DESIGN / Seats at all prices: Chair stylists are out in force for a new exhibition on the South Bank. Nick Curtis sits in judgement

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The Independent Culture
Helen Rees takes chairs seriously. But not all that seriously. When she describes them as the most intimate piece of furniture in our lives she clearly means it. On the other hand, she wants Are You Sitting Comfortably . . ? - the exhibition of chairs which opens at London's Royal Festival Hall today - to be light-hearted and accessible. Hence the phrases in the exhibition press release about 'getting to the bottom' of her subject.

When the South Bank Centre decided on a design-based exhibition, they approached Rees - a founder-director of the Design Museum who had worked on a number of design exhibitions - to curate it. 'The Festival Hall wanted to talk about furniture, which is a pretty enormous subject,' she says. 'The idea of chairs was a way of finding a focus, something that people could relate to. Everybody has them and everyone has feelings and thoughts about them, about comfort, function and appearance.'

Although there is an accompanying slideshow which takes in the history of the chair as status symbol (thrones, magistrate's benches, the role that the canopies on Vatican chairs take in the election of a new Pope), the exhibition does not aim at a comprehensive overview of the chair in society. To attempt that, says Rees, would be absurd. 'If you take it too far you end up in Pseud's Corner, and an encyclopaedic survey of the chair would be mind-blowingly boring. We've tried to concentrate on British chairs, or chairs that people will have had some experience of. It's also about what's going on now rather than some sort of historical survey.'

Nonetheless, there is an example of the cafe chair created by the German cabinet-maker Michael Thonet in the 19th century: the first chair to be mass- produced in component form, a precursor to today's flat-pack furniture, 40 million copies of it were sold between 1859 and 1914. There's also Rees's own example of the Arne Jacobson Butterfly Chair, a milestone design over which Christine Keeler and Joe Orton peeked in the Sixties: 'It's not uncomfortable, although I don't think comfort is a major factor in buying it,' Rees confesses.

But alongside these classics there are today's best-selling chairs, which visitors can rump-test. There's public seating from British Rail and the Festival Hall itself: the specially-designed 1950s RFH seats were, Rees believes, hoarded by 'rebels and mavericks' when they were due to be thrown out, only to be appropriated later by the RFH's comprehensive archive. There are examples of the one-off designer chair, and the show ends with half a dozen seats designed by students, including one recycled from shampoo bottles and a bondage-inspired fetish chair, where relaxation is perhaps not the aim.

'Some of them are, shall we say, less practical than others, but it shows that the design process is continuing,' says Rees tactfully. 'None of the exhibits are there because we're saying they're good designs, but because each says something different about chair design: the audience can make up its own mind about what's good.' Whatever one's conclusions, Are You Sitting Comfortably . . ? certainly makes you see items normally taken for granted in a new light. As Rees says: 'You don't need to be a design expert to know what's comfortable. It's just a way of tapping into the universal experience of chairs, if that doesn't sound too pretentious.'

'Are You Sitting Comfortably . . ?', RFH Main Foyer Gallery, South Bank, London SE1, 10am-10.30pm to 28 Nov, free.

(Photograph omitted)