ETCETERA / Design Dinosaurs: 5. The Deck Chair

BEFORE the deck chair there was the hard, cumbersome Derby armchair: six curved legs, canework seat and back, and often a detachable leg-rest. Foldable and stackable, it became popular on board ships between the 1860s and 1880s (it was known as the Steamer Chair) and was a guaranteed route to pains in the back and neck.

Who invented the improved version is uncertain. Some say it was an Englishman named Atkins, who, some time in the 19th Century, had the idea of slinging a cotton canvas sailor's hammock over its own lightweight, collapsible frame. But this doesn't quite accord with that suggested by the first known advertisement, in 1882: for 'The Yankee Hammock Chair'. This 'Novel and Ornamental' piece of furniture, 'combining SOFA, LOUNGE, EASY-CHAIR, COUCH and BED for LIBRARY, DINING ROOM, DRAWING ROOM, BED- CHAMBER, or BOUDOIR' was, the copy maintained, by its 'strength and portability' rendered 'practical for the LAWN, SEA BEACH, SHIP'S DECK or CAMP'. It weighed 8lbs, cost 17s 6d and 'folded into the compass of a Butler's Tray'.

By 1884, the term 'deck' chair was still sufficiently unfamiliar to merit inverted commas in the writing of E. Nesbit. By 1890, passengers booking voyages on P & O liners were being advised to bring their own.

The deck chair is the accessory of a sea- faring, island nation; the icon of a bygone age. The canvas seat becomes a screen for shadow-play one minute, a billowing spinnaker the next; the frame pinches fingers as classlessly as it does painfully. The design has never changed (except for the addition of arms on later luxury models) because it is unimprovable. Wood and canvas stand up well to the damp and salt of a sea-side winter. Its decline (the few now sold each summer are imported, mainly from Poland and Czechoslovakia) is due not to deficiencies, but to the rumbling of the myth of the British summer - and to the charter flights laid on to escape it. Moulded plastic sun loungers have the incalculable competitive advantage of lying beneath real sun.