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Complexity and Contradiction in Chairs

Today's guest blogger is David Force, an architect living and working in Columbus, IN and a member of the IMA's Design Arts Society board.

With the opening of the new  Design Galleries late in 2013, this stunningly simple Chippendale Chair by the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown stands out as unique in the incredible compendium of modern design that the IMA has accumulated in recent years.  The chair was manufactured by Knoll International and introduced in 1985 as part of a larger suite of Venturi-designed furniture, including a coffee table, sofa, and eight other historically-themed chairs.

Venturi - Chippendale chair

Chippendale Chair. Image courtesy of http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O48605/chippendale-chair-with-grandmother-pattern-chair-venturi-scott-brown/

Venturi and Scott Brown reintroduced decoration and historical form to furniture at a time when it was uncommon to do so.  As residents of Philadelphia, a city steeped in eighteenth-century design, the architects no doubt were aware of the importance of the work of Thomas Chippendale, and his popularity and influence on colonial American furniture.  Their use of Chippendale’s signature chair back design forms the basis for the chair, but the materials, techniques, and proportions of the chair are vastly different.  The highly tactile, three dimensional forms inherent in the classic Thomas Chippendale back are reduced to two dimensions, almost as if the original chair had been steam-rolled. The openings in the chair back are cut out of essentially flat steam-bent plywood material and the proportions are like a caricature of the original.  The slender gracefulness of Chippendale becomes heavy and almost cartoon-like.  The richness of the inspirational form is translated into a much more edgy design with the appearance of almost having been extruded and thinly sliced.  The layers of plywood material are revealed at the thin edges of the chair, much in the same fashion that Charles and Ray Eames treated their plywood series of chairs forty years before.  The Eames chairs are much more stridently modern and do not concern themselves with classical forms, but rather focus on the simplicity and comfort of the design.  The old Miesian “Less is More“ cliché does seem to apply in the Eames case, but Venturi, noted for the statement “Less is a Bore” thickly layers on historical form.  The chair imparts a sense of being rooted in history without resorting to the simple translation of a precise historical form into a new material in the manner of the Philippe Starck Ghost chair.

The Venturi Chippendale chair in the museum collection is particularly noteworthy because it features a patterned laminate known as “Grandmother”.  The top surface of the plywood appears almost to be giftwrapped, and the decorative details are simply cut through the laminate layers.  Grandmother was inspired by a table cloth belonging to the grandmother of an associate of Venturi and Scott Brown.  The print size was adjusted a bit, and there were several variations in color that were considered.  Ultimately, they landed on a combination that was soft and comfortable-looking, and seems oddly familiar to most observers.  The added black elements almost appear as randomly place quotation marks, and transform the sweetness of the pattern into something much more contemporary.  It is Marimekko-like, yet somehow distinctly American.  The design team referred to it as the “Ant Pattern”.  Indeed during the five year design process for this collection, they must have had a lot of fun with the tongue-in-cheek aspects of the final products.  The chair that will be part of the IMA collection comes directly from the Venturi archive, and also features a leather seat cushion.

Venturi - Grandmother pattern

Grandmother. Image courtesy of http://www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org/Artists/ArtistDetail.aspx?ArtistId=9fc9fcb5-f545-47f8-9f91-aee0af1d5d93

I find it difficult to separate Venturi’s chair design from the architectural projects for which he is most noted.  The Vanna Venturi House has the same simplicity, incised or thinly applied ornamentation, and apparent historical awareness as exhibited in the Chippendale Chair.  The main façade almost looks like a child’s drawing of a house, so there is also the same aspect of fun.  The thinness of the ornamentation is also shown in much the same way as in Venturi’s chair designs.  Fire Station 4 in Columbus, Indiana is also similar with influences of popular culture, pop art, and a certain simplicity of material and pattern.  It is worth the trip to Columbus to have a look at this small jewel.

Vanna House

Vanna House. Image courtesy of http://www.archdaily.com/62743/ad-classics-vanna-venturi-house-robert-venturi/

Firestation 4

Firestone 4. Image courtesy of http://www.pritzkerprize.com/1991/works

Robert Venturi was known to dislike the label “post-modern”, even though he is frequently referred to as the father of post-modern design.  Perhaps the complex lesson learned from the Venturi Chippendale chair is that good design rooted in history doesn’t preclude us from comfort or enjoyment… or fun.  He has given us a modern experience with historical sensitivity.

Filed under: Art, Design

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