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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

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.

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Filed under: Art, Design


Mario Botta’s Tesi Table

Our guest blogger today is Eric Rowland, who is a board member in the Design Arts Society. He continues a series of blog posts on acquisitions for the IMA's new Design Arts galleries, opening in fall of 2013.

Mario Botta, Single-family house in Ligornetto,Ticino, Switzerland, 1975-1976.

Mario Botta, Single-family house in Ligornetto,Ticino, Switzerland, 1975-1976.

My first project in architectural school was drawing a house designed by Mario Botta. It was an exercise designed to teach us how to draw isometric images, and I think the Botta house was selected because it was such a simple form.  It was a long narrow house that looked like a shoebox on its side, with irregularly shaped openings cut out of it and stripes across the sides. I loved it! I had never seen a house like this and I was immediately interested in finding more of his work.

Botta’s roots in Lugano, Switzerland certainly reveal themselves in his work. Lugano is in a mountainous part of the country, with tranquil lakes and an amazing alpine skyline. The proximity to Italy no doubt allowed him to be exposed to the work of Carlo Scarpa, an architect whose attitudes to masonry, geometry and precise detailing seem to be reflected in Botta’s work. While the majority of his work is in his native region and includes single-family houses, vacation houses, offices religious buildings and even warehouses, his best known work in the United States is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Mario Botta, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992-1995.

Mario Botta, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992-1995.

I think Botta is a good example of an “architect’s architect.” His work is precise and tailored, sensitive to context, but bold and self-assured. Symmetry and texture play an important part in his work, and his vocabulary generally consists of a masonry shell, cracked to reveal its jewel-like contents as though you took a band-saw to a geode. Strong striping and simple geometric forms define its character.

Mario Botta, Tesi table, 1985.

Mario Botta, Tesi table, 1985.

This table acquired by the IMA is an evolution of that architectural vocabulary and an extension of his materiality. Like the center of a geode, the Tesi materials are multifaceted and shiny. A simple metal triangle extrudes to create a minimal base. Bold metal stripes articulate the support of the rectangular glass top. The Tesi table is a great piece of interior architecture that fittingly represents Botta’s bold body of work.

Filed under: Design, The Collection


Mezzadro Stool: Part Two

Our guest blogger today is Chip Kalleen who is a board member in the Design Arts Society.

Image courtesy of Zanotta Design.

Image courtesy of Zanotta Design.

Two members of the Design Arts Society explore the same work of art from different perspectives. Here is Part Two—

If you had to select a single symbol that best represents the world of agriculture, what would it be?  That would definitely be a challenge.  Once you had an image in mind, could you then take that image and design a piece of furniture with itsomething perfectly utilitarian and practical, but at the same time sleek and sculptural?  That would be the greater challenge.  Fortunately, two brothers from Italy accepted that challenge in the 1950s and created what is today one of the world’s most iconic and timeless furniture pieces.

The Mezzadro (sharecropper) stool, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, premiered in 1957 but did not go into full production until thirteen years later in 1970.  This elegantly simple stool married a standard metal tractor seat and bicycle wing nut with a strip steel spring stem and a cross base of natural beech wood.  It was all about editing, editing, editingeliminating anything that was not absolutely necessary and getting down to the simple basics of what a stool needed to be and could be.   Simple, yes, but plain, definitely not!

While the brothers succeeded in having a minimal number of principle parts (4) and materials (2), they still wanted to take this visually quirky yet comfortable stool to another design level.  Mezzadro needed to have an unexpected sense of style and, I think, glamour.  Could those elements be combined with the basic function and material components and allow the stool to transition from ordinary to sublime?  The answer is yes, and I think the brothers did it brilliantly.  It was all about the finishes.

First, they chose to finish the humble metal tractor seat in a shiny colored lacquer.  The tractor seat of the Mezzadro stool in the Design Arts collection of the IMA is finished in a glossy red lacquer. That color lends the seat a boldness and dynamism that belies its simple, utilitarian form (this is the same red you remember from your youth when you received the coveted Radio Flyer “little red wagon” for your birthday).  The brothers then added the surprise element of “luxe” to their creation by taking the ordinary flexible steel bow and coating its plain steel in polished chrome.  To me, the chromed steel is the piece de resistancethe element that transcends practicality and puts the stool in an entirely new category. It’s furniture as fashion! The red seat is now the equivalent of fellow countryman, Valentino, and his spectacular red couture gowns (from the same time period) and the chromed steel support is the glimmering necklace of diamonds at the model’s throat. The mirroring effect and the sparkle of the flexing chromed steel bow also add a dimensional twist, moving the overall stool into the realm of functional sculpture.  Last, and not to be overlooked, is the natural beech “foot” that anchors all of the above.  Like the other components the foot is so much more than just balance and support.

Valentino dress, 1965. Image courtesy of

Valentino Haute Couture Red silk crêpe dress, fall 1965. Image courtesy of Valentino and

Keeping the wood as light as possible allows for the maximum material contrasts between the red seat and the chromed steel.  The subtle graining also adds a natural pattern that complements the highly machined parts.   It is the embodiment and fulfillment of Mies van der Rohe’s classic statement: “Less is More.”

As a designer, I feel the Mezzadro is one of those great accent pieces that can totally transform a room.  Six of these around a rustic wood French farm table, a classic late 19th century American round oak pedestal table or a spartan Shaker cherry or maple table would create a memorable dining experience.  That is the beauty of this stool.  It works well with a diverse number of more traditional and antique furnishings and yet it feels perfectly at home in a more high-tech and minimalist environment.  The Mezzadro  is where agrian meets urban, and the rest is history.

Filed under: Design, The Collection


Mezzadro Stool: Part One

Our guest blogger today is Tom Vriesman, Board President of the Design Arts Society at the IMA.

Image courtesy of Zanotta Design.

Image courtesy of Zanotta Design.

Two members of the Design Arts Society at the IMA explore different facets of a recently acquired work in the IMA’s collection. Here is Part One:  

Through the doors of Piazza Castello, 27 lay the magical wonderland that is the studio of Achille Castiglioni (1918-2002).  It is here that the maestro designed his oeuvre that would become the hallmark of the Italian modernist movement of the 1950s. In April of 2011, I had the distinct pleasure to visit the studio and be escorted through by Achille’s daughter and wife.  His zest for life and child-like fascination with found objects is in exuberant abundance…it’s as if he has just stepped out for an espresso and gelato only to return to continue working on  and tinkering with a new idea with his brothers Livio (1911-1979) and Pier Giacomo (1913-1968).

Amongst the myriad of prototypes, drawings, and ephemera cluttering the space was an object that has intrigued me since the day I first experienced it, the Mezzadro stool designed in 1957 by Achille and Pier Giacomo and put into production by Zanotta in 1970.  Constructed of a mass-produced tractor seat, enameled and chrome-plated steel and a beech wood foot rest, the stool, translated “sharecropper,” is a direct descendant of Marcel Duchamp’s notion of the “ready-made.”  The brothers incorporated a well-known and perhaps “invisible” archetypal element because of its common place presence, here the tractor seat, and gave it new life by placing it in an expressively compelling context.  In other words, form follows emotion and concept in addition to function.

As the Italian post-World War II economy began to strengthen, it was this conceptual groundwork that the Castiglioni brothers reveled in. The stool’s first prototype was introduced at the 1954 X. Milan Triennial in the industrial design section entitled “Art and Production.” Off the shelf items (a tractor seat and bicycle wing nut) were combined with a flat bar of steel to provide a springy seating experience similar to that of a typical tractor riding through a bumpy field. The final element, the beech foot rest, provides stability.  These mere four pieces make up the essence of a seating solution.  Nothing extraneous in the minds of the brothers was necessary to add meaning or additional functionality to their archetypal form.  Mezzadro in its final form was presented at “Colori e forme nella casa d’oggi” at Villa Olmo in Como, Italy in 1957.  It wasn’t until thirteen years later in 1970 that the stool was introduced at the Milan furniture fair by Zanotta because of its far-reaching concept and form.

Castiglioni’s “sharecropper” is truly an icon of mid-century Italian industrial design.  Its whimsicality, Dadaist references and elemental assembly of found objects embodies the studio’s timeless design philosophy, impacting every object that the brothers developed.  MAGNIFICO!

Filed under: Design, The Collection


ArtBabble: Back and Bigger than Ever

Today is the big day – the day we relaunch ArtBabble to the world. After six months of surveying, planning and designing and one wild 24 hour #babblesprint, I couldn’t be happier to share the fruits of our labor with our loyal followers. I hope you love the changes as much as we do.

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Filed under: Art, Design, Education, New Media


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