Grcic's Parrish Collection was part of a wider project to create the interiors for the Parrish Art Museum, which opened in November 2012. The museum's development was a troubled one - Herzog & de Meuron's original design had to be abandoned as a result of the recession in favour of a simpler, cheaper barn-like structure - and the full story of its genesis can be read in Disegno No.4.
The chairs and tables that Grcic created for the museum's café were developed by the American manufacturer Emeco - a company known for robust, aluminium seating such as the 1944 Navy Chair - and the brand showed commercial versions of the furniture in Milan. Whereas, the Parrish Art Museum's chairs featured seats made from the same reclaimed heart pine that used throughout the museum's galleries, Emeco's commercial versions come in maple, upholstered and plastic editions. The chair's aluminium legs and backrest are held together by a central joint in die-cast aluminium, positioned underneath the the seat.
Below, Grcic talks to Disegno about the project, the Parrish Collection's ties to its parent museum, and the importance of comfort for café seating.
How did the chair project come about?
The architects always proposed that it would be nice to design things specifically for the space. But I thought that it would also be nice to collaborate with a company on a product inspired by this. Something that would become a real product. I thought we should do it with an American company and not an Italian one, and since I wasn’t working with any American companies, it seemed good to approach Emeco.
Did you already know Emeco?
I knew Gregg [Buchbinder, Emeco's president] and we had spoken about the possibility of working together. It seemed to fit because the sort of chairs Emeco make were what we needed here: American chairs; sturdy chairs; chairs for public use; very simple and straightforward chairs. Aluminium was also fine to use as we wanted a chair that can be used indoors or outdoors. That’s how we started working with Emeco and by the time we started working on the chair we knew more or less what the museum's café would look like. But we proposed a completely different chair before this one, which I’m glad we didn’t pursue. It would have been a nightmare to make: too complicated. That’s just part of a process that you go through sometimes. You have to go through one idea and hit the wall in order to move forward.
The museum itself was originally proposed to be a very different building.
The story of the chair is exactly the story of the museum. The architects started with something and went from “Wow: it’s amazing!” to “Ok, let’s do a barn." Similarly, we want from a very complicated chair to making the simplest chair possible. But I like the chair for how basic and stripped down it is. I think it fits the Parrish Museum, although it's not as if the Parrish Museum or any of the typology of the museum is found in the chair. It's more that the Parrish Museum is a classic typology of a building and, in some ways, our chair is a possible classic typology of a chair.
How does it fit in with Emeco?
Emeco does a lot of handwork and manual labour with the Navy Chair. That covers producing the elements, bending and pressing them, welding and then cleaning the welds. So we wanted to be more forward-looking and point Emeco to a future of industrialising processes. The aluminium tubing is standard and ready-made, and the bending is machined. The joints are mechanical so there's no cleaning and no welding. It can be repaired if a leg breaks. Then it has rubber bumpers for stacking. We wanted everything to be really sturdy. You find these bumpers under most stacking chair, but they’re normally small and come off. We thought “This is America”: they could be really heavy-duty, like a piece of hardware.
The Navy Chair was an influence?
Something we got from the Navy Chair was that the main work in the piece is in making that seat panel. Aluminium chairs are not very comfortable. They're either too cold or too hot, so all that effort goes into making something people will just put a cushion on. I’ve learnt that lesson with other chairs: you end up just having to make a cushion for the client. So it was new for Emeco to make the seat in another material. But that creates a variety and it gives the chair very different identities and applications. The aluminium backrest may be fairly uncomfortable, but the seat is very comfortable. That lack of comfort is fine because there’s a nice balance. Anyway, comfort is kind of relative and it depends on what kind of comfort you expect. When you see this chair you know what to expect. For the situation of sitting in a café it’s fine.