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From Bentwood to Airport Seating: Influential Chairs in Design History

No matter what chair you are sitting on at the moment, the object that is keeping you comfortable is a result of decades and centuries-long development.

The process of chair design has come a long way, started with experiencing different materials. Nowadays, designers still amuse audiences with mind-blowing new ideas. But how can a chair promote an ideology or stand for more than itself on four legs?

‘Every truly original idea-every innovation in design, every new application of materials, every technical invention for furniture seems to find its most important expression in a chair’.
(George Nelson, Chairs 1953.)

Thonet’s No.14 chair

In 1830, Michael Thonet, a German carpenter later regarded as a pioneer in industrial design, started experimenting with bentwood furniture. The process of bending wood was known since the beginning of the century, but Thonet and his sons took the practice to a next level. At the 1867 World Exposition in Paris, the No.14 chair was awarded a gold medal and became Thonet’s most popular model.

With the rise of the Art Nouveau, spaces became ordered, and this ‘total art’ (as Richard Wagner put it, Gesamtkunstwerk) involved planning every detail of the interior. Charles Rennie Mackintosh supported this idea- which later influenced Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto. The Schottish architect/designer created his chairs in harmony with the building, which resulted in the ultimate design arrangement. Macintosh’s design for the Argyle Street Tea Rooms, a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ space, was fully reconstructed for the 150th anniversary of the designer’s birth and can be visited in the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow. Each chair of the reopened building is identical to the original chairs and was handmade.

Mackintosh Chairs, The original design for the interior of Willow Tea Rooms in 1903.

The MR90 model, now manufactured by Knoll Inc.

There is no article, essay or book on chairs without including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich’s No. MR90 model or popularly known as the ‘Barcelona chair’. The architect and his wife were commissioned by the government to design the German pavilion for the 1929 International Exhibition in Barcelona. The pavilion stands as a milestone both for modern architecture and design. Despite its industrial appearance, the chair is still almost completely handcrafted and represents the Bauhaus ideology. However, the original Bauhaus mission, ‘furniture for the common man’, can hardly be fulfilled: the model’s price can reach over £7,000.

Panton Chair, 1967

The father of the Barcelona chair, Mies van der Rohe, acquired further ideas than creating the aforementioned icon. He wanted to design a chair that can be stackable. This idea was realised by Verner Panton. In the mid-fifties, he created what it’s now called the first, single-material, single-form injection-moulded plastic chair. The entire object was designed from one material and without legs, for the first time in history. The Danish furniture and interior designer’s organic shaped model followes the curves of the human body. The properties of the chair make it easily mass-produced, comfortable and stackable.

If you’ve ever waited in an airport, you probably recognise Rodney Kinsman’s model, made for the British pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo. The chair was specifically created for Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s eco-building to serve as a short-stay public seating system.

The idea of a ‘short-stay is also desired by audiences when waiting. We all have been sitting on these, rather uncomfortable aluminium chairs waiting for a delayed flight and wishing our time on that hard base to be as short as possible. Since the Seville model is easily produced and adjustable, it is commonly used in airports and public spaces.

Seville model, 1991

Written by Fruzsina Vida