51 Wire Chairs


11 December 2015

Designers Charles and Ray Eames were defining figures of mid-century furniture design. Yet as serious as the Eameses were about the integrity of form and function, they also embraced playful presentation. A 1947 photograph shows the couple splayed like pinned bugs, arms and legs clasped under bases from their Molded Plywood Lounge Chair. Their expressions are amused — bordering on overjoyed.

This photo and their widespread oeuvre are testaments to the joy that Charles and Ray Eames found in experimentation. They looked at low-status items such as toys and everyday objects with a democratic eye: none were dismissed as lacking potential for inspiration.

It seems the tables (or chairs) have now turned: French charity La Source has asked various artists and designers to reinterpret the Eameses’ 1951 Wire chair design for its annual fundraising auction. This year, the Wire chair’s cross-woven wire silhouette will act as the basis for artistic variation.

La Source’s annual auction, which has been supported by Swiss design brand Vitra for the last five years, challenges artists, designers and architects each to reinterpret the same design. Previous years have featured other well-known furniture designs, from Panton's S Chair to the Bouroullec's Metal table, and Jean Prouve's Standard chair to Sori Yanagi’s Butterfly stool.

This year’s participants include Jasper Morrison, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Matali Crasset, Mathieu Lahanneur, Christian Louboutin, Inga Sempé, Robert Stadler, Philippe Starck, and Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert, among others. Designs range from extravagant and additive interpretations, to more minimal adaptations that subvert the chair’s original function. Some artists decided to forego the physical chair entirely, choosing instead to portray it in paint.

La Source founder Gérard Garouste recreates the Wire Chair with paint in Don Quichotte IMAGE Hugo Miserey

Founded in 1991 by Gérard Garouste, La Source facilitates workshops for underprivileged youth in rural areas. Led by professional artists and monitored by social educators, their workshops provide a platform for young people to engage in visual arts, performing arts, writing skills and music. The charity hopes to raise £100,000 this year.

Disegno spoke to Swiss auctioneer and art collector Simon de Pury in advance of the 14 December auction at Hôtel de L'industrie in Paris. De Pury has auctioneered for the event since the fundraiser’s inception 18 years ago. In the interview below, he speaks about the auction as a valuable platform for contemporary design, his personal connection to La Source and the eclectic works generated by this playful challenge.

What’s the most compelling aspect of an exhibition where many artists are asked to voice a different interpretation of the same design?

This exhibition will be very amusing and entertaining. On one hand, you would think it contrived to have a clear task that is being given to each one of the artists. It’s nearly the kind of task that you imagine would be given at art school. The great thing to see is that with the end task they come up with vastly different solutions and it is fascinating to observe the creativity and freedom of expression that comes out of the works. I think that this auction sets itself apart from a lot of other events because you have a very traditional challenge given to a variety of artists.

Why do you think the Wire chair is an intriguing piece to adapt?

It’s intriguing in design that, whether it’s chairs, tables, objects, a pair of sunglasses, every now and then you have one item that becomes completely iconic, so iconic that even if you’re not in that field, it is engrained in your subconscious. The Eames Wire chair is clearly one of these iconic items. It is interesting to see how each artist reinterprets it in his or her own way, particularly with something that is so much a part of our collective unconscious.

Do you think this dynamic poses a challenge for the artists, as the original is so stamped on our psyches?

It’s the same thing with music. Some of the best known melodies have been readapted, changed, remixed in very original ways that give you different access to them and allow you to enjoy them in infinite different ways. If you chose one very popular tune and went to 35 musicians and DJs to remix it, then you would see an amazing range of different results.

What stands out to you about this year’s design interpretations?

This year some of the artists are not utilising the actual chair as the basis for their work. They are integrating it into a painting; like Gérard Garouste, who has done a painting where the chair is in it. Several other artists used it as an inspiration, but have not used the physical chair that they were given.

Does the prominence of the artist affect how high buyers will bid on specific items, or do buyers judge purely on the end result?

I think it is a combination of the two. You always have some better-known artists and lesser know artists. Each of them has taken the challenge really seriously and made a great effort at producing interesting works. Obviously, depending on the notoriety of the artist, the quality of what they have come up with and the originality often make quite a big differential in the prices that are obtained on the night of the auction.

If you buy contemporary art, the value of what you are going to pay for it is obviously influenced by who the artist is and what his ending is. I think the design market has become a mature market that has greatly developed over the last five to ten years and it is to a large degree now overlapping with collectors of contemporary art so it is only natural that part of the value would go to artists who are already more familiar.

It’s also very important for the contemporary art market. Anybody who’s selling a piece of design in a gallery or in an art fair, the only way to justify the price you are asking for a given object is by comparing that price to similar object that have been sold recently on the open market. It provides a certain transparency on the market place.

What is the most rewarding aspect of auctioneering for an event that helps continue the legacy of art and creativity?

As an auctioneer your main and unique task is to obtain the highest possible price for the work at the moment of the auction. I always have an emotional link with the charity because I only auctioneer for charities that I strongly believe in.

What speaks to you most about La Source’s aims?

I think that it is through art and culture that we gain a better understanding of each other and other people. Providing children with artistic education opens a window to the possibilities that are there for them and it triggers their creativity. It channels their potential into a very positive direction and it prevents them from doing things that would be far less pleasant and productive to their well being. Especially in this case: these are children who would not be given those chances due to their family background or other conditions. It’s a great and admirable aim.