London Design Festival

Bums on Seats by Ally Capellino


26 September 2013

"The thing about chairs is that they're for sitting on," says the accessories designer Ally Capellino. "And a lot of the stuff that comes up in London's design week is, I feel, a bit design for design’s sake."

Capellino's own contribution to the London Design Festival, an exhibition titled Bums on Seats, falls in line with this functionalist position, albeit shot through with an irreverence. Known for the leather and canvas bags with which she has made her name since 2000, Capellino has used Bums on Seats as an opportunity to explore furniture design

The exhibition is a showcase of interwar period tubular steel stacking chairs – restored versions of metal chairs produced by the British manufacturer Cox of Watford. Capellino's contribution to the chairs, which were sourced from furniture designer Rupert Blanchard, are leather seats created to replace the original fabric ones. Stitched from irregular pads of russet veg tan leather, Capellino's eight chairs each explore a different typology of sitting.

"It’s a playful attack on chairs, without getting into issues of ergonomics," says Capellino. "The phrase 'Bums on Seats' seemed funny. I remember it from a long time ago when going to conferences about how to sell: 'It’s all about bums on seats!' It’s one of those phrases within the language and then I started thinking about different ways of sitting. How do you make that interesting?"

Capellino's chairs each feature a different seat. Legs Together has two pads on either side of the leather that forces the knees to touch, while Legs Apart includes a single central pad that pushes the thighs apart. Perhaps the most radical is Knees Up - a seat with two small holes to tuck your heels into as you pull your knees up to your chest.

The individual gestures of each chair are small and uncomplicated – suggestive rather than prescriptive as to seating position – and tie in with the simplicity of the tubular steel chairs themselves.

Cox's seats were created as part of a wider trend within British interwar design, with manufacturers such as Practical Equipment Limited also producing cheap metal seating for the commercial market. The typology, which proved a radical break from previous wooden chairs, had been initiated by the Hungarian designer Marcel Breuer in his work at the Modernist Bauhaus institute in Weimar, Germany.

"My chairs are stupid in some ways - some puns on how to sit - but you can actually use them and they are quite comfy," says Capellino. "For me, that sense of viability is important to design. Less is more for me and our studio always strips down our designs. I’m full of admiration for people who can do excess, but I can’t. Our bags always look better when they're a bit more minimal."

The links to Capellino's own utilitarian bag design is clear in the aesthetics of the chairs, which are her first foray into furniture. The metal seats are finished in Hammerite or industrial enamel paint, while the leather seats are durable and age naturally, polishing over time. A series of buckles and straps secure the seats in place. "We did originally have more colours and more strapping," she says. "But it became a bit S&M-y."

"I think I was attracted by how hand-made the chairs are when you look at them," says Capellino. "Although they’re mass produced, they’re hand welded. I’m not trying to pretend I’m any kind of furniture designer, which is why it’s nice to take something that is already out there and work with that. The raw metalwork appealed to me."

The delight the project takes in the original Cox chairs is evident in a gleeful film produced by the photographer Donald Christie as an accompaniment to the exhibition. Detailing two people rushing around, stacking and playing with the chairs, the Buster Keaton slapstick of the film owes a debt to Norman McLaren's 1957 short A Chairy Tale, a Brechtian stop motion detailing a man's exagerated interactions with a sentient chair.

"I think we've tried to do something humorous with this," says Capellino. "I’m terrified of making an idiot of myself because I'm not a furniture designer, so I wanted to take the piss out of myself in the first place, just in case someone thinks they can get in first. But the chairs function quite nicely as is. We wanted to celebrate that."