Chair Stories

Weil am Rhein

16 July 2020

Rolf Fehlbaum, the chairman emeritus of Vitra, is unabashed as to which form of design captivates him the most. “Chairs are an expression of their time,” he says. “A lot of signals come together in this little object.”

Between 1977 and 2013, Fehlbaum led the day-to-day operations of Vitra, overseeing the company's commercial furniture collaborations with luminaries such as Hella Jongerius, Ron Arad, Jasper Morrison and the Bouroullec brothers. In addition to this, Fehlbaum forged a name as an important figure in the critical appreciation of design, working with the Vitra Design Museum to develop the institution's collection of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century furniture, as well as commissioning works of architecture for Vitra's campus from the likes of Nicholas Grimshaw, Zaha Hadid and Sanaa.

Throughout his career, Fehlbaum has displayed an interest in the cultural relevance of the chair typology, an interest that he manifested not only as a collector, but also through a number of recent creative projects. In 2016, Fehlbaum launched The Lucky, Plucky Chairs, a children's book that sought to tell the history of furniture design through the adventures of an anthropomorphised series of No. 14 Thonet chairs, a revolutionary mass-market design developed by Michael Thonet and Sons between 1859 and 1860. “Chairs are portraits of people, portraits of cultures and portraits of time,” said Fehlbaum. “I read a cultural history through chairs.”

In 2018, meanwhile, Fehlbaum narrated Chair Times: A History of Seating – From 1800 to Today, a documentary film by Heinz Bütler that explores the industrial history of the typology through the Vitra Design Museum's collection. “You can recognise and understand an era – its social structures, its materials, techniques and fashions – by its chairs,” said Fehlbaum. “I would go as far as to say that no other everyday object is so multi-faceted.”

To explore Fehlbaum's affections for the typology further, Disegno spoke to him during lockdown about the cultural cachet of chairs. An edited version of the conversation follows below.

Disegno If you wanted to know about production methodologies, cultural expression and material breakthroughs in the 19th and 20th century, chairs would not be a bad place to start. Do you feel that still holds true of the 21st century?

Rolf Fehlbaum It’s an interesting question, and I’m not really sure. You could analyse the current production and come to a conclusion, but ten years later you might see things differently – what you had thought was an interesting concept turned out to be the idea of a moment, and something you ignored at the time would seem relevant. So it’s hard to say where we are now, and how important the chairs of the present period will become in a historical context. They are always interesting, as they are objects where social, aesthetic, hierarchical, industrial and cultural issues all come together. So chairs are an expression of their time. Of course any discipline – film, graphic design, architecture, product design – has its great periods, when big breakthroughs happen and stimulate new developments. What Thonet did in the 19th century, at the beginning of the industrialisation of furniture production, was fantastic. Or take Rietveld with his Red-Blue Chair, or Breuer, or Eames after World War II – those were times when something extraordinarily new happened. During most periods, however, things move at a slower pace.

Disegno Where would you see our present moment?

Rolf With digitalisation, we have entered a new paradigm. We have new technologies like 3D printing, and what we can now do with injection moulding as compared to ten years ago is amazing. So there are new aspects of design, but we don’t have a total break or a new beginning. Of course ecological factors change design thinking, but chairs are minor contributors to global warming, and much of what is being done ecologically in our discipline is of a symbolic nature. If you think of a good chair that lasts 20, 30 or 40 years, a plastic chair may be a very ecological solution, as opposed to using plastic for something disposable. All these things are worth considering, and if you look at the general production, you can say that there have never been so many good products around. At the same time, you can also say that there have never been so many bad products around. There are just so many products.

Disegno How do you position yourself in relation to that?

Rolf I look at design in two ways: I have my producer’s hat, and my collector’s hat. As a producer you’re in the world of natural selection – the market decides what a good compromise is in terms of price, function and looks. A reasonably good product will survive for a while, until something new comes along which is better. The collector’s hat is a different matter. Here, the unnatural selection of curators or collectors takes place. People like me, when they collect, look for the extraordinary or the exaggerated, not the well balanced. A sign of something new, but perhaps not really developed yet. Maybe a flop from the point of view of market acceptance, but an interesting flop. It might not be satisfactory in terms of function, but it is in terms of process or appearance. They’re two completely different worlds, although they sometimes overlap. If you look at things from the market’s point of view, we’re in a very good time, particularly in categories like the office chair where you can see clear progress, because they’re half machine and half chair – the office chairs today are better than what we had 20 years ago. You may also see some stylistic changes, and it’s only when you look back later that you can see what a product meant in terms of social change. If you look back at office chairs, for instance, you now hardly see any of the type with a very high back, which top executives used to have. Something has changed in hierarchical thinking. So here, too, you can read the times in a chair, but only with hindsight.

Disegno Glenn Adamson, the curator and critic, has previously spoken about the idea that objects are very effective witnesses – they condense an awful lot of meanings into themselves. That seems similar to what you’re expressing about chairs.

Rolf It is. A chair is a small sculpture, but also a tool that facilitates sitting. It’s an expression of the industrial standards of a time and its social order. It is an object that always presents the user – serving as a stage, so to speak – and if it is your own chair, it represents you when you are absent. A lot of signals come together in this little object. It’s so similar to us physically that it’s almost like a second body with arms, legs and a back. For me, it’s the object in everyday life that holds the most meaning. Perhaps that’s because I know it better than other things, but it does seem to tell the story of an era.

Disegno Is there something unique to the typology that enables that – the closeness to the body for instance – or is it just a matter of convention? In other words, chairs are a good representation of a time and a designer’s work because that’s the custom within design and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rolf I don’t think it is a convention. Architects and designers are attracted by the ‘chair’ because it is such a complex object with a long tradition. It used to be an expression of power and hierarchy. Chairs were only available to a few people, but with democratisation everyone has come to own them. So its hierarchical significance has decreased, but the chair still has that old place in the memory as a special object. It really has become a universal object but is still more than a mere tool, because it has that aspect of representation. It’s also interesting in terms of industrial production, which is a collaboration between a creative mind and a producer. Antonio Citterio always says that a chair has a mother and a father. The producer brings their expertise, the designer brings another type of expertise – and if you work well together, it results in something that neither could have done by themselves.

Disegno That idea places a lot of weight on the producer being key to making something a successful product, but do you see a producer as being relevant to shaping the more cultural or artistic aspects of a design?

Rolf To be a good partner, a producer needs to have both a sense of design culture and a broad cultural background. When that exists, the dialogue becomes interesting for the designer. An enlightened producer knows that designers regard a project as their own personal work – a good designer is never a service provider who does whatever you want. In cinema you talk about les auteurs and les artisans: les auteurs are those whose work has a signature, whereas les artisans may be very skilled and successful, but their work is not based on authorship. I’m only interested in the authors. A designer who can do a nice object is fine, but the outcome will have no cultural relevance. As the producer you have your own realm of interest, and you are aware that the good designers have their own ambitions and projects. Good design management is about finding the overlap between these circles of interest. If you manage to have an overlap with the great circle representing the interest of society as a whole, you are on the way to doing something relevant. You don’t find the great overlap a lot of the time, but that is where things get interesting.