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A chair is never just a chair: A social history of a ubiquitous household item, Part 2

In part two of our series, Machines for Sitting, Witold Rybczynski focuses on the modern chair. The Canadian architect and Nahlah Ayed visit the Design Within Reach furniture store in New York, to look at some of the most important designer chairs of the 20th Century.

Architect Witold Rybczynski chronicles the stories that chairs tell in his book, Now I Sit Down

'What strikes me about chairs over the ages is that there's a certain constancy because the body doesn't change,' says Witold Rybczynski, author of 'Now I Sit Me Down.' (Submitted by Design Within Reach/Nahlah Ayed/CBC)
Listen to the full episode53:59

What is a chair? The answer includes far more than just sitting.

As Canadian architect and design critic Witold Rybczynski chronicles in his book, Now I Sit Me Down, a chair is many things.

"It's a piece of art that you sit in which makes it art. Well, I think it makes it a better, special kind of art because a picture you can only look at," Rybczynski told IDEAS Nahlah Ayed.

Chairs may be simple in design but are complex. They hold power and status. How they look tells a story about the culture it comes from. There's so much to learn from chairs over the ages.

In part one of our series, Machines For Sitting, Rybczynski and Ayed toured the Metropolitan Museum in New York, focusing on ancient chairs in their historical collection — which includes 3,662 chairs in total.

Part two explores the influential design of modern chairs. Rybczynski and Ayed visit the Design Within Reach studio, a high end modernist furniture store in New York with a large collection of some of the most important chairs from the 20th century.

Here are some highlights from this episode:

Bentwood Chairs

The Era Chair designed in 1859. (Submitted by Design Within Reach, New York)

Witold Rybczynski: Michael Thonet invented this chair and produced it. It's made out of bentwood and the important thing about this chair is the back rail. It goes down and becomes the legs, so the legs and the back is all one curved piece of wood which gets rid of about three joints. There are no corners, it's all one piece.

The hard thing in a chair is always the joints. That's what's difficult to make and that's what tends to get loose over time. If a chair fails that's where it fails. So he was trying to make an inexpensive, mass produced chair primarily for restaurants and hotels — not a domestic chair.

His aim was to develop a way of making the chair without any skilled labour. Up until then you had to be a very skilled carpenter to build a chair so you couldn't make chairs cheaply because the labour was much too expensive. 
 

Wegner Chairs

The Wishbone Chair. (Submitted by Design Within Reach, New York)

Witold Rybczynski: Hans Wegner isn't exactly a chair designer — he's a chair maker. When he wanted to make a chair there were little carpenter shops [in Denmark] that would make chairs for him. So there was this whole infrastructure in this little country of craftsmen, of designers and then also small factories, which eventually would produce the chair on a bigger scale. And that kind of infrastructure didn't exist everywhere.

The Wishbone Chair is an interesting design because it definitely owes something to Chinese chairs. It has that splat, although he's made it a wishbone shape but it has the curved splat. This was designed in 1949 and it was specifically made to try to make a chair that was more affordable. He cuts down on the number of pieces, the arms and the back are one piece. 

I think the attractive and unusual thing with Wegner is that it's both very traditional in some ways, like it's wood for one thing, but also the string seat is a completely traditional element — there's nothing modern about it at all. And yet the shapes are modern and the simplification of things tends to be modern in this kind of low-key Danish way.
 

The Eames Chair

The Eames Molded Fiberglass 4-Leg Armchair (DFAX) (Submitted by Design Within Reach, New York)

Witold Rybczynski:  The goal for the husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames was to design a chair where the seat and back could be created as a single piece. They cast this entire thing out of fiberglass which was a a relatively new material and it's one of the things that drives change in chairs. One of them is posture because we wanted to sit differently but the other is materials.

This was designed with mass production in mind. You can't make this by hand. It wouldn't make any sense. It's not like a wooden chair. It's designed to be made in a mold, in a factory — and so this was a very important chair.

The Danish designer Arne Jacobsen bought one of the Charles Eames plywood chairs and installed it in his own studio where it became the inspiration for one of the most commercially successful chair models in history. The three legged Ed Chair with a single piece of plywood shaped to create a continuous seat and back sold in the millions. That chair evolved into yet another famous chair: The Series Seven. 

Modern chairs discussed on the Design Within Reach tour

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      * This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

      ** Special thanks to Design Within Reach in New York City.

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