Isabella Lobkowicz kindly sent me a copy of her recent book, Almost 100 Chairs for 100 People. “It’s curious how many designers design chairs,” she writes in the Foreword, “but nobody seems to think about the characters who are going to use them.” Princess Isabella (she is married to a Bohemian prince) rectifies this situation with a delightful sketchbook—published by Moleskine—of imaginary chairs. The first, “a chair for the explorer,” is an extremely tall chair with a built-in ladder that allows the occupant to scan the vicinity with his ever-present binoculars. This chair reminds me of the tall chairs made by the pioneering balloonist and aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932). Santos-Dumont held what he called “aerial dinner parties,” and the chairs were intended to give his guests the experience of flying, that is, seeing the world from above. He made the chairs himself, being a skilled craftsman (he built his own flying machines). Santos-Dumont was an unusually innovative character. Finding checking his pocket watch awkward while flying, he asked his friend Louis Cartier to make him a more convenient timepiece—the result was the first wristwatch.
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.