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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).