Standing Room Only

New York

5 June 2019

It’s safe to say there’s no object of design more loaded, and yet ubiquitous, than the chair. We perch on chairs throughout the day while working, eating, resting. The annals of design history are dense with famous chairs, many of which were designed by famous architects to suit the interiors of their radical structures – like human-scale manifestos on everyday living.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s preferred armchair, designed for his desert residence at Taliesen West, is all angles and plywood – a stately Origami-like form befitting the low-slung, faceted home it furnishes. Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s Barcelona chair is arguably better known than the temporary pavilion it was originally designed for, and everyone equates the Eameses with chairs – and, in particular, moulded plywood chairs – despite the fact that their short films outnumbered their output of furniture designs. Hans Wegner, who designed more than 500 perches in his lifetime, once mused, “The chair does not exist. The good chair is a task that one is never completely finished with.”

The Chair, a group exhibition recently on view at the New York design gallery The Future Perfect, does not provide a sweeping thesis or attempt to address the historical immensity evoked by its bold title – and it’s all the better for it.

What the show does provide, emphatically, is many kinds of chairs: of all sizes, heights, styles, materials, techniques, and colours, commissioned by four dozen contemporary designers practicing today. All of the works are unique one-offs intended as occasional chairs, says Laura Ann Young, the gallery director who curated the show around an open-call submission for proposals. “We asked that the chair have a back and be functional, and be in the vein of their aesthetic and the way that they work,” she says. Young, who studied furniture design at RISD, wanted the commission to recall the feeling of working on the final graduation project – which was, invariably, to produce a chair.

As the show's designers prove, the deceptively simple assignment is wildly open to interpretation, and their works, seen together in the same room, amount to a variety show of the most entertaining sort. While the range of talents runs the gamut – from established mid-career players such as Martino Gamper, Kelly Behun, and Piet Hein Eek, to independent and local favourites Chen Chen & Kai Williams, and emerging talents such as Ara Thorose – each chair acts as a signature and metonym of its maker, nodding to a current preoccupation or interest. For Thorose, a recent Cranbrook grad, it’s a slick rope of made of industrial rubber tubing, and twisted into a 3D line drawing that appears like a strand of luscious liquorice. Of the 51 chairs on view, Young says, three are sculptures (one of them miniature and placed on a plinth) and on the wall, a painting inspired by a tangle of Thonet chairs by Paul Wackers, rebels from the pack by sticking to two dimensions (technically it functions, just not as a seat.)

There’s a chunky, gradient-hued woven seat by Shore Rugs, made from the same thick silicone cord that gives their popular outdoor floor coverings a soft bouncy give. Lighting and product designer Karl Zahn’s creation takes the form of a wooden plinth and display for a set of tall, kinetic wire-mobile sculptures, presenting “the idea of art needing to take a break,” as his text states. The chair “isn’t really for a person. It’s more of an excuse to give one of my sculptures a rest.”

Karl Zahn's design for The Future Perfect's The Chair show. IMAGE Andrew Nemiroski.

True to our time, many of the works were brought in sight unseen – or at least seen initially on screen, and many of them from internet friends on Instagram. Young says the choice to put out an open-call proposal was partly strategic: a chance to mix the gallery’s existing roster of designers alongside those they haven’t yet worked with, or whose work they admire and follow online, but hadn’t yet vetted in person. This opens the door for offbeat and tantalising risks. Two large ceramic stools by Katie Kimmel which have been sculpted from clay and glazed into grinning dog heads, were called in as a pair because Young had assumed they might be smaller-scale when she saw them in photos. In person, they’re closer to the size of a beanbag, the surprising scale adding to their joyful inanity.

One of Katie Kimmel's ceramic stools. IMAGE Andrew Nemiroski.

A great deal of the chairs are backflips and cartwheels in formal experimentation, tussling with the possibilities of tactile restraints posed by a given material. For its Melt chair, Bower Studios join together cut and polished slabs of green marble to appear like a single thick, pliable sheet that drapes and cascades the sharp edges of a boxy bronze frame. In John Hogan’s hands, blocks of solid cast crystal are joined to prismatic effect; for Jorge Penades’ geekily named Look Mum no UV! chair, thick glass panes are joined using only leather straps and band clamps. The biggest crowd-pleaser from the show, Seungjin Yang’s Blowing Armchair, is a durable epoxy-resin cast mould of oblong balloons (which at least one naughty friend hinted might actually be condoms) joined to appear like a soft inflatable plastic chair.

Seungjin Yang’s Blowing Armchair. IMAGE Andrew Nemiroski.

An uneasy formal and material tension is tangible in these works, their artistic value deriving from a mastery of sculpture over practicality. Many of them pose narrative provocations and 3D vignette sketches that overturn the industrial paradigm, and they’re undeniably fun to look at, like little puzzles and artefacts of complex making processes that belie the jocular veneer. Iteration and feasibility aren’t as intensely baked into the process as with serial industrial production, nor are they demanded for this breed of occasional chair – the exclamation point and trophy piece meant to punctuate a room. For the duration of the exhibition, the chairs are expressly not for sitting (you break it, you buy it) and at least one chair, Marcin Rusak’s delicate collage of dry leaves, made with resin, lacquer, and an interior steel frame – what Young describes as a “study of decay”, its shiny shell browned and crunchy to the touch – may not actually be built for it.

But is a chair a chair if it’s never used or sit upon? Rusak’s design, like many in the show, skirts usefulness in place of expression, to prop up an idea rather than a body. Primal yet sophisticated, the activity of designing chairs is also deeply anthropological, and bodily intimate, with chair parts mirroring our own in name: arms, legs, back, and feet.

An oversize woven rattan armchair by Chris Wolston seems aware of this observation, and offers a cheeky twist with toes, fingers, and a voluptuous rear. The anthropomorphic form, cartoonish and headless, might easily pass for either a monkey or a human at first glance – a humbling reminder that for all the genteel fuss over chairs, our species is an animal, all the same. Around the bend of the whimsical and winding path that decorates the gallery floor (“the river of chairs,” Young says), Neoprimitive Too by Brendan Timmins and Alexandra Segreti conjures a romance for the outdoors, made from raw birch branches and a shaggy, brown checkerboard wool seat that’s reminiscent of a forest floor carpeted with dense tufts of moss.

Neoprimitive Too by Brendan Timmins and Alexandra Segreti. IMAGE Andrew Nemiroski.

This romance for nature only seems to heighten the duly unnatural act of sitting on a chair, which hasn’t proven to be beneficial for us. On the contrary, prolonged sedentary activity in the age of desk- and screen-bound work has even been equated to smoking in terms of health risks. The Mayo Clinic links sitting for long periods of time to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer. It seems unlikely we’ll do away with chairs altogether, and yet, no one truly needs another one, making a fixation on function alone moot. The question remains: why obsess over chairs at all?

Young’s response is both matter-of-factly and allusive: “I love chairs; everyone love chairs. We’re all designers and we have crazy visceral reactions to chairs. There’s a million reasons why.” Which may be precisely the point. Seen in sum, the show is more concerned with presenting a selective ontology of sorts – one that unravels existentially (if joyfully), questions what a chair is, and reaches for originality in age where, the curator herself says, “Nothing is new.”

At turns wonky, clever, innovative and ruminative, works in The Chair speak to larger shifts in New York’s design scene, with a growing emphasis on makers looking to create post-industrially, within an orbit of gallery showrooms and a social-media system that does not prioritise or reward selling by scale, but rather, formal ingenuity and the potent currency of its image. There are a few overarching trends to be sure – tubular forms, oversize clay pieces, challenging construction methods, innovative technologies, and materials meant to look mind-bendingly like another – and it’s a telling scene of late capitalism. With so much to address in today’s society, making a pure case for aesthetic enjoyment and experimentation can feel like both a guilty indulgence and a precious reprieve. For as long we exist, we’ll be obsessing over the environments we create for ourselves, and the objects we choose to place within them.

And for every would-be Eames or Wegner, there’s an aspiring Mendini, ready to burn all design’s idols down like his intentionally unusable Lassu chair, famously set aflame for a 1974 cover of Casabella. Of all the quotes about chairs, my favourite comes from Ralph Caplan: “A chair is the first thing you need when you don’t really need anything, and is therefore a peculiarly compelling symbol of civilization. For it is civiliation, not survival, that requires design.” Dictums of taste change with the times, and the esteemed design critic may have preferred the titans of midcentury modernism, but his sentiments ring true. An exercise in interpretation, filled with expression, performativity and personality, The Chair is an exhibition we knew we didn’t need, but very much drew us in anyway.