Alvar and I

Musings about vintage design furniture

Posts Tagged ‘Chairs

A Critique of Tubular Steel

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“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


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Mies Van Der Rohe – MR10 (1927)


Gerrit Rietveld – Zig Zag chair (1932-34)

Hans Pieck (1946-1947)

Egon Eiermann – SE69 chair (1952)

Dorotheum-Tripod chair SE 69

Gio Ponti – Superleggera (1957)

Werner Panton – S chair (1965)

Shigeru Uchida – Rattan Chair (1974)

Ron Arad – Eight by One (1991)

Martin Van Severen – MVS chaise (2000)

Shigeru Ban – Carbon Fiber chair (2009)

“”I wanted to make a chair that is even lighter than the gio ponti’s superleggera – a chair so light that a child could pick it up with just his little finger.”

String theory

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A few years back we were visiting the huge warehouse of a French dealer. It was full to the brim of Scandinavian masters. We hardly could figure out where to look. Then our eyes rested upon the most elegant and distintive daybed, a weigthless design of a long and sensual rosewood frame interlaced with nylon strings for the support. We asked the price, largely out of our range, and kept dreaming of it ever since.

Helge Vestergaard-Jensen¦Daybed¦1955

What reminded us of it recently was a lot of Jacques Guillon Cord Chair on offer at Wright Now. This was a first encounter with Canadian mid-century design. The chair’s striking looks combine elegance and lightness. The use of nylon strings for the seat and backrest give that minimalist feel.

Jacques Guillon¦Cord Chair¦1954

It was probably time for this blog to pay hommage to string furniture (and no we are not going to talk about beach and garden reclining chairs). This is also a nice opportunity for us to showcase some striking modern designs.

We can only but start with René Herbst, the precursor. His Sandows chair was made with salvaged bungee straps from the automobile industry (sandows in French), a first example of use of recuperated material in design and at the same time a breakthrough in industrial design and pure esthetics. The collector Michael Boyd recounts in Modernist Paradise how he came to meet with a dealer and good friend of Herbst in Paris and visit his office, which had been put away in storage for safekeeping. There were three original Sandows chairs, which Boyd used to make a perfect chair with one set of intact bungee cords, something that no museum had.

René Herbst¦Sandows Chair¦1929

Our next exhibit is the Harp chair by Jorgen Hovelskov, a strinking design combining Folklore, modernity and daring as only the Scandinavian can do. Incidentally the chair is also called the Viking chair, a testimony to its multiple personality.

Jorgen Hovelskov¦Harp Chair¦1968


Lastly, another incredible design, for which there is nothing else to say that it comes out of nowhere and does not resemble anything else. The PP 225 or “Flag Halyard” from the name of its cord seating, by Hans Wegner is indeed unlike any of his or any of his peers design. There is something primal and brash about it that makes a pretty indelible impression. It’s a real nest and probably incredibly comfortable (we have yet to try).

Hans Wegner¦PP 225¦1950


Written by Alvar and I

March 16, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Modern Britannia

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Old Blimey is not usually where vintage design hunters would set their sights in their quest for the finest pieces, rather going for France, Italy or the Nordic countries. This would be missing important early modernists and excellent 50s furniture. Also, the UK was an important market for modernist furniture, being for instance the first export market for Aalto furniture (distributed by Finmar Ltd) and there is nice vintage from other designers as well.

Gerald Summers and the beautifully named Makers of Simple Furniture is said to be the most innovative UK designer of the 1930s. This claim is easily supported by his armchair (1933-1934) a masterpiece of modernism. Uniquely, for the time,  the chair was manufactured of a single sheet of plywood following an ingenious design. This solution was motivated by the intended use of the chair in tropical climates where metal joinery would not have resisted humidity. Unfortunately Makers of Simple Furniture was active for only 11 years from 1929 to 1939 when it had to shut down because of restrictions on the importation plywood. Summers never really went back to design. Only 120 armchairs were produced.

Gerald Summers- Armchair – Makers of Simple Furniture

Isokon was founded on the same year as Makers of Simple Furniture and ceased its activities in 1939 for the exact same reason. We are very found of the idea that Isokon was founded by a bacteriologist, a sollicitor and economist! Isokon was closely associated with the Bauhaus, and harbored German designers fleeing the Nazi regime. Walter Gropius was controller of design there between 1934 and 1937. He recommended Marcel Breuer whose most striking design is his armchair, a translation of an earlier metal design for Wohnbedarf in Switzerland. Another iconic design is the Penguin Donkey by Jack Pritchard and Egon Riss. Jack Pritchard was managing the company and went on to relaunch Isokon in 1963 and work with Ernest Race (more on him below). The company was relaunched a third time in 1999 under the brand name of Isokonplus.

Marcel Breuer- Chaise Longue- Isokon

Jump forward to 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, where two major names of British design, Ernest Race and Robin Day came to the fore. The Springbok chair by Ernest Race was picked for the Festival’s cafe. This design is now slightly forgotten for the more famous Antelope and Unicorn chairs.

Ernest Race – Unicorn chair- Race Furniture Ltd

Bukowskis-Unicorn chair

Robin Day was commissioned at the Festival of Britain to design the Royal Festival Hall seats. The Royal Festival Armchair is a particular favorite. He and his wife Lucienne, a textile designer, went on to become the much loved British equivalent of Charles and Ray Eames and embody British modernism. Lucienne Day sadly passed away last month. Robin Day established a successful collaboration with the furniture maker Hille. The Polyprop and Polo chairs they produced together were huge successes.

Robin Day- Armchair for the Royal Festival Hall

The 1950s and 1960s saw several good designers and editors producing modernist furniture, inspired by Scandinavian and names like Ercol, Heritage, Archie Shine, G Plan, Merrow Associates and Stag are coming back into fashion. Here is a good BBC Homes and Antiques article and links to good UK dealers of these design. Hurry while they are still affordable: prices are rising fast and new pieces constantly appear on the market. You can also  pay a visit to Concrete Box and Mark Parrish who offer a very good selection of British vintage designs.

Webbings we like

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Aalto, Grabbe, Mathson, Risom: what do these four giants have in common? They all used webbing in some of their most famous designs. There is something both elegant and cheap to furniture using webbed canvas, and for a good reasons as often these designs were borne out of necessity.

Aalto is the precursor, with his Model 406 “Pension” Chair, designed in 1933 and a successor to the Model 41 armchair, with a higher back for comfort. But what makes this chair remarkable is the use of a cotton canvas webbing after many years of experimentation with laminated wood. The webbing offers smoother support and better airflow.

Alvar Aalto – Model 406 Chair – Artek

Bruno Mathsson successfully borrowed from Aalto the use of canvas webbing, which offered lightness and durability. Mathsson experimented with different woods and webbing materials from jute to paper. Further reading can be found here courtesy of Webvg.

Bruno Mathsson – Pernilla Chair

Jens Risom used webbing for his first collection for Knoll in the US. Wartime restrictions lead him to use webbing made out of parachute fabric and walnut. We particularly like the use of color in his designs.

Jens Risom – 654 W Side Chair – Knoll


Like Risom, Klaus Grabbe used military fabric due to wartime restrictions for his 1948 Chaise Longue. The thick exagerated section is very reminiscent of Risom’s chair, but made of plywood. Breuer is said to have inspired Grabbe, who also designed this other pretty striking reclining model .

Klaus Grabbe – Chaise Longue

Chaise longuee

Update: we ought to add this one, recently seen at RetroModern Design

Axel Larsson – Side Chair- Bodafors

Written by Alvar and I

February 28, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Jeanne Rymer, Collector

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Another catch up session: an interesting article courtesy of Antiques via Modern Magazine on Jeanne Rymer, former UD professor. For once a “regular Jane” (sorry: could not resist) collector. A refreshing change from gazillionaires who overpay for their art. We wish we had been able to see the exhibit of her collection.

Written by Alvar and I

February 8, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Dutch treat

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Every modern furniture lover will drool in front masterpieces of industrial design like the Compass desk by Jean Prouve, the incredibly elegant M400 helicoidal spiral staircase from Roger Tallon, or the Mies Van der Rohe Brno chair.

Industrial design is consubstantial to the evolution of modern design. Thonet was the precursor with its No. 14 bistro chair. The Bauhaus and American schools of design (the Spring 2010 issue of Modernism has a very nice piece on Gilbert Rohde) investigated the possibilities offered by industrial production techniques to explore new forms and materials such as tubular steel and achieve the cost benefits of mass production.

Simplicity, functionality, versatility, robustness, existence outside of home, and the use of common materials come to define what is industrial furniture design, although we at Alvar and I are not entirely convinced that a satisfactory definition exists (or is needed for that matter).

Well, let us stop here since this post is not so much to write about the history of design than to celebrate the elegance of Dutch design, which we have become to be interested in lately, and not just the pioneers Mart Stam and Gerrit Rietveld.

In the 1950s true to the spirit of modernism of functional and democratic furniture, designers like Wim Rietveld, Dirk Cordemeijer, Friso Kramer, Wilhelm Gispen and Coen de Vries, for manufacturers such as Pilastro, Ahrend de Cirkel, Auping and Gispen.

In true Dutch spirit this is vintage that is practical and still affordable. We hope you will enjoy some of our favorites(from Mid Mod Design a good and friendly dealer for Dutch industrial design):

Coen de Vries¦Toonladder¦Pilastro

Dirk Cordemeijer¦Cleopatra bed¦Auping

Friso Kramer¦Revolt Chair¦Ahrend de Cirkel

Wim Rietveld¦Floor lamp¦Gispen