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Commentary: There is much to learn about culture in the evolution of the modern chair

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I am always inspired by exhibitions at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Recently I was inspired by the exhibition "The Modern Chair" at the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. It was a fabulous display of modern chairs that made me think of the origin of the chair and what a history there is of the chair.

The study of the history of the chair often has a Western focus since Asian cultures often have a preference for squatting, kneeling or sitting on the floor and sometimes on mats. However the history of the chair goes back five thousand years to ancient Egypt. Pharaohs, High Priests and other dignitaries often sat on high thrones--e.g., your highness. The Romans and Greeks are often seen in works of art lounging on lounge type chairs or bench type chairs. The rise of religion and churches, of course, had bench type seating. And the Industrial Revolution saw the production of mass made chairs.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair and Charles Darwin invented a chair on wheels which eventually lead to the creation of office chairs?

The Denver Art Museum recently had an exhibition on modern chairs and a wall text said, "Chairs combine form and function in a way that is easy for consumers to digest, but is incredibly difficult for designers to perfect inasmuch as they encompass many of the challenges of design, engineering, material choice, production method, style and functionality in one small package."

We can learn about culture as art and architecture evolve over time. We can learn the same from chair design.

I read an article on chairs in which the seven most famous chairs in history were listed:

1--3 legged stool from 7500 B.C.

2--Tang Dynasty sitting mat from the 6th century—supposedly used by Buddha

3--Chair of St. Peter created in 875 A.D.

4--Legendary Coronation Chair used by King Edward from 1200 A.D.

5--First chair with rolling casters created by Charles Darwin

6--In the 19th century Otto von Bismarck introduced chairs to the masses

7--First side chair to fit in a house by Frank Lloyd Wright

Now, getting back to the "Modern Chair" exhibition, curator Brad Dunning says, "This exhibition follows the development of the modern chair, highlighting its evolution and progression from two outstanding early examples--a bent wood Thonet classic from the dawn of the 20th century and the first cantilevered chair by Mart Stam of the Bauhaus school--through the fertile and innovative mid-century years and concluding with contemporary specimens. During the last century, new industrial materials and technological and stylistic advances pushed chair design forward faster than at any previous time. Chairs illustrate our inventiveness and changing sense of fashion, as well as architectural trends, socioeconomic and societal concerns, symbolic content and aspirational longings. This eclectic overview does not attempt to be comprehensive, authoritative or rigorously academic but strives to illustrate how the challenge of chair design seems endlessly to ignite creativity and experimentation. More than any other piece of furniture, chairs reflect and express the way we live and have lived."

To mention just a few of the chairs doesn't do the exhibition justice, but I will anyway. The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer is one of the most radical pieces of early modernist furniture. It deconstructs a traditional overstuffed club chair to its basic outline, "removing" all the stuffed upholstery. The Wassily Chair was an experiment in extreme reductivism. Finish architect and designer Alvar Aalto’s masterpiece is of laminated wood construction. The single fluid line of the frame is both poetic and structurally supportive. Aalto was the first furniture designer to use wood for the modern cantilever principle in chair design. Richard Neutra's Tremaine Chair was originally designed for the Tremaine house in Montecito, California. Neutra was so pleased with this design that he used it for years in his interiors. Jacque-Henri Varichon was an architect whose ingeniously engineered chair is secured in place by tension wires. This chair provides a striking example of aesthetic success in bridging the worlds of sculpture, technology and functional design. And this is just a taste of the fabulous exhibition.

And our own St. Louis Art Museum has incredible modern chairs in the collection. David Conradson, the Curator of Decorative Arts and Design says, "Chairs have so much to say, they're loaded with information. We recently created an installation at SLAM based on that most familiar kind of furniture--chairs--as an entry point to discuss the place of functional objects in an art museum. Using a range of chairs from different time periods and traditions, we invite viewers to reflect on their form, technology and style. The selection is always changing and there are many kinds of chairs to discover throughout the galleries, from wood to plywood to metal and the latest digitally printed resin. There's even a paper chair by the Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka."

Who would have thought that something as simple as a chair would have so many facets?

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.

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