"I think 100 Years - 100 Chairs will be our most popular show yet," enthuses Graeme Russell, the director of the Cube, clearly relishing the fact that such a big-hitting exhibition has come to the north of England before being seen in the capital. "The collection is second to none," he adds, "and it is vital that a thriving and ambitious city such as Manchester should have a show like this." Displayed over two floors of a Victorian warehouse in the city's centre the exhibition is, in Russell's words, "a show that celebrates the diversity of design and proves what an integral part it plays in our lives".
While few of us will have one of Marc Newson's aircraft-inspired Lockheed Loungers (1986) knocking around the house (not least because they fetch upward of pounds 60,000) there are other pieces in the exhibition with which most of us will be more familiar. Jorge Pensi's Toledo chairs (1989) can be found outside cafes across the globe, although not many of us will have sat on one knowing that their design was inspired by a suit of Japanese Samurai armour. This is the sort of knowledge that one can pick up at 100 Years - 100 Chairs, where we also learn that the brainwave of making tubular steel furniture struck the Hungarian-born architect Marcel Breuer while he was riding his tubular steel pushbike. The reduced forms of Breuer's first tubular steel chair, designed in 1925 for the apartment of the artist Wassily Kandinsky, are one of the highlights of the 100 Years - 100 Chairs exhibition.
Graeme Russell's personal favourite in the show - excepting Eero Saarinen's chair from the elegant Tulip range (1956) which Russell can't help admiring for its role in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey - is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair. Designed for the King of Spain in 1929, the scissor-legged chair is now a common feature in the lobbies of showy office blocks and appears in numerous films and photo shoots. Russell swears he even saw the sleek design popping up on the set of Big Brother. "The chair has become so assimilated into our culture," Russell muses, "that we often forget the design is over 70 years old." The chair is, he says, the perfect example of something that appears "perpetually modern".
One of the great advantages of seeing such iconic chairs as the Barcelona in the flesh, rather than on screen or in books (or indeed, pressed against the windows of exclusive design stores) is the fact that one can scrutinise the fine details of their design. At Cube most of the chairs are displayed above floor level so that visitors, if they are so inclined, can ogle the chairs from every angle. Films, too, further illuminate the sociological and technological contexts of the chairs. With the furniture market being flooded with so many cheap (usually illegal) imitations of classic chair designs, Russell hopes that visitors will be able to appreciate the true quality of construction that makes up many of these designs.
Not all of the 100 chairs on display, though, have been selected for their technical appeal - many are celebrated for more whimsical reasons. Gruppo Strum's Pratone design of 1966 is a large block of green foam fingers that give way when you fall into them (not entirely practical, perhaps, but they look pretty fantastic) while the charred remains of Alessandro Mendini's Lassu chair (1974) is a purely symbolic, rather than functional, object.
What becomes clear when viewing the sheer range of styles, materials and shapes on show is how integral the chair has been in the history not only of design but of culture as a whole throughout the 20th century. Quite why this is so has been the subject of much debate, with many pointing out that of all the objects in our lives, it is the chair that we are often physically closest to, thus making it the perfect vehicle for "emotional and imaginative expression" (as Russell suggests). Other commentators have mentioned the dwindling status of the table as family meals gave way to TV dinners, while some argue that the rise of fitted furniture saw cupboards and sideboards shrink into the background, allowing the free-standing chair to hog the design limelight.
Whatever the reason, today designers are rarely considered to have come of age until they have developed their own unique approach to seating. Numerous architects, too, have been drawn towards chair design, seemingly not content with designing buildings. In 100 years - 100 chairs we find an ingenious cardboard chair by Frank Gehry, a chaise-longue by Le Corbusier that looks more like a piece of industrial machinery (indeed the Swiss architect once described his 1928 design as a "machine for relaxing in") and a beautiful Peacock chair by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The man chiefly responsible for assembling this impressive spectrum of chairs is Serge Mauduit, the head of collections at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, southern Germany. Mauduit argues that the Vitra Museum, located in a Frank Gehry building on the Swiss-German border, "has perhaps the most important and complete collection of industrial design in the world". Few within the design industry would disagree with Mauduit's boast, which is why a trip to Weil am Rhein comes highly recommended to those with an advanced obsession with 20th-century design. For anyone who hasn't quite got that far, a visit to the one hundred chairs on show at Cube should set you on your way. Just remember not to plonk your bottom on them. E
100 Years - 100 Chairs is presented by Cube (in association with Ralph Capper Interiors), 113-115 Portland Street, Manchester, and runs from 18 February to 5 May 2005, visit www.cube.org.uk
SEAT OF LEARNING
This page: 100 Years - 100 Chairs at the Cube in Manchester. Opposite page: a selection of chairs featured in the exhibition, including (clockwise from top right) the Wiggle sidechair by Frank Gehry; Pratone by Gruppo Strum (1966); Toledo by Jorge Pensi (1989); Peacock by Frank Lloyd Wright; Wassily by Marcel Breuer (1925) designed for Kandinsky; Sacco, the first ever beanbag; Tulip by Eero Saarinen (1956); the pounds 60,000 Lockheed Lounger by Marc Newson; the timeless Barcelona by Mies van der Rohe (1927)