Just what is it about chairs that grips our attention, inspires our imagination, and generally has us on the edge of our proverbial seats? Perhaps it’s because they are so very functional, almost one-dimensional, really, and yet can take on such a plethora of different forms. There’s no doubt that the mid-century modernist period produced its share of truly jaw-dropping chairs – pieces that shook up industrial as well as interior design – however the real revolution started before this, in the early 20th century, in places as far-flung as Scandinavia and the United States.
In the ensuing century, scores of chairs have been designed that are worthy of the moniker iconic; the real challenge was whittling it down to only five.
Hans Wegner’s “Wishbone Chair” (1949)
It would be remiss not to include a sample by Hans Wegner, nicknamed the Master of the Chair for the 500-plus designs he made in this category alone. A master of modernism, Wegner helped capture and shape Danish design to such an extent that it is still instantly recognisable today. The starting point for the Wishbone, however, came from further afield: the design was inspired by a series of portraits from the Chinese Ming dynasty, and it forms part of Wegner’s China Chair collection. It not only looks completely timeless – as relevant today as it was on its release in 1949 – the Wishbone actually advanced furniture-design technology at the time by combining the arms and top rail into a single piece of wood.
Pictures: Carl Hansen & Son
Jean Royère’s “Egg Chair and Stool” (1953)
Has any food inspired so many chairs as the humble egg? While Henrik Thor-Larsen’s resembles the hard-boiled variety and Arne Jacobsen’s “Egg” has hatched wings, Royère’s design is almost playful with its squat proportions and plush stuffing. The French designer was indeed known for doing things his own way, whether opening his first Paris store during WWII, favouring sensuous padded designs over the angular styles more typical of modernism, or producing only limited quantities of his designs. Of course, the latter now accounts for their astronomical price tags, not to mention famous customers, including Kanye West.
Harry Bertoia’s “Diamond” (1950–52)
There’s something almost aerodynamic about Bertoia’s Diamond chair, with its wire lattice frame gracefully swooping from a curved back into a pair of symmetrical wings. Indeed, Bertoia noted that his chairs are as much about space as they are form, once commenting that, “If you will look at them, you will find they are mostly made of air, just like sculpture. Space passes right through them.” It’s not surprising that the Italian-born, American-based designer would liken his chairs to sculptures – he worked across disciplines for much of his career, creating jewellery, metal installations and more, always infusing the cold, hard metal with a warm, almost organic character.
Alvar Aalto’s “Paimio Chair” (1931–32)
Although it was first released under the not-very-inspiring name of Model No. 41, this chair immediately sent shockwaves through the design world with its curvaceous birch frame and louche laminated seat. The revised moniker, Paimio, is taken from the name of the Finnish sanitorium that was completely designed and furnished by Aalto in the early 1930s. The architect believed that the building itself would contribute to patients’ wellbeing and referred to it as a “medical instrument”. Now a private rehab centre, a stint at Paimio would surely be immeasurably beneficial to one’s health.
Marcel Breuer’s “B32/Cesca” (1928)
Appearing to defy gravity with its seat suspended mid-air, the B32 provides a wonderful contrast between tubular steel frame and rattan seat and back. The latter feature is of course a hallmark of Thonet, which first began production of this slinky S-shaped delight way back in 1927. For Breuer,”any object properly and practically designed should ‘fit’ into any room in which it is used as would any living object, like a flower or a human being”. As the B32 surpasses its 90th anniversary, it’s perhaps this philosophy that accounts for its incredible longevity.