Chairs, much more than a seat - Designer Richard Snell
Philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, described by Updike as 'so perfect a crank and hermit saint', is renowned for having said, 'I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.'
Even in the simplest places chairs are ubiquitous. And well-designed chairs can change our everyday experience of life for the better.
Thanks to designers such as Prof Richard Snell at the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, the Midlands continues to play a noteworthy role in chair design.
In his recent talk covering '8 Chairs for 8 Decades',
at the recent Birmingham Made Me Design EXPO, Prof Snell outlined the development of chair design in the eight decades since the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Modernism emerge, right up to the 21st century.
The German-Austrian cabinet maker, Michael Thonet designed one of the world's most successful chairs in 1859, the ubiquitous 'Konsumstuhl Nr. 14'.
"He'd been experimenting with bending wood and came up with this famous curvilinear compact chair resulting in an amazing strength to weight ratio.
"By the 1930 up to 50 million of these chairs had been sold with 6000 workers employed in their production. Growth in the railways and the World Exhibition phenomenon were major contributors to its enduring success," said Prof Snell.
"Following the disruption of World War 1 and with a desire for the world to be 'a better place' the visual language of Communism was starting to emerge," continued Prof Snell, "a language that regarded decoration and adornment as immoral with all ornamentation wasting effort and wealth.
Furniture became more sculptural and designers such as Dutchman, Gerrit Rietveld, influenced by Die Stijl magazine and art movement, were using colour to create spatial and sculptural statement. The artist, Piet Mondrian, was a primary mover within this group through his obsession for fine formal proportions.
"The progressive Bauhaus design school had a profound influence on designers, such as Van Doesburg, between 1919 and 1933 who were taking a more rational approach and Walter Gropius who was moving into a more formal geometric language informed by materials and a reforming zeal.
"By 1925, chair designers, like Marcel Breuer were greatly influenced by Rietveld, keen on new technology as well as paring things down to a minimum.
"Taking a line for a walk over a Club chair and being left with outside form was his approach in designing the Wassily chair.
"This combined lightweight tube formed with electro welding and turned handlebar manufacturers into furniture producers whilst using the tensile quality of tube in a chair," noted Richard Snell.
In the West Midlands Tube Investments, saw Modernism as one way of marketing high quality steel tubing, such as that produced by subsidiary, Accles & Pollock, (now Caparo Accles & Pollock, formed in 1896 by gunsmith James George Accles), and established Practical Equipment Ltd in Oldbury in 1931.
Later known as PEL, the company drew on designers such as Oliver Bernard, the architect, Wells Coates, responsible for designing Broadcasting House, Serge Chermayeff and design writer, Noel Carrington.
By 1932 the company had produced the famous Spring Pattern, or SP9 cantilevered chair, inspired by the stunning visual drama of Breuer's Wassily chair and specified for the BBC's new Broadcasting House in London in 1931.
After the war people were looking for a warmer more natural and organic aesthetic whilst still convinced that science could create a better future.
Designers such as Ernest Race had produced his 'Antelope Chair' with its spindly legs and comical ball feet; Charles and Ray Eames produced the 'Wire Mesh Chair' mixing fibreglass and steel; Harry Bertoia and Florence Knoll set up Knoll international and Harry created the renowned 'Diamond Chair'.
Designer, Robin Day, working for Hille in the 1960s, today manufacturing out of Wales but originally founded in London, had met Charles and Ray Eames and was inspired by their 'Plastic Side' chair using polypropylene, a new material at the time.
He created the injection-moulded, 'Polyprop' chair, with over 14 million chairs having been sold since 1963 and subsequently the Hille Tub Chair in 1967.
That same year Italian designer, Giancarol Piretti was using transparency of plastic to create the elegant folding and stacking 'Plia Chair' which was followed in the 1970s by the 'Air Chair' designed by Jasper Morrison, with hollow bone like structures using air to force not yet solidified elements of plastic to be pushed out from the inside.
London Colleges of Art inspired a great revival of creativity with Mary Quant to the fore and designers such as Rodney Kinsman forming OMK in 1972 and creating the omkstack chair that same year - "an amazingly successful chair and very clever in the way it was constructed with its perforated curved edges giving strength to the components."
Whilst the Royal College of Art in London became a design icon for Pop art, in Italy Ettore Sottsass led the Memphis Group in Milan revelling in the Americanisation of design.
"Through the 1980s the British were adopting a more Continental and American attitude to eating out" said Professor Snell. During this period he had worked with Midlands manufacturer, Hostess Furniture, in Bilston England, to produce the 'Neon Chair' for high street restaurants and fast food chains.
"It referred to the Bentwood chairs used in Viennese coffee houses at the end of the 19th century and also the American Diner style of the 1940s and 50s with this cross-referencing of styles part of the post-modern approach where Post-modern designers were using memory and historic referencing to dispel the neutrality of modernism.
"Laser cutting, a new process in the furniture industry, was used to create the circular holes on the wood laminate back allowing contract purchasers to specify their own design."
Professor Snell's latest work had been to design a school chair, the SE Chair, produced by
Hille, working with designer, David Rowe which was displayed at the Birmingham Made Me Design EXPO and which had been selling well during its early weeks on the market.
"We looked at gas filling properties during the injection moulding process to develop a bone-like structure around the seat back to provide additional structural integrity ensuring lightness and longevity. The tube frame was adjusted at the fixing points enabling the required flexibility in sizing.
"The tubular steel frame is made in Burnley and required tube forming and CNC investment. We were conscious of working in a distinguished design tradition in tubular furniture."
Looking ahead Prof Snell felt sustainability would have a huge impact on designs for the future. "Trends now are suggesting a move towards more natural materials, filigree and ornamentation, retro and decorative aspects with a gradual blending of disciplines within art that is influencing approaches to design," concluded Professor Snell.