In connection with the publication of Now I Sit Me Down I’ve been touring around giving talks and readings. A common question from the audience is “What is your favorite chair?” I think that the implied question is often “What is your favorite chair design?” but I prefer to answer it literally. I believe that what makes a chair a “favorite” is not the way it looks, or the notoriety of its designer, but rather what it is used for. For me, and I suspect for many people, a favorite chair is the one you sit in to relax at the end of the day. In my case it’s my reading chair. When writing is done, it’s where I read for pleasure, or sometimes re-read what I’ve written that day. Sitting in my chair I gain a different perspective from when I’m working at my desk. What is my reading chair? It’s a wing chair. Not an antique, but manufactured maybe thirty years ago by Hickory Chair, based on an eighteenth-century model from Tidewater Virginia. It’s not much different than the chair that George Hepplewhite included in his Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (above). That was published in 1788. It’s hard to improve on a good thing.
I recently visited the Knoll Museum, which is in Knoll’s headquarters in East Greenville, Pa. “Museum” makes it sound grander than it is; it’s more like a showroom with 70-odd chairs on the floor. What makes it better than any design museum I’ve ever visited is that you can sit in the chairs. Simply looking at a chair is kind of pointless; about as useful as being shown photographs of food. So I sat. Mies’s Barcelona Chair was pretty comfortable, although hard to get up out of. Breuer’s B35 lounge chair, which I’ve always admired but never sat in, was disappointing—the top bar cut into my back. Saarinen’s Grasshopper Chair was OK, but I’ve never been a fan of contoured chaises longues—not enough freedom. There were several of Venturi’s PoMo chairs from the 1980s—embarrassingly unsittable. Ditto for a Meier-design barrel chair. While all the chairs in the Knoll museum were Knoll chairs, there was one exception: the Eames-Saarinen shell chair, designed in 1940 and recently manufactured (for the first time) by Vitra. Beautiful to look at and beautiful to sit in; a masterpiece. Before I left, I tried out an unprepossessing executive chair; the tufted leather looked so inviting. The moment I sat down I knew this was a chair I wanted. It was designed by Charles Pollock in 1963, and the ingenious design consists of an extruded aluminum rim that acts as the main structure. The arms are phenolic plastic. Unlike today’s ergonomic chair it has few adjustable features. It doesn’t need them.
I’ve been researching Marcel Breuer in connection with a new book. The 18-year-old Breuer started as an art student in Vienna, then transferred to the new Bauhaus in Weimar. He chose the woodworking program, and proved to be so talented in furniture design that after he graduated Walter Gropius invited him back to be the master of the woodworking shop. In one short period, 1925-30, Breuer designed some of the seminal modernist chairs of the twentieth century: the Wassily, the Cesca, the B35 lounge chair. During the 1930s, he started working as an architect, collaborating with F.R.S. Yorke in UK and Gropius in the US, and finally working on his own. What is striking is that Breuer moved so effortlessly from designing chairs to designing buildings. This is explained in two ways. Breuer had completely absorbed Gropius’s teaching that design was a universal discipline, that is, if you could design a teacup you could design a city. So having no formal training in building design or construction whatsoever (the Bauhaus did not teach architecture until long after Breuer was there), did not discourage him from undertaking building commissions. The second reason is that modernist architects were inventing as they went along; they did not rely on history, traditional construction, or conventional building practice. Hence, the lack of training was not a liability. Just as a tubular steel lounge chair had no precedent, so too a glass and concrete building was breaking new ground. It was all new.
Of course, such an improvised art could not last. By the late 1950s, as modernism became an academically entrenched discipline—instead of an avocation—it began to show signs of flagging. You can’t really teach improvisation, any more than you can teach jazz. Neither modern jazz nor modern architecture survived.
Marco Velardi invited me to contribute to a small exhibition called Source Material, that he was organizing with Jasper Morrison and Jonathan Olivares during this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan. “We request from you an object of personal value; a reference, keepsake, object, that has informed, provoked, and stimulated your work,” is what he wrote. I sent a pencil and a scale. Here is what I wrote:
I have used many tools as an architect—T-squares, triangles, compasses, protractors, and ruling pens—but the essential tools for me remain a pencil for drawing and sketching, and a scale for measuring. They are a reminder that while the product of architectural design is a building, architects don’t actually build, they draw. I have had many mechanical and wooden pencils over the years, but my favorite is this fat 5B lead holder. Pencils, especially sketching pencils, are particularly personal since they are the intermediate between the hand and the eye, between seeing and recording. This one is made by Bohemia Works and I bought it on a trip to Prague about 40 years ago. The scale has accompanied me since I was an architecture student. The concept of scale is central to design since it allows the architect to record information, for himself and for others. There is something magic about shrinking reality so precisely. Of course, in a digital age pencils and scales have become almost antiques. But after 40 years my sketching pencil still does its job as well as ever. And you don’t need batteries.
Source Material included contributions by David Chipperfield, Naoto Fukasawa, Edwin Heathcote, and Richard Sapper.