Style & Spending: Designed for the bottom line: The chair of the Nineties may be simplicity itself, but it was not ever thus, says John Windsor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Is this the shape of chairs to come? No, not the stylish creations (right) sold at a Bonhams auction last week. They are history: collectors' and museum pieces made before 1990, the year that the recession knocked the bottom out of the fashion furniture market, when Ron Arad turned his last Rover car seat into a chair for the sitting room, and when 'designer' became a dirty word.

The candidate for 'Chair of the Nineties and Beyond' chosen by Peter Fiell, a leading authority on modern furniture, is the moulded plastic stacking one with spindly legs (below) known cryptically as 'FO8'. If you do not find avant- garde chairs sexy, this one is unlikely to excite you. But FO8 has winning ways. It is, he says, 'ideologically appropriate for the 21st century: socially responsible, ecologically sound'. It is inexpensive, durable (withstanding knocks, transcending fashion), recyclable and has a dual home/office purpose. It even loves water.

By next year, Mr Fiell expects to see FO8s strung on beams at airports, ranged on stadium terraces and bunched around kitchen tables. If he is right, it will be proof of the profitability of historicism. Mr Fiell knows his chair history and this chair, he says, is the epitome of classical Modernism, come to rescue us from the design vacuum after three decades of avant- garde fooling around. 'Make less last longer' is the theme of the Nineties, he says. 'This is the Age of Responsibility.'

Manufactured by Giulio Capellini, FO8 goes on sale at the Milan Furniture Fair next month (each chair will cost about pounds 130, and there are tables to match). The Guggenheim Museum in New York plans to fill its cafeteria with them. A prototype won the Industrial Design Award of North America in October and is shortlisted for the British Minerva Award.

FO8 stands for 'figure of eight'. Turn an elastic band inside out to reveal the waisted shape made by seat and back-rest. The idea came to the 35-year-old British designer, Ross Lovegrove (commissions from Louis Vuitton, Hermes, British Airways, Parker Pen; chosen last year to spend the Conran Foundation's first annual pounds 25,000 on in- production designs), as he was driving through Paris.

'FO8 was an intuitive accident, not a laboured, preconceived design,' he says. 'That's what's so magical about it. I've tried my darndest not to tamper with it. It's pure, soft and approachable. It has preserved its spontaneity.'

Mr Fiell would have put FO8 into production himself, if pounds 100,000 for a single steel mould had not been beyond his pocket. But a prototype found its way from the 1991 Organic Design exhibition at the Design Museum into the furniture shop he once owned in the King's Road, west London, where it was spotted by Mr Capellini.

But such passion over a chair? There is still some explaining to do. Mr Fiell spells it out: 'In tough times, people get serious. The Nineties are going to be very austere. The spirit of the times says, 'Consume more responsibly.' People have had enough of fashion and consumer products with a short life-cycle. They can see that by changing their consumption patterns they can respond to the needs and concerns of the time.'

Mr Fiell is a rational man. He describes the years 1960-90 as ones of anti-rationalism in design. 'Design in the 20th century is all about cycles of rationalism and anti- rationalism following economic cycles. Austerity brings rationalism because of cost restraints.'

And prosperity brings larkiness. When I invited Mr Fiell and his wife Charlotte to view the Bonhams sale (originally to look at design classics featured in their new book, Modern Chairs, rather than the FO8), they led me to an eloquent piece of mockery, made to order in 1969 by Archizoom, the anarchic anti-Modern Italian design group. Called 'Mies: Armchair with Footrest', it has chromium-plated limbs which politely parody the austere geometry of Mies van der Rohe, in 1930 the last director of the Bauhaus, wellspring of classical Modernism. Its footstool is a more cruel jibe: covered in the skin of a leopard (already an endangered species in 1969), it is kitsch at its most self-conscious. Up yours and your classical Modernism, Herr Mies van der Rohe] Estimated at pounds 3,200- pounds 4,000, it failed to sell.

A glance at the 'reductivist aesthetics' of the first truly Modern chair, the Dutchman Gerrit Rietveld's absurd 'Red and Blue Chair' (below) of 1917-18, another period of austerity when the pound was plummeting, is enough to explain why classical Modernism's unity of form and function, Plato and all that, has been given such a rough ride ever since. (A Sixties repro of Red and Blue Chair fetched pounds 396 at Bonhams.) As early as the Thirties, says Fiell, Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand had debased the Bauhaus's stark lines into a chic 'International Style'.

The Forties and Fifties, golden age of chair design, yielded genuine Modern classics, impressive for aesthetic charm and rational use of new production techniques in plywood and plastic.

Whereupon the avant-garde designers of the Sixties, declaring non plus ultra, threw their arms in the air and, on the tide of a consumer boom, began turning out anti-rational, anti-Modern fun furniture, the more outrageous the better. They continued doing so for the next 30 years - which is why so much of the furniture at Bonhams' biannual sales of '20th-Century Furniture and Design' is strictly not Modern at all.

For the epitome of Modernism, observe the ultra-rational 1963 'Polyprop' by the High Wycombe designer, Robin Day. Recognise it below? Though 14 million have been sold, it is seldom seen at auction because it is still in production. Talk to one and it will parrot its designer's credo: 'I am less interested in fashion than a synthesis of good construction, good function and aesthetics.'

But Mr Fiell's 'second most important chair' was at Bonhams: Charles and Ray Eames's moulded plastic 'Shell Chair' with wire-rod base, made between 1949 and 1953. Retiring into the background on the left of the picture above, it represents an award-winning culmination of low-cost organic-design home furnishing. 'Modernism at its best,' said Mr Fiell. 'It could never be in or out of fashion.'

One fetched pounds 330 (est pounds 250- pounds 350). A batch of four, whose rubber gaskets were shown by the collectors' bible, Eidelberg's Design, to place it in the less valuable fourth edition of 1968-70, made only pounds 110 (est pounds 140- pounds 180).

The avant-garde designers' revolt in the Sixties was not only sour grapes over goody-goody Polyprop or the ennobling of plastic by clever designers such as Joe Colombo and Vico Magistretti, but also last-straw revulsion at a new, creepy sort of Modernism: the state-sponsored sort. In those days, what They would have had Us believe was: Modernism equals Rationalism equals Good Design equals Good Taste. What They actually came up with was Corbusier- style residential tower blocks: oppression packaged as designer chic.

Designer-anarchists such as Archizoom and Studio Alchimia in Italy were quick off the mark. Consumers rallied to park their bottoms on their outrageous, ephemeral, anti-commercial products. Alchimia redesigned a Joe Colombo chair - with a faux marble finish.

Bonhams' highly political 1967 red PVC inflatable (top right, above) seemed to utter a sigh of relief, through its slow puncture, that its Italian designers had freed themselves from the constraints of industrial technology. Ironically, even disposable blow-ups need expensive moulds. It sold for pounds 176 (est pounds 120- pounds 160).

The early Seventies oil crisis and global recession, doubly deadly to plastics, inspired a no-nonsense hi- tech style that threatened to wipe the smile off Sixties fun furniture. But it turned out to be a short-lived stylistic mannerism, another exercise in irrationality.

By the Eighties, the design press was again egging on the excesses of popular consumerism. Ron Arad had a man scour breakers' yards for Rover car seats to sell, in tubular frames, for pounds 500 each. One fetched pounds 1,870 at Bonhams (est pounds 500- pounds 700). The Milanese Memphis studio joined Archizoom and Alchimia in their quest to incorporate bad taste into avant-garde design.

Perhaps it is a comment on the avant-garde that the only successful furniture designs to sidestep the Modern/anti-Modern, rational/anti- rational debate were successful because they were comfortable. The 'Lounge Chair and Ottoman' by Mr and Mrs Eames, in moulded rosewood and black club-style buttoned leather, has luxury written all through it. It is still in production, and early editions are fought over at auction. One, estimated at pounds 700- pounds 900, fetched pounds 1,320 at Bonhams.

In the same sale, the huge, sumptuous handmade rosewood and leather 'Chieftain Chair' by the Danish designer Finn Juhl (below, left) - 'nothing to do with Modernism, more to do with art', according to Mr Fiell - failed to sell at pounds 2,900. Only 78 were made.

Will it outlast FO8, which intends to survive a year for every week of any anti-Modern it supersedes. I suggested to Mr Fiell, ever so gently, that FO8 might be, ever so slightly . . . well, boring. But clever, rational FO8 intends to be its own advertisement for the Age of Responsibility.

'I'm fascinated by design as a means of communicating ideas, of changing the way people think,' Mr Fiell said. 'Manufacturers may not suddenly become enlightened - but they will respond to an enlightened market. There has to be a better way of doing things.'

Show you care. Sit on an FO8.

Modern Chairs by Peter and Charlotte Fiell (Taschen 1994, pounds 11.99) and Modern Furniture Classics since 1945 (Thames and Hudson, 1991). Design 1935-65: What Modern Was by M Eidelberg (Harry Abrams, New York, 1991).

Dealer: Themes and Variations, 231 Westbourne Grove, London W11 (071-727 5531).

(Photograph omitted)

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here

Comments