving by designing stools that nest into each other, side chairs and even armchairs that can be stacked 20 high to save space.”

[TIME magazine, “Furniture by Assembly Line“, July 15, 1940 issue; with due thanks to Modernism101 for the pointer]

Aalto felt that steel tubing was unsuited to living spaces and he disliked its tinny sound. He took advantage of the elasticity of birch wood, whose spring qualities had hitherto only been only used for skis. Around the same time different solutions were followed by other designers, most notably Heinz and Bodo Rasch’s “Sitzengeiststuhl” (“the spirit of the sitting chair”) and Gerrit Rietveld.

Gerrit Rietveld – Zig-zag chair (1934)

Gerrit Rietveld. Zig-Zag Chair. 1934

The radical innovation of Rietveld’s design was that it did not follow the imaginary lines of a cube, but instead a diagonal.

Charlotte Perriand for the Exhibition “Tradition, Selection, Creation” (1941)

Phillips, de Pury & Company-Experimental armchair

This one was designed while Perriand was in Japan and made out of plywood and bamboo elastic bands. This armchair, an interpretation of Alvar Aalto’s designs (Model No. 31 in particular), was made for her exhibitions at the Takashimaya department stores in Tokyo and Osaka in 1941. The exhibition Tradition, Selection, Creation was opened under sponsorship of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the French Embassy. It can be considered the immediate outcome of Perriand’s official appointment as advisor to Japanese industrial art production from 1940 to 1941 and her collaboration with Junzo Sakakura. More from the Philips, de Pury & Company catalog description here.

Werner Panton – S Chair No. 275 (1956)

Manufacturing a chair out of a single plywood sheet had been achieved long before Panton’s design by Gerald Summer and Hans Pieck, but it is only with Panton that a cantilever design was made possible. Hugo Häring had proposed in 1949 a prototype made out of a single sheet of metal; the model was intended for production in plywood but never came to be.

[Most of the above information – including this post’s title – is taken from Stebastian Hackenschmidt’s essay “Cantilevered: Chairs as Material Experiments” for the MAK Exhibition Cantilever Chair: Architectural Manifesto and Material Experiment]

Written by Alvar and I

February 12, 2011 at 10:45 pm

From our 50’s couch

leave a comment »

1. Plywood: Material, Process, Form opened at MoMA in NYC


2. Artek Open Archives an image database showcasing past and present Artek interiors


3. LA Modern Auctions (LAMA) and Quittenbaum catalogs via isuu

Written by Alvar and I

February 10, 2011 at 2:24 am

Way out of our league

leave a comment »

Well, we cannot really complain about fetichism here, but we can still spot a speculative bubble when we see one. Astronomical prices for mid-century furniture is nothing new for the likes of Prouvé, Perriand, Ponti and Molino, but every time we look they seem to increase. Cue the sales from the recent Design Miami in the margins of the Art Basel Fair.

Among mostly contemporary “Furnitart” on sale at very very high prices (Bouroulec at $40,000 a piece any one?), several well heeled mid-century specialists were present: Sebastian and Barquet, Jousse Entreprises, Gallerie Seguin and R 20th Century among them. Guess this was an inspired move for them!

Galerie Jousse Entreprise

the Mexican bookcase by Perriand and Prouvé went for €130,000 to a Russian collector. It’s not only football teams…

Secret Habit

Galerie Seguin

Jean Royère “Ours Polaire” Sofa and armchairs,1949, sold for $800,000…

the “Croisillon” bed (at the back): yours for a mere $125,000


R Gallery

Joaquim Tenreiro table – € 300,000

(and it’s even not Jacaranda…)

I guess that we are a bit jealous. More on Design Miami here and The Art Newspaper.

From our 50’s couch

leave a comment »

1. George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher just opened at the Oklahoma City Museum of Arts until April 11th.

2. 24 Gerrit Rietveld chairs via Mondo-Blogo

3. A quick guide to collecting mid-century furniture courtesy Brooklyn Based.

Written by Alvar and I

February 6, 2011 at 9:14 pm