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4 Jan 2022 / by Ikko Yokoyama

Unravelling the Enigma of Chairs

Rocking lounge chair made out of Brazilian pau ferro wood and cane. The cane is set in a wooden frame to form the seat and back, appearing as a long flowing line from the side. The centre of the chair’s seat is connected to a base made of curved wood, resembling an upside-down arch. Attached below the seat’s head and foot are two smaller curved pieces of wood, which form an asymmetrical arc shapes from the side.

Rio, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and his daughter Anna Maria. © All rights reserved

Van Gogh’s Chair is lonely; Gauguin’s Chair is warm. We enjoy unravelling the enigma of chairs, musing over Van Gogh’s sorrows, understanding how people lived life along the way. Every chair reveals secrets of its time: from China’s imperial dragon thrones to chairs as contemporary art; from Japan’s zabuton floor seating to pioneering, economical chair design.

Ikko Yokoyama (Lead Curator, Design and Architecture) studied design with the ambition of becoming a chair designer. Instead, her role as a curator has led to encounters with storied chairs from around the world. Below, she assumes the role of detective, untangling for us the mystery of Asian chairs and their stories of interwoven cultures.

From zabuton to elevated seating

If chairs can reflect culture, then Watanabe Riki’s Rope chair offers leads that thread through history. Since ancient times, Japanese people have sat on the floor, whether for chatting or for dining; this practice only began to change widely after World War II. ‘After the war, the Japanese started to see a different lifestyle through American soldiers,’ says Yokoyama. ‘Japanese manufacturers were tasked with producing furniture for the American soldiers stationed there.’ After the war, many homes were destroyed, and the economy tanked. As people looked to rebuild their industries, they also aspired towards the Western lifestyle.

Low chair made of Japanese oak, cotton rope, and metal screws with tapered, splayed legs. Cotton rope is strung vertically on the light brown wooden frame of the seat and back, with a lattice weave for the rear section of the seat.

Riki Watanabe and Yokoyama Industry’s Rope chair (1952) may be simple in design, but it captures the depths of Japan’s desires for a better future after WWII. © Kyoko Tsukada

Watanabe lived through the Second World War and, in 1952, designed Rope chair amidst a lack of resources. The chair’s frame and back are made of wood, with cotton rope woven together as the seating. He used only the simplest lines and materials to fashion this elegant chair, and its experimental nature continues to leave us awestruck today. Yet, for him, this design was a product of his times, because it used relatively low-cost cotton and standard-sized timber instead of custom sized woods. From this piece of furniture, one can steal a peek into how culture responds to climate: the seating design allows for heat to dissipate in the summer, while in the winter, a zabuton, available in every household, can be added to keep the cold away.

‘At the time, the designer wasn’t thinking about any sort of cross-cultural design; functionality was his priority,’ says Yokoyama. ‘To label it “cross-cultural” is the work of curatorial research, which actively searches for shared approaches and strategies across different cultures.’ Rope chair is relatively low in height, allowing the sitter to remain close to the floor, in line with traditional Japanese sitting culture. If two people were to have tea together, one could sit on the chair and the other on the floor, and they would stay within a cosy distance.

Innovation as creative resilience

Tendo Mokko is a plywood factory that was set up in Japan during the war, supporting the manufacture of military equipment at the time,’ says Yokoyama. The Japanese military developed a trick during the war, in which wooden dummy planes were placed in rural areas so that US soldiers would target those instead of bombing the cities. ‘At the time, Tendo was asked to make these fake aircraft. And that’s how they learned to create curves in wood, while also gaining professional skills in handling plywood.’ Yokoyama adds, ‘War is tragic, but many innovations emerged during that time.’

After the war, people needed to rebuild their homes in affordable ways that also expressed renewal, so soft, curved, lightweight, and low-cost plywood was a perfect resource. Europe and places across the world had also just begun to move away from the steel build and purely functional Bauhaus styles, and the demand for wooden furniture with simple, smooth lines soared.

Rocking lounge chair made out of Brazilian pau ferro wood and cane. The cane is set in a wooden frame to form the seat and back, appearing as a long flowing line from the side. The centre of the chair’s seat is connected to a base made of curved wood, resembling an upside-down arch. Attached below the seat’s head and foot are two smaller curved pieces of wood, which form an asymmetrical arc shapes from the side.

Rio, designed in 1978 and manufactured in 1982, combines design elements of a rocking chair and chaise longue, which give it sharp yet graceful lines. © All rights reserved

Tendo made the smart move to set up a factory in Brazil, where the then in-vogue tropical wood was sourced, to lower the cost of shipping raw materials. The company also proposed a collaboration with Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. ‘Niemeyer had a chair model made out of curved sheet metal which he wasn’t pleased with, so he gave Tendo a challenge—if he could create a wooden chair with smooth curvatures, he would agree to the collaboration.’

Thanks to the expertise gained during the war, Tendo successfully achieved the request, and their subsequent chaise lounge, Rio, designed by Niemeyer and his daughter Anna Maria, has since become a classic, with its curves conjuring images of ocean currents and rolling hills, thus reflecting the natural scenery of Brazil. However, with its leisurely form and large size, the chair was more suitable for the local market than for the compact housing of Japan. Nonetheless, Tendo’s craftsmanship on this chair inadvertently boosted the image of post-war Japanese design, casting the country in an important role on the global stage.

Transcultural adaptations

‘Every time we discover a story behind a chair, we try to follow the thread to other clues, in hopes of uncovering other lesser-known stories that can relate to established design history,’ reflects Yokoyama. Cross-regional and cross-cultural exchanges took place continually before and after the war—for example, in India, which entered a modern architectural era after independence, rendering the old, glamorous designs outdated.

Chair made of teak and jute. The chair has an upright, rectangular shape. The frame of its long back and legs are made of wood; its seat and back are woven together from jute.

© Minnie Boga. Photo courtesy of Kristine Michael

In 1964, Indian designer Minnie Boga was invited to Stockholm for a visit to study Scandinavian furniture-making techniques. Due to factors such as climate and geography, places like Sweden, Finland, and Denmark have customarily made furniture from wood to create a sense of warmth. Boga took inspiration from this and combined it with the traditional craftsmanship of her home culture to create chairs made of teak wood and hemp rope, which are more suitable for the South Asian climate. As with Watanabe Riki, she pioneered a design that responded to available materials while introducing a new style.

Coming from the other side of the world, French designer Charlotte Perriand was invited to Japan to advise on product design for trade in the early 1940s. She saw that the Japanese looked to Western designs but felt that they should be more enthusiastic about preserving the spirit and essence of their own culture; she herself was moved by many aspects of it, such as tea ceremonies and other crafts. Therefore, she decided to use local material—bamboo—in her furniture design, to demonstrate new possibilities for local resources. Later, in 1941, she held an exhibition in Tokyo’s Takashimaya department store titled Selection, Tradition, Creation: Contact with Japanese Art, where she exhibited Japanese lacquerware that she admired, as well as her own designs inspired by Japanese culture, such as the bamboo LC4 chaise longue.

Beech plywood chair stained black and made from a single piece of wood. The sections at the sides of the seat bend to form the front and rear legs. A slit at the top of the back opens to a rectangle at the bottom.

Charlotte Perriand’s Ombre—designed in 1954 and manufactured in 1975 by Tendo Mokkois made from one entire piece of black-stained, bent plywood, using no joints, nails, or screws

As the war heated up in 1942, she was forced to leave Japan, but she continued to be inspired by—and inspire other—Asian designers. More than a decade later, she returned to the department store for another exhibition—Proposal for a Synthesis of the Arts, Paris, 1955—where she presented Ombre, inspired by the footed lacquerware food trays used in Japanese households.

Beyond functionality

As the economy took off in the 1970s, even more chair designs emerged, with trends beginning to evolve into something quite different. Apart from looking at functionality, designers began to consider how a chair can create an atmosphere for a space, or how it might even build a relationship with the space to create an experience for the user.

‘As we stepped into the 1990s, more designers started to doubt the need to continue designing chairs,’ says Yokoyama. ‘Do people really need so many chairs?’ became a common question for designers. After that, chairs rich with symbolic meaning began to take shape. Every piece became a statement that represented the creator’s line of critical inquiry.

Acrylic resin, plastic, and epoxy-coated aluminium chair with an angular backrest, curved armrests, and seat, which are transparent. Red roses with green leaves are suspended in the seat and armrests. The upper parts of the four purple tubular legs are inserted in the bottom of the armrests.

The armrests, seat, and back of Kuramata Shiro’s Miss Blanche is made of transparent acrylic panels with artificial roses suspended inside. The chair is named after Blanche DuBois, the delicate female lead of the play, A Streetcar Named Desire. © Kuramata Design Studio

Replica baroque chair made of fabric and wood, with scrolled arms and ornamentation. The chair is painted with colourful dots.

Poltrona di Proust, by the famous Italian designer Alessandro Mendini, is a replica baroque armchair with bright colours dotted all over the surface and scrolled armrests. It was made in the early 1980s and hand-painted by two Italian painters. © Alessandro Mendini

Chair with a back comprising three rolled-up mattresses in a shiny material tied together with black straps. The two outer mattresses are a golden colour and the middle mattress is red. The seat consists of six bicycle seats joined together to form a circle, the middle of which is covered by a round foam seat.

Gunjan Gupta’s Gadda Walla Bicycle Throne takes inspiration from the bedding vendors commonly seen on the streets of India, paying homage to India’s unique vendor traditions. © Gunjan Gupta

Acrylic resin, plastic, and epoxy-coated aluminium chair with an angular backrest, curved armrests, and seat, which are transparent. Red roses with green leaves are suspended in the seat and armrests. The upper parts of the four purple tubular legs are inserted in the bottom of the armrests.

The armrests, seat, and back of Kuramata Shiro’s Miss Blanche is made of transparent acrylic panels with artificial roses suspended inside. The chair is named after Blanche DuBois, the delicate female lead of the play, A Streetcar Named Desire. © Kuramata Design Studio

Replica baroque chair made of fabric and wood, with scrolled arms and ornamentation. The chair is painted with colourful dots.

Poltrona di Proust, by the famous Italian designer Alessandro Mendini, is a replica baroque armchair with bright colours dotted all over the surface and scrolled armrests. It was made in the early 1980s and hand-painted by two Italian painters. © Alessandro Mendini

Chair with a back comprising three rolled-up mattresses in a shiny material tied together with black straps. The two outer mattresses are a golden colour and the middle mattress is red. The seat consists of six bicycle seats joined together to form a circle, the middle of which is covered by a round foam seat.

Gunjan Gupta’s Gadda Walla Bicycle Throne takes inspiration from the bedding vendors commonly seen on the streets of India, paying homage to India’s unique vendor traditions. © Gunjan Gupta

Acrylic resin, plastic, and epoxy-coated aluminium chair with an angular backrest, curved armrests, and seat, which are transparent. Red roses with green leaves are suspended in the seat and armrests. The upper parts of the four purple tubular legs are inserted in the bottom of the armrests.

The armrests, seat, and back of Kuramata Shiro’s Miss Blanche is made of transparent acrylic panels with artificial roses suspended inside. The chair is named after Blanche DuBois, the delicate female lead of the play, A Streetcar Named Desire. © Kuramata Design Studio

Replica baroque chair made of fabric and wood, with scrolled arms and ornamentation. The chair is painted with colourful dots.

Poltrona di Proust, by the famous Italian designer Alessandro Mendini, is a replica baroque armchair with bright colours dotted all over the surface and scrolled armrests. It was made in the early 1980s and hand-painted by two Italian painters. © Alessandro Mendini

Chair with a back comprising three rolled-up mattresses in a shiny material tied together with black straps. The two outer mattresses are a golden colour and the middle mattress is red. The seat consists of six bicycle seats joined together to form a circle, the middle of which is covered by a round foam seat.

Gunjan Gupta’s Gadda Walla Bicycle Throne takes inspiration from the bedding vendors commonly seen on the streets of India, paying homage to India’s unique vendor traditions. © Gunjan Gupta

Acrylic resin, plastic, and epoxy-coated aluminium chair with an angular backrest, curved armrests, and seat, which are transparent. Red roses with green leaves are suspended in the seat and armrests. The upper parts of the four purple tubular legs are inserted in the bottom of the armrests.

The armrests, seat, and back of Kuramata Shiro’s Miss Blanche is made of transparent acrylic panels with artificial roses suspended inside. The chair is named after Blanche DuBois, the delicate female lead of the play, A Streetcar Named Desire. © Kuramata Design Studio

Replica baroque chair made of fabric and wood, with scrolled arms and ornamentation. The chair is painted with colourful dots.

Poltrona di Proust, by the famous Italian designer Alessandro Mendini, is a replica baroque armchair with bright colours dotted all over the surface and scrolled armrests. It was made in the early 1980s and hand-painted by two Italian painters. © Alessandro Mendini

Chair with a back comprising three rolled-up mattresses in a shiny material tied together with black straps. The two outer mattresses are a golden colour and the middle mattress is red. The seat consists of six bicycle seats joined together to form a circle, the middle of which is covered by a round foam seat.

Gunjan Gupta’s Gadda Walla Bicycle Throne takes inspiration from the bedding vendors commonly seen on the streets of India, paying homage to India’s unique vendor traditions. © Gunjan Gupta

Humberto and Fernando Campana, for example, are designers from São Paulo who created Una Famiglia from the rushes of their hometown in the northern Brazilian province of Amapá. It takes the form of plastic chairs being swallowed by a thick mass of plant stalks. With mass-manufactured plastic seats fuelling the disappearance of traditional craftsmanship and the loss of distinctive local cultures, the brothers imagined the reverse scenario—as though the chair represents nature’s counterattack against the deforestation and pollution caused by humans. With this piece, they are making a critical statement on the impact of cheap, mass-produced goods on the planet.

Seating system made of woven juncus fibre. The centre of the seating system rises up like a small mountain range. Three flat areas jut out from the base of the structure, facing in different directions; each is embedded with a plastic chair. Facing the camera is a blue plastic back and seat frame; its legs and seat are engulfed by the juncus fibre.

Woven fibres engulf one child-sized and two adult-sized plastic seats to form Una Famiglia (‘a family’), designed in 2006 and made in 2019. © Estudio Campana

There is also Danful Yang’s Fake Chair, a seminal example among conceptual furniture and art in contemporary China. Since the start of the twenty-first century, the increasingly prosperous country has become a major market for Western brand-name luxury goods, as well as the largest producer of counterfeit goods.

Fake Chair takes a Chinese armchair with a traditional cracked ice pattern, and melds it with a gilded, baroque-style armchair, padded with counterfeit designer handbag upholstery. The combination brings forth not only a visual spectacle but also an instance of ‘imitation-as-design’, while the mixing of Chinese and Western styles and decorative elements prompts thoughts on cultural exchanges and clashes in the face of globalised consumerism.

Chair with asymmetrical sides and jutting angles, featuring a mash-up of Chinese and Western elements. From the perspective of the viewer, the left side of the chair back and armrest and right rear and front feet are made of gold-plated material. The right chair back and armrest and left rear and front feet are made of wood. The seat and left back are covered with a patchwork of materials printed with various brand names.

© Danful Yang; Photo courtesy of the donor and Danful Yang

nendo’s Cabbage Chair, on the other hand, responds to waste in the design industry with upcycling. The chair was a response to renowned fashion designer Issey Miyake’s classic clothing line, Pleats Please. In the production of pleated fabric, two pieces of paper are typically placed between each fold, which means that creating one pleated dress sacrifices many pieces of paper. Miyake specifically requested them to find an innovative use for these waste papers.

Chair made out of pleated paper and paint. It is constructed from a cylindrical roll of paper, in which the upper section has been cut and peeled back. Layers of red, pink, black, and white paper drape one over the other, almost covering the chair's lower portion.

Fashion designer Issey Miyake commissioned Cabbage Chair in 2008 to commemorate the first anniversary of his musuem in Tokyo. The chair upcycles rolls of pleated paper, an unwanted byproduct of Miyake’s pleated fabric production. © nendo. Courtesy the artist and Friedman Benda

The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 10 June 2021 in the Hong Kong Economic Times. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Chan Kwan Yee, with additions and clarifications by Amy Leung (Editor, Web Content). All photos: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated).

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