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The hot seats: Iconic chairs

About the author

Jonathan Glancey is a journalist and broadcaster. Formerly Architecture and Design correspondent of the Guardian and Architecture and Design Editor of the Independent, he writes for the Daily Telegraph and works with the BBC on radio and television documentaries. His books include The Story of Architecture, Lost Buildings, Spitfire: the biography, Nagaland and Giants of Steam.

(Mad Men / AMC)

(Mad Men / AMC)

Whether designed for presidents, monarchs or patients, these 20th Century chairs have become enduring design classics. Jonathan Glancey explains why.

Paimio chair, Alvar Aalto, 1931

(Sakki / Rex)

(Sakki / Rex)

A favourite of museums, galleries and the studied homes of architects and designers, this lightweight, cantilevered birch chair began life in a cool, white sanatorium in southern Finland. The architect of this Modern Movement masterpiece, dating from 1933, was Alvar Aalto. Together with his wife, Aino, he designed furniture for the building, including this Paimio chair.

The decidedly laid back angle of the chair’s backrest was intended to help patients’ breathing, and the design as a whole – a tightrope balance between firmness and springiness – was made to be as comfortable as possible for the long hours recuperating patients lounged in them during the TB epidemics of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Viewed side-on, the bent lacquered seat resembles a fine, scrolled line drawn by a confident and free-flowing pencil. A birch frame, free of right angles, supports this three-dimensional “sketch”.

In 1935, Alvar and Aino Aalto founded their own furniture company, Artek. A part of Vitra today, it continues to make the Paimio chair, which looks as healthy and as inviting in modern settings.

Round chair, Hans Wegner, 1949

(Bettmann / Corbis)

(Bettmann / Corbis)

Hans Wegner’s pared down and beautifully crafted Round chair is also known as the Kennedy chair. Examples of this Danish design, named “The most beautiful chair in the world” by Interiors magazine in 1950 – were bought by CBS for the first televised debate between US presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy, broadcast live in September 1960.

Whatever anyone wished to name it, Wegner’s sparse, graphic chair formed by 11 pieces of thoughtfully curved and tapered timber brought modern Danish design to the adoring attention of American architects, media and consumers.

As for Wegner, “the round one” was just one of the more than 500 chairs he designed in a long career, with more than 100 going into production. “The good chair,” he said, “is a task one is never completely done with.” For Wegner, this was an elusive quest, and one that demanded a continual process of purification and simplification.

And, yet, the Round Chair – a fine thing to look at from every angle and very comfortable to sit in – remains an inspired fusion of traditional craft and mass-production. The slightly dipped seat, the gently tapering legs, the exquisitely turned armrests are both logical and a visual and tactile delight. The Round Chair has universal appeal and yet remains distinctly Danish as well as the seat of would-be American presidents.

Lobby Chair, Charles Eames, 1960

(Cienpies Design / Alamy)

(Cienpies Design / Alamy)

In 1959, Charles and Ray Eames, the inventive American husband and wife design team, made a multi-screen film – Glimpses of the USA – for the American National Exhibition held that summer in Moscow. This was where Senator Richard Nixon held his famous Kitchen Debate with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev on the virtues of US consumerism. The images the Eames used to promote the US were taken from the Time-Life archive in New York. To return the favour, Henry Luce, Time-Life’s founder and chairman, asked the Eames to design a chair for the lobby of the new 48-storey Time & Life Building on Manhattan’s Avenue of the Americas.

The Eames responded with a seductive design combining traditional notions of comfort – expressed in buttoned leather upholstery – and sophisticated modern materials, engineering know-how and manufacturing skills. The swivelling Lobby Chair was an instant success, capturing the essence of a Mid-Century Modern design world that filmmakers, advertising executives, fashion designers and television producers have been in love with ever since. From Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest of 1959 to AMC’s stylish TV series Mad Men, which uses the Time & Life Building as a location, the style of design set by the Eames has remained perennially cool.

The Lobby Chair comprises three upholstered leather cushions set into a die-cast aluminium backrest, and framed by aluminium side sections. The first examples adorned the gleaming, stainless steel and terrazzo-lined Time & Life lobby along with murals by Joseph Albers and Fritz Glamer. Today, there are many cut-price replicas of the Lobby Chair on the market, but, for fans of Mid-Century Modern design and the Eames, only the real thing is worth investing, and sitting, in.

Spine Chair, Andre Dubreuil, 1986

(Andre Dubreuil / coolhouseantiques.com)

(Andre Dubreuil / coolhouseantiques.com)

Andre Dubreuil had been an antiques dealer and painter before learning to weld and make metal furniture from 1985 in his west London flat. Within a year, his old love of 18th Century French furniture and his new affair with blowtorches and steel, along with his talent for drawing, led to the Spine chair. It became an instant hit among set designers for fashion shoots and as a prop for design-conscious young property developers selling costly, architect-designed flats in London’s up-and-coming Docklands. It was also beautiful, a three-dimensional drawing of a chair at once minimalist and theatrical, chaste and operatic.

Dubreuil who had long railed against the “emptiness” of modern furniture, left London in 1992 for Périgord, France, where he continues to make one-off pieces of elaborate, neo-baroque furniture with a small team of fellow “artisans”: he refuses, resolutely, to be called a designer.

The rich simplicity of the Spine chair was not to be repeated. Made for a spell in Périgord by a local blacksmith, it has long been out of production. It is the stuff of ambitious auction rooms today.

Barcelona Chair, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich, 1929

(Stefano Paterna / Alamy)

(Stefano Paterna / Alamy)

At a time when left-leaning Bauhaus designers were busy creating minimalist, low-cost and nominally functional furniture for low-ceilinged German working class housing, the Barcelona Chair stood out as a luxurious object fit more for monarchs than the industrial proletariat. In fact, it was designed for the Spanish king and queen as a form of contemporary throne at the time of their tour of the ultra-modern and stunningly beautiful German Pavilion, designed by Mies, for the 1929 International Exposition held that year in Barcelona. Hand crafted and bolted together from curved steel sections, with padded pigskin cushions, Barcelona chairs sat imperiously in Mies’s perfect pavilion.

They were soon in demand by the most fashionable architects and captains of industry, but production was limited. The German Pavilion was demolished, but because it so haunted the 20th Century architectural imagination, it was rebuilt as a permanent structure on its original site in the mid-1980s, complete with Barcelona chairs. By this time, the famous chair had long been in production, by Knoll in the United States. Its stainless steel frames were now seamless, and cowhides used instead of pigskin for those distinctive cushions. Hand-made and as expensive as ever, and not particularly comfortable – what throne is? – the Barcelona chair commands respect and admiration and a mark of civilised good taste.

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