100 masterpieces from the Vitra Design Museum collection

Brisbane City Gallery

Amongst the merchandise that accompanied the Vitra Design Museum exhibition was a book entitled Chairman - a title which illustrates, literally, the role of Roll Fehlbaum as director of the Vitra dynasty. The Museum, in Weil am Rhein, Germany, concerns itself almost entirely with the history of chair design. Conceptually, Fehlbaum's aim was to create a Museum which would appeal to the layman and to awaken awareness of a designed environment.

On first viewing this exhibition, one is struck by gimmickry; a useful tool for highlighting the infinite ways a chair may be interpreted. The Pratone chair, (translated as 'lawn') is a completely goofy concoction of foamy green planks, designed to represent magnified blades of grass. It was intended as a salve for poor inner-city Romantics, struck by a sudden yearning for nature. The idea was that they could plunge into this interior landscape and imagine the delights of a lush green field. The fluffy orange Pantower, an equally way-out creation, curves in a pattern to seat four people at varying heights. Made in 1968 by Verner Panton, it was a commission by Herman Miller AG.

The audience's favourite chair at the Brisbane City Gallery was Gaetano Pesce's Donna (1969) a red buxom lounge chair which reclines as a metaphorical nude. What does not follow, initially, is that the round footrest represents a ball and chain. According to the original design plans, the chair portrays the weight of womanhood: 'A woman is always confined, a prisoner of herself against her will. .. l wanted to give this chair the shape of a woman with a ball chained to her foot'. I Not all furniture performs such lively metaphors. Frank Lloyd Wright's self-consciously ornamental Peacock Chair, was designed for the Imperial Hotel in Japan. Based on his theory of Organic Architecture, Wright declared in 1910 that 'chairs and tables, cabinets and even musical instruments, where practicable, are of the building itself, never fixtures upon it'.2 The hexagons on the back and sides of the Peacock Chair are encountered elsewhere in the hotel.

The Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld was a member of De Stijl, a movement which had influenced the Bauhaus but went beyond it in terms of abstraction. Rietveld's Red and Blue Chair (1918) was a three-dimensional development of the gridded primary colours that formed the paintings of Van Doesburg and Mondrian. The reputation of these artists meant that initially, it was difficult not to view his chair as merely derivative. Looking closely, Rietveld's canny design coupled with the seductiveness of red and blue bouncing off each other perform colour collages impossible in any painting. Following on from Rietveld, we see the importance of Bauhaus innovated designs. In these there was interest in work which rejected the tradition of the four legged chair. Marcel Breuer's dream was to make sitters think they were sitting on 'springy columns of air', eliminating all obstruction to the pure flow of space.3 His purist vision was based on the belief that where furniture was visible at all, it should be pared down to its formal essence. Breuer did not manage to (de)-materialise this chair, but the example of the popular Blow chair (1967) was made in homage to his spatial fantasy. Sceptics, in opposition to many of the new designs, made the point that while styles in furniture may change, the human body does not. Much of this new furniture seemed to insist that it should. The tubular metal objects by Bauhaus designers like Breuer seemed too polemical to be comfortable.

There were, however, serious attempts by Modernists at functional furniture. Eileen Gray, a true purist, conceived a bedside table in 1927 which also contradicted the notion of furniture with four legs. Double tubular steel was mounted with a ring at the base that could be pushed under the bed, and the height of the tabletop allowed height adjustment for quilts. Gray's style became more popular when her folding screen was featured in a Futurist apartment in Bertolucci's epic film 1900. Sadly, her bedside table was ignored until 1983, seven years after her death, when it was manufactured.

In post-war America, Ray and Charles Eames were making progress with materials like fibreglass and moulded plywood.

The Eames's husband-and-wife aesthetic partnership spanned a lifetime. Their cloud-like La Chaise is a white fibreglass creation based upon Salvador Dali's Atavistic: Ruins after the Rain (1934). The chair was made by gluing together two fiberglass shells and perforating the heaviest volume of the structure-a stylistic device used also by Henry Moore. Finally, the work of English designer Jasper Morrison reduces the complexity of a chair to a minimum. Like most objects we use everyday, we are not likely to notice them until our attention is drawn to the details through which they are made. Characterised by formal austerity, the Ply Chair is made unpretentiously, but with striking precision. Against the backdrop of so many extravagant designs, Morrison's serves as the skeletal example, so delicate that one could mistake it as cardboard. Of all the chairs, this would have been the one inside Plato's thought bubble, when he tried to define the essence of a chair.

notes: 

1. Gaetano Pesce, 'Progetti n. 34, 44. Serie di imbottiti "UP'", in Mario Mastropietro., Un' Industria peril Design, Milan, 1982, pp. 212

2. Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, Thames & Hudson, pp 199.

3. Alexander van Vegesack, Pet er Dunas, Mathias Schwartz-Ciauss, I 00 Masterpieces from the Vitro Design Museum Collection. Ex. Cat., Vitra Design Museum, pp. 212.