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© Tracey Deep

Since Antiquity, chairs have been utilised across diverse cultures and universally understood as a ubiquitous part of human culture. These are objects designed for use as seats of power, discourse, commerce, rest and domesticity. Their intended purpose, linked with their long roots in tradition, encode chairs with great social and cultural meaning.

An enormous variety of chair designs exist; one may rightfully ask – why, in our time, are designers still so interested in designing them? Creating the Contemporary Chair: The Gordon Moffatt Gift presents arresting and provocative chair designs by some of the most interesting designers of our time. This exhibition explores the significance of chairs as markers of design evolution and as objects embedded with meaning, expression, experimentation and utility. The five narratives of the exhibition – Invention, Individualism, Lineage, Idealism and Diffusion – offer fresh perspectives on chair design, providing a view of the enduring allure of the chair and its ongoing hold over the designer.

The narratives are explored as follows:

Invention

Inventive design embeds new scientific knowledge within goods and services, unleashing the potential of industry as designers harness the potential of new materials, systems and technologies to create ‘innovation’ – unanticipated product designs that offer new attributes, features and benefits. The pursuit of invention and the generation of patents and intellectual property are fundamental to modern commerce. Design sits at the vanguard of this ambition, seeking to perpetually iterate, disrupt and reimagine products and services – as competitive, brand and ideological strategies.

The ultimate mass-produced chair, Air chair by Jasper Morrison, 1999, is exceptionally light, durable and fast to make. Air chair, along with Philippe Starck’s Louis ghost chair, 2002, signalled a new era in the production of plastic chairs. Similarly, Ghost armchair, 1987, by Cini Boeri and Tomu Katalanagi, marked a breakthrough in glass manufacture with its unitised structure.

With the rise of digital technologies, the opportunities for invention are staggering. Ross Lovegrove’s Diatom armchair, 2014, and Go chair, 1998–2001, are designed entirely within the computer. By applying the latest technologies to the way products are designed and made, designers are challenging the status quo. The ability to think differently is a hallmark of invention, leading to the creation of pivotal works of product design, such as the Aeron, office chair, 1992, by Donald T. Chadwick and Bill Stumpf.

Individualism

In contrast to mass production, which is the result of efficient and repeatable manufacturing steps, individualism in design rejects the uniformity and homogeneity of industry, challenging the principles of the industrial economy and the perceived wastefulness of consumer culture. Designers pursuing their own goals over the interests of the mass market set out to make unique, one-off and limited-edition designs, prioritising self-expression and experimentation into new forms, aesthetics, processes and materials.

Individualised production is idiosyncratic. Jòlan van der Wiel’s Original gravity stool, 2011, and Jacoppo Foggini’s Alice armchair, 2011, have been created using tools and machinery invented by the designers, which gives these chairs unique aesthetic and material values. Ideas of transformation, reinvention and the convergence of hand and machine resonate in the chairs of Fernando and Humberto Campana, while the handmade hanging seat Fiona Blackfish, 2015, by Porky Hefer discloses the designer’s concern for nature. More an expression of the designer’s visual and material language than a functional, Tracey Deep’s She chair, 2016, ties up one of the twentieth century’s most iconic chairs: Arne Jacobsen’s Series 7 chair of 1955.

Lineage

Lineage refers to the historical prompts from which some design stems, connecting the present to the past. Designers regularly draw upon previous art, design, tradition, technology and cultural constructs, including styles and movements. Contemporary design is therefore inseparable from the designs of the past – being encoded with information and reference points drawn from history that can hold great significance to the designer and even become the impetus for the design.

Helen Kontouris’s 101 chair, 2001, was inspired by the sculptural practice of the twentieth-century Australian-American artist Clement Meadmore. In a similar fashion, Konstantin Grcic’s Myto, chair, 2006, references the first cantilever plastic chair – the iconic Panton chair of 1960 by Verner Panton. Likewise, Adam Goodrum’s Stitch, chair, 2008, is a contemporary interpretation of American inventor Fredric Arnold’s aluminium collapsing chair of 1956. Revisiting the concept of multifunctional furniture pioneered by avant-garde designers of the 1960s, Schamburg + Alvisse’s Stop playing with yourself puzzle, 2005, identifies with theories of the Italian Radical and Anti-Design movements that aim to inject design with fun and play.

Idealism

Designers can create objects to communicate beliefs and values – and in doing so, theories such as inclusivity, environmentalism and ethics shape their designs and give them substance. Given design’s relationship to the production and consumption of goods, contemporary objects can ask us to make a stand in relation to whether a product should exist, how and by whom things are made, what they are made from and how they will be disposed of after their useful life has ended.

Idealism in design has its roots in the doctrines of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the nineteenth century, and twentieth-century modernism. Tabling social, spiritual and aesthetic issues, proponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement believed that ‘mechanical commodities’ were dehumanising and promoted the de-culturing of the world. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and design can be seen as a positive force – for humankind and nature.

Embracing production efficiencies and the potentiality of twenty-first-century manufacturing, designer Dirk Vander Kooij’s Endless chair, 2010, is 3D printed using plastic reclaimed from old refrigerators. Jean Louis Iratzoki’s Kuskoa bi, armchair, 2014, is made from beet, cornflour and sugar cane, exploring sustainable material alternatives in the form of bioplastics; and Christien Meindertsma’s elegant Flax chair, 2015, is made from a composite combining flax with polylactic acid.

Diffusion

Diffusion describes the ways in which rituals, narratives, history and memory can become embedded within functional objects. Different social, geographical and cultural contexts produce different types of objects; hence it is possible for a design to provide a marker of both place and time, embodying the knowledge, know-how, stories and traditions of a place and its people. Design today strives for this capacity; yet in a globalised, pluralist world, contemporary design illuminates the divergence and recombination of cultures, embedding new narratives in the products that surround us.

Dutch designer Tord Boontje’s handwoven Shadowy armchair, 2009, for Moroso’s M’Afrique collection, is acclaimed for introducing the work of Sengalese artisans to a global design market. Trent Jansen’s Broached East Chinaman’s file rocking chair, 2013, pays homage to the estimated 16,500 Chinese immigrants who walked from Robe in South Australia to the Victorian goldfields during the mid nineteenth century.

The pervasiveness of chairs, coupled with their function at the root of ritual and interaction, elevates their significance; hence designers embrace the chair as a typology within which to reveal their own capability, individuality and inspiration.