The Big Chair: Status and Luxury While We Sit - Part 3 The Big Chair: Status and Luxury While We Sit - Part 3

With the beginning of the Industrial Age came the ability to mass produce everything from chocolates to clothing, and furniture was certainly no exception to this.

Part two of this series ended with a look at the Morris chair, whose creator, William Morris, worried vociferously about the destructive influence of mass production. Morris, who was British, sought a way to simplify the fussiness of 19th century decorative arts, which he said were "in a state of complete degradation." With his partners, architect Philip Webb and painter Edward Burne-Jones, he founded Morris and Company that manufactured furniture and other household goods.

Morris wasn't alone in his concern about mass production. The painter Jean Renoir tells this story about his father in Renoir, My Father (1962). The great Impressionist Pierre Auguste Renoir had a job in Paris as a painter of porcelain vases, bowls and plates. In 1858, the process of stamping designs on porcelain had just been perfected. As Jean Renoir wrote: "Marie Antoinette's portrait could now be reproduced mechanically thousands of times. It was the death knell of a splendid craft."

After the boss decided to close down the shop and move to the country, Pierre organized the other workers and offered to wage a battle of speed against the machine. Jean describes the scene: "They all set to work feverishly. With incredible rapidity, Renoir began painting firm-breasted Venuses on hundreds of vases and plates. He was determined to beat progress at its own game and prove that the hand of a Parisian artisan was as good as shining wheels and well-greased piston-rods. He approached the wholesale dealers to discuss the possibility of buying his wares. The cost price he proposed was lower than that asked for machine-decorated articles. The dealers, alas, showed little interest in his offer. What they liked about mass-produced dishes was that each one was an exact replica of the other."

The repugnance that Morris felt for all things mass-produced was matched by his love of fine hand craftsmanship, and gave rise to the Arts and Crafts movement. In their designs, Morris and Company avoided the elaborate decorative elements found in the mass-produced furniture of the late 19th century. Morris wanted artists to return to pre-industrial methods of production. From the last half of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century, the taste of furniture designers and their customers thus changed. From hand-made Boston rockers with hand-turned spindles, designers turned to cantilevered cane-backed chairs made of tubular steel. And the times were witness to a conflict between hand-crafted products and machine-made commodities.

The Arts and Crafts movement spread to America via Gustav Stickley (1857-1942) after he travelled to Europe in 1898. He returned to the U.S. and began making furniture in Eastwood, N.Y. His furniture had simple rectilinear designs with exposed joinery of oak frames that were covered with leather, canvas or plain cloth and he always used unpretentious materials. These design elements, also used by J. M. Young and Co. and the Roycroft Community, were an expression of the Arts and Crafts movement, which had a mission: utility of design. Thus the style was named. Many architectural historians maintain that Mission furniture adhered more closely to the Arts and Crafts ideals than most British work did.

The Mission chair is an echo of the Morris chair, and the entire line of products was influential on the West Coast, where architects Charles Sumner Green and Henry Mather Greene created some of the best examples of Arts and Crafts architecture and furniture. Among their finest works is the David B. Gamble house (1908) in Pasadena, CA. Arts and Crafts also found its way to the American Midwest, where Frank Lloyd Wright absorbed its tenets and transformed it into the Prairie School.

None of Wright's chairs can be described as "easy." Although his work is important to our appreciation of how modern design developed, his household furniture has generally been criticized as being uncomfortable. Wright himself wrote: "Somehow I always had black and blue spots my whole life long from all too close contact with my own furniture." However, Wright's designs, with their clean, uncluttered lines, influenced Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, and later the work of the Bauhaus.

Before we move to Europe and look at Reitveld's chair, Art Deco and the Bauhaus, we should take a brief detour through American rural furniture and the Adirondack rocker. The Adirondack rocker was originally manufactured in Indiana by the Old Hickory Chair Company in Indiana. The Adirondack rocker was named for its popularity among owners of resorts and summer homes in the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. The rocker's stiles, arms, and stretchers were made from unmilled hickory sticks, occasionally with the bark left on. The manufacturers bent the pieces to form most of the parts, except for the rockers, which were sawn. The seats and backs were woven of hickory bark strips. In the early 1930s, as Americans turned to sleeker furniture designs and machine-made fabrics, the manufacturers streamlined the Adirondack designs and replaced hickory bark with nylon webbing and other synthetic materials.

From the Adirondacks and Frank Lloyd Wright we move to The Netherlands and De Stijl (The Style). This group of artists and designers, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld and Piet Mondrian among them, took their name from the magazine of that name published between 1917 and 1931. They advocated the reduction of design elements to their most austere forms, such as primary colors, right angles, and flat, undecorated surfaces. In 1918, the year Rietveld joined the group, he designed what has become a landmark of 20th-century design, the "Red-Blue" chair. The chair was constructed of ordinary milled lumber; the back and seat were made from a single sheet of plywood. None of the joints were hidden, but were blatant, resembling overlapping pick-up sticks. Though his critics found the chair unstable and uncomfortable, Rietveld considered it a success. The Red-Blue chair expressed his doctrine of form.

When designers eliminated all decoration on furniture and reduced their furniture to their most austere forms, it didn't take long for them to create easy chairs that looked machine-made. Indeed it was Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, 1887-1965), who formulated the famous dictum that a house is "a machine for living in." In his book, L'art décoratif d'aujourdhi (1925), he proposed that the criteria of industrial production be adopted as the new standards for decorative arts. He felt that traditional decoration had little, if any, relevance to modern life.

Le Corbusier did more than use tube steel; he reversed the relationship between upholstered padding and its supporting frame, as we see with his Grand Confort chair. In this chair we get an echo of Green and Greene's works, with their elimination of excessive decoration and a clear and obvious use of articulated structure. Le Corbusier also created what he called "a machine for rest." This is the famous Chaise-longue Busculante (1928), which he created in collaboration with Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret. Le Corbusier wrote, "I thought of the cowboy in the Wild West, smoking his pipe, his feet in the air higher than his head against the chimney piece." The seating, or reclining, part of the piece is leather stretched over a tubular-steel framework. The long curving base can be adjusted to change the angle of recline.

Another master of Art Deco design was Marcel Breuer (1902-81). Breuer trained at the Bauhaus from 1920-1925 and taught there until the Nazis closed the school in 1935. In 1925, he produced the famous "Wassily" chair, named for the painter Wassily Kandinsky, who reportedly purchased the first one. The elegant and simple chair has a frame of shiny tubular steel. Around the frame are tightly wrapped stiff leather bands that form the back, seat and arms. The resultant tension from wrapping the bands so tightly gives the entire chair a slight spring and, even in chairs several decades old, the leather bands are so tough that they have not sagged. This model remains popular and can be found in a variety of retail furniture shops.

Although it is not an easy chair, we should mention Breuer's popular Cesca chair, which was the result of his experiments with bicycle tubing. He created a cantilevered chair from one continuous piece of tubing. It was named for his daughter Francesca by the Italian manufacturer who started producing the chair in the 1950s. At the Museum of Modern Art, it is considered among the ten most important chairs of the 20th Century.

Another doctrine of form came from architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). His law, "Less is more," has been quoted in orchestra rehearsals and a Paul Newman movie ("Nobody's Fool"). He also once stated that it was harder to design a good chair than a good building. His furniture designs are elegant, to the point of coolness, and his famous Barcelona chair, which he designed in 1929, influenced the International Style of the 1930s. Its gently curving metal legs and tufted black leather upholstery demanded a high degree of hand craftsmanship. However, Mies wanted them to look as if they had been made by machine. This conflict between means and ends must have been on his mind when he later remarked "God is in the details."

In the United States, 1927 is a landmark year in the history of easy chairs. The reclining easy chair was born. Although 25% of American households have at least one, many interior designers hate this boxy, tactless armchair. The conflict between comfort and style was comically dramatized in the weekly TV series "Frasier."

Dr. Frasier Crane's father, Martin, retired from the Seattle police department after his leg was permanently damaged by a perp's bullet during an arrest. He moved into Frasier's elegant, luxury apartment on the condition that Frasier allow him to bring with him his dog, Eddie. And his worn - in fact, battered - recliner.

And there it stood, like Archie Bunker's wing chair, nearest the television set, its padding compressed to Martin's contours by years of use, its upholstery worn and patched with duct-tape, in stark contrast to Frasier's elegant designer furniture, fireplace and breath-taking view of the Seattle skyscraper seen through sliding doors that lead to a spacious balcony. This relic may become an icon worthy of inclusion in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, alongside Archie Bunker's wing chair.

In the next article, we will examine other easy chairs and test whether we choose our household furniture for our comfort or for our social status.

As careful readers know, David Dannenbaum was trained at the University of Texas (BFA) and Florida State University (MFA), but was educated at the Brooklyn Public Library, the Gotham Book Mart, and various museums, flea markets and antique shops in the New York City area. His articles have been published in The New Orleans Review, West Coast Peddler, and Streams of William James. He and his wife live in Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan.

Reprinted with permission by the Sheffield School of Design

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