When we buy a piece of furniture, we scour the fine print to find those reassuring words, ‘lifetime guarantee’. However for mid-century furniture, that guarantee has almost expired. While traditional materials such as wood and natural fibres like horsehair can have a lifetime of several hundred years, modern synthetic materials are less predictable. The degradation of upholstery foams is a significant issue facing the preservation of mid-century furniture. The life expectancy of foams can vary significantly due to their chemical makeup, manufacturing method, usage, and the environment they’ve been stored in. Furniture is sometimes acquired for the NGV collection ‘as new’, for example Grant Featherston’s R152 Contour chair, while others are acquired after providing decades of service such as Bruce Hyett’s Lounge chair and therefore may be in a more advanced state of deterioration.
While it’s not possible to halt the chemical degradation of foams such as latex rubber and polyurethanes often used in mid-century furniture, it is possible to slow it down by providing stable environmental conditions and minimising physical stressors such as compression and tension. But what happens when the internal foam of a chair degrades to a point where it affects the overall design concept or begins to damage the upholstery fabric? These particular foams degrade to become brittle and crumble under the lightest of touches, or they can become soft and tacky with a loss of shape and resilience. Increasingly, museum’s worldwide are wrestling with this issue with research being undertaken to find methods to maintain the integrity and shape of degrading foams where access is possible (which is not often the case for sewn or tacked-on upholstery). Also being considered are the ethical ramifications of removing original foam and replacing it with a more stable product. Would we then be placing more importance on the aesthetics over the retention of original material? This raises a good question about what is important to preserve in a museum collection item.
View this chair in Mid-Century Modern: Australian Furniture Design at NGV Australia until 19 Oct.
Image 1: Bruce Hyett Lounge Chair, 1959, D21-1992 (image Da101650). Both the upholstery foam and rubber webbing are embrittled and fragile.
Image 2: Latex rubber foam from a 1955 Land Rover seat, in an advanced state of deterioration (Collection of Justin Schooneman).