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The history behind some of the world’s most iconic chairs

A chair is still a chair, or so American lyricist Hal David would think. For the untrained eye, chairs are merely just functional pieces to adorn a room. However, chairs are actually one of the more important components of a space. A chair that is well-designed and expertly crafted can simply polish off any room.

Understandably, the form of chairs has evolved over the years. Yet, the best ones stay as classics for decades since their inception, especially when form meets function. It is these chairs that have revolutionised the modern day seats by making use of different cultural trends, aesthetic preferences, new materials, construction techniques, and technologies that are reflected in their changing designs throughout the years.

We take a look at some of the most iconic chairs in history that make good investment pieces or works of art for your home.

Eames Lounge & Ottoman, Charles & Ray Eames  (1956) 

Eames Lounge & Ottoman chair.

Perhaps the most well-known modern chair is the Eames Lounge, designed in 1956 by American architects Charles and Ray Eames. The chair combines the elements of nature such as wood, with the modernity of steel and a swivelling base; a product of their interest in experiencing with different materials.

The chair has paved the way for the use of molded plywood material in chairs — revolutionising the process of super-heating wood and contorting it into smooth curves. It’s a feat that was considered undoable before. Its use of molded plywood provides comfort from sitting without the need of a padded surface.

The Eames Lounge and Ottoman gained momentum when it was first broadcasted on the then-popular Home Show with Arlene Francis, and the rest is history. It was then popular throughout the latter half of the 20th century and well into the 21st. Now, early design examples of the lounge chair and ottoman are on display in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.

The chair is an investment piece that stands through time and looks even better as it ages.

Papa Bear, Hans Wegner (1951)

Papa Chair.

Hans Wegner’s iconic Papa Bear Chair, also known as The Teddy Bear Chair, is now a classic you see in apartments and exhibition spaces. It was designed in 1951 by Hans J. Wegner, and like many other Wegner-designed chairs, the Papa Bear Chair makes references to the animal kingdom with its characteristically playful and organic design. In fact, its name came about after a critic had referred to its armrests as “great bear paws embracing you from behind”. It is symbolic of comfort and relaxation.

The chair is now one of the most popular Wegner designs of all. Yet, it was the first of his designs to be produced at Danish joinery workshop PP Mobler, and marked the start of a long collaboration between the two.

Barcelona, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1929)

The Barcelona Chair.

The Barcelona Chair was first designed by Mies van der Rohe for his German Pavilion at the Barcelona Exposition of 1929. The Pavilion was also the site of the inaugural ceremony for the German exhibits at the exposition, where the Spanish king was to preside.

Inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s highly disciplined architecture, the Barcelona Chair achieves the serenity of line and the refinement of proportions and materials. The shape is derived from a long history of precedents — from ancient Egyptian folding stools to nineteenth-century neoclassical seating. It had to be an “important chair, a very elegant chair,” the architect said. “The government was to receive a king, and the chair had to be monumental. In those circumstances, you just couldn’t use a kitchen chair.”

The Barcelona chair is supported on each side by two chrome-plated, flat steel bars. Seen from the side, the single curve of the bar forms the chair’s back and front legs crosses the S-curve of the bar, forming the seat and back legs.

And while only two Barcelona chairs were made for the German Pavilion, the design was put into production and became so popular that has been manufactured ever since.

Paulistano Chair, Paulo Mendes Da Rocha (1957)

Paulistano Chair.

2006 Pritzker Prize winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha was the brains behind the iconic Paulistano Chair. It was designed in 1957 by Rocha and for many years, was part of the living rooms of the Athletic Club of Sao Paulo.

The form was inspired by a type of hammock used in Brazilian indigenous cultures. The frame of the chair is a continuous 17-foot-long piece of solid steel, welded in a single spot. The deceptively simple structure is then cocooned in almost an entire hide of leather, which gains depth and lustre as it ages — looking more beautiful over time. The Paulistano flexes slightly, and the sling can be adjusted up or down the frame for upright or relaxed sitting positions.

The timeless chic classic design was introduced to the MOMA collection in 2007.

Stacking Chair, Verner Panton (1967)

The “S” chair.

The Panton stacking chair, or more famously known as the “S” chair, has become such a classic piece of furniture that has been so widely copied. So much so, that it’s sometimes hard to understand just how revolutionary it was when it first appeared.

The legendary chair was designed by Verner Panton, one of the most influential figures in the development of design during the 1960s and ’70s. He was captivated by the potential of plastic, a novel material at the time. Along with his experimental approach to forms and colours, he had an idea to create a comfortable chair made in one piece. After coming in contact with Swiss family-owned furniture brand Vitra, the Panton Chair was developed and presented in 1967.

The “S”, along with the other iconic chairs, now functions in different spaces as a piece of art on its own.

(Illustrations by Nadine Christmas)

The history behind some of the world’s most iconic chairs

Dewi Nurjuwita

Senior Writer

Dewi Nurjuwita is a travel and design writer who can be found exploring the streets of foreign cities with passport in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.


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