Circular Reasoning: On the Geometry of Chairs

Originally posted November 24, 2010 on

Beginning with de Stijl, geometry became an obvious metaphor for the scientific and mechanistic modes of thinking associated with avant-garde modernism. Mondrian’s canvases, arguably influenced themselves by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School architecture, became templates for mid-century wall systems and modular case good systems, as well as graphic inspiration for architecture.

All of these applications self-evidently involved rectilinearity or at least linearity–the so-called deconstruction and reconstruction of the box, applied both to surface and volume. Famously, this was the approach taken with Rietveld’s Red and Blue chair, which was explicitly linear, a rigid composition of wooden planks designed with little regard for comfort. Much cantilevered, Bauhaus-inspired furniture would also fit into this camp, though with somewhat greater interest in comfort. In the opposing, organic camp, are chairs such as the Womb chair, ergonomic in character, curvilinear, and fitted to the human form.

The circle occupies a place somewhere in between though much closer to the geometric camp; in Platonic terms, the circle is perfect, the ultimate geometric symbol of wholeness, unity, infinity. With tables, there is a long tradition of circular design: the Knights of the Round Table, round table discussions, etc. (note the underlying egalitarian aspect of this shape–no one sits in a privileged position).

Though curvilinear, the circle does not suggest itself for chair design–people have curves but are not hemispheric or conical, at least generally speaking. A circular or spherical chair is not inherently ergonomic, though it can be rendered comfortable with slings, padding, pillows, or butt-shaped indentations. Partly for this reason, and likely for technical reasons also, relatively few chair designs hewed to the geometry of the circle. And those that did tended to have an agenda: either experiments in form or ideological or symbolic statements of some type.

Beginning in the early 1950’s, the circle was deployed in chair design in the work of Donald Knorr, Lina Bo Bardi, and Roberto Mango. Knorr’s chair, shaped from a ribbon of sheet metal, shared first prize in a 1950 MoMA Low-Cost Furniture competition. Distributed by Knoll, and painted red, yellow, or black, with black metal legs, the chair possessed a minimalist and elegant beauty. Intended to be comfortable, the chair was also offered in a padded version, just in case. Bo Bardi, the Italian/Brazilian architect and designer, contributed an eye-catching chair consisting of a hemispheric seat floating inside a round tubular metal base. The chair could be used parallel to the ground or at an angle, for a variety of seating or lounging positions. The image here, which uncropped shows two such options, is from the cover of an Interiors magazine from the early 1950’s. It is notable, and surely meaningful, that Bo Bardi is a woman designer and the circle is a female archetype. Unlike Knorr and Bo Bardi, the Mango chair illustrated here is made of wood–in this case shaped plywood–and it looks like a James Prestini bowl on legs. This chair is part of a series done by Mango in wood and metal, exploring the possibilities of the circle as a chair frame. Significantly, all the designs referred to here had one thing in common: a lack of commercial success, and hence a small production run.

Continuing this tradition were three circular chair designs from the late 1960’s. In the case of Arman’s 1969 chair for Atelier A, consisting of two steel rings with a leather sling, the intent was not serial production but design/art; more a functional sculpture than a seating solution. Joe Colombo’s 1969 Tube chair for Flexform cleverly used round tubes looking like paint rollers to achieve a variety of seating options. Despite advertisements pointing to the comfort obtainable through the flexibility of assembly, the chair was far too radical for prevalent taste cultures.

Somewhat more accessible, and commercially viable, was the work in plastic by Finnish designer Eero Aarnio. His Pastille chair of 1967, with its contoured seating indentation, took the circle in an ergonomic direction, while his Ball chair of 1969, shown here and based on a sphere, required cushions and pillows to suggest comfort. The Ball chair stood, and stands, as a production analog to the utopian 1960’s preoccupation with self-contained living environments.

While this is not an exhaustive list of post-war circular chair designs, the two clusters around 1950 and 1969 do suggest an underlying cultural rationale at those moments—some metaphoric or symbolic reason for this attraction to the circle.  A topic I will deal with when I get around to it…

Geek Before Chic: Richard Wright and the 1999 Eames Auction

Originally posted May 13, 2010 on

Before the Italian sale, before the Louis Kahn house, before the $500,000 Noguchi coffee table, and before branded luxury, there was the Treadway/Toomey Eames auction held on May 23, 1999. For Richard Wright, who curated and produced the auction, this represented a point of departure from Treadway, where he had worked for a number of years, and an early collaboration with Julie Thoma Wright, his wife and business partner-to-be. For the market, the auction represented a succession of firsts: first all-Eames sale; first Ray Eames splint sculpture to be offered for sale; and first catalog without a logo on the cover, with the title running across two pages, and with photos bleeding across pages. Soon after the Eames sale, Richard founded Wright, his eponymous auction house, which has since become a force in the modern design and art markets, elevating Richard to first-tier status as a market-maker and connoisseur. In the spring of 1999, however, Richard still worked with Treadway, and his future plans were still on the drawing board.

The Eames auction would give Richard a chance to show what he could do, both for himself and for the design world. Over a period of two years, Richard assembled a collection of Eames material, reflecting his own interest and belief in the work of Charles and Ray. Highlights included the well-edited Breeze-Stewart collection; a trove of Eamesiana from an estate sale of a distant Eames relative that Richard said he was proud to handle; and the fluid Ray Eames splint sculpture, important for both aesthetic and historical reasons—it helped put Ray’s contribution back into the equation. Early designs, production variations, and prototypes were featured. The auction was pitched to collectors, and timed to coincide with a major Eames retrospective opening in Washington, D.C.

At the time, assembling this material for a dedicated sale was a bold step, but no more so than re-thinking what an auction catalog could look like. Working with Julie, hiring a graphic designer out of pocket, and micro-managing practically everything, Richard wound up pushing the boundaries of auction catalog design. The finished product would become a template for his later, more polished efforts, which, in turn, would provoke change in catalog design at the larger auction houses.Wright’s timing, as it would often be, was impeccable. Collector interest in the Eames’ work ran high, supported by renewed attention from shelter magazines. Recent reproductions from Modernica and Design Within Reach added publicity, without yet cluttering the field. The tech-fueled economy was booming.Eames collectors were—and probably still are—an obsessive and determined bunch. In the late 90’s, we (guilty) shared a sense of discovery, not just of the Eames oeuvre but of a body of exuberant and innovative work that was American mid-century design. Still, the greatest enthusiasm was reserved for things Eames. People who otherwise, and later, would champion Line Vautrin, Paul Evans, and Ado Chale, spent inordinate amounts of time rhapsodizing about zinc screws, rope braids, screw-in feet, and early Evans labels, and speaking in shorthand—DCW, ESU, 670 ottoman in rosewood with down fill. Technical and chronological details mattered, a lot.

The sale whipped this crowd into a frenzy. The results surprised even Richard. One hundred percent of the lots sold, with many achieving stunning prices—a child’s chair brought $15,000 (try repeating that now), a lot of letters from Charles to the Saarinens brought $5,000, and a slunk skin plywood chair in pristine condition brought $35,000. Nothing, however, topped the whopping $130,000 commanded by the splint sculpture, on an estimate of $25,000-35,000.

The success of the Eames auction solidified Richard’s position in the design community. More, it gave him the courage and the means to start his own business. Looking back at the catalog and the sale, Richard is amazed—amazed perhaps by his audacity of concept and design, or perhaps by his subsequent run of success. The ripples from the Eames sale would help transform the market for mid-century design, as other auction houses scrambled to gain a share of this increasingly lucrative sector. Last month Richard revisited this idea with his second all-Eames auction. Unfortunately, the centerpiece lot—the Neuhart archive of Eames ephemera—estimated at $150,000-$200,000—was withdrawn due to a contest over title. As Richard noted, it’s hard to go home again.