Design: Design Icons

SALVADOR DALI once took a turn-of-the-century chair and set about dismantling it. He changed its leather seat to chocolate. One of its legs stood in a glass of beer. Another stood upon a Louis XV door knob, making the chair so unstable that it toppled over when anyone approached. He called it the atmospheric chair. "And what does that mean,eh?" he asked. Well you could say it was Salvador Dali making an exhibition of himself yet again. Or you could reflect upon the fact that since the human anatomy doesn't change, there really is little to be done with chairs except play around with them. The Egyptians perfected the chair millennia ago, only they called it a throne. It wasn't until Wassily Kandinsky cycling to Bauhaus hit upon the notion that bike handlebars could lend something to design that the cantilevered chair was designed to kick away chair legs.

Italian maestro of design Mario Bellini says that designing a chair is harder than designing a computer. He has designed both. I am sitting on his "Cab" chair for Cassina, its skeletal frame covered tautly in leather with zips running saucily up its legs, even as I work on an Olivetti "Creative" computer and he's convinced me. A lot of energy has been poured into their detail; but the chair is workmanlike as well as eloquent. I like its simplicity. Chairs designed for the contract market (as they call office chairs) are often aggressively styled. If I had to choose an office chair, it would be from the Vitra collection. You can see some of the best-sellers at the Vitra shop in Bruton Street, London W1.

In 1991 the owner of Vitra, Rolf Fehlbaum, set up a chair museum designed by Frank Gehry in Basel near the factory. The collection begins with Thonet's bentwood cafe chair, the kind you find in bistros with a U-bend wooden back and a cane seat, to mark the point where chairs rolled off the factory assembly line, and includes such futuristic designs as the Wim Wenders stool (right) designed by Philippe Starck for Wenders' movie Until the End of the World and Ply Chair (middle) by Jasper Morrison, the master of minimalism. Every year he not only commissions a new chair from a designer - Alberto Meda is his latest prodigy (left) - but he adds to the museum collection. When I asked him what chair he'd take with him if there was a fire in his museum (Vitra's factory burnt down in the Eighties) he unhesitatingly pointed to a Charles Eames plywood chair made for a child.

Vitra make the entire collection of Eames chairs and you will be able to see some of them from 15 September in the exhibition "The Work of Charles and Ray Eames" at the Design Museum in London, sponsored by Gucci. The creative director Tom Ford, who is passionate about modern architecture and design, acknowledges the importance of the Eames. Many of today's new designs are drawn from things that Charles and Ray did in the Forties and Fifties.