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Outrage: Architects' expensive trophy chairs are nothing new

All architects have a chair in them, but as with everyman novels, most should never hit the production line

As a veteran of eight Milan Furniture Fairs, I have dodged prosecco spume and ingested industrial quantities of canapés to report on the antics of superstars unveiling their latest implausible, yet highly profitable, adventures in seating to a fawning industry and perplexed public. Over time, all those ‘TA-DA!’ moments blur into a Boschean tableau of furniture grotesques bobbing queasily on an oleaginous sea of PR puffery. ‘Zaha’s latest … Frank’s latest … Bjarke’s latest …’ 

Bcfe1f37e5df5a4ac749edecd1e78310 cardboard furniture unique furniture

Bcfe1f37e5df5a4ac749edecd1e78310 cardboard furniture unique furniture

The preposterousness of architect-designed furniture modelled by a young Frank Gehry, whose cardboard and plywood baubles still command exorbitant premiums

A case in point, the Danish ‘heir to Rem Koolhaas’ recently designed the VIA57, a chair based on the ‘striking shape’ of his soaring tetrahedral apartment block at West 57th Street in New York. Originally designed for the building’s lobby, it’s a dumpy, squat, unremarkable little number. But to own it is breathlessly described as ‘bringing the dream of owning a piece of the New York skyline that much closer to being a reality’. 

If architecture is frozen music, then chairs are frozen architecture – bijou embodiments of design genius for sitting in or strewing around the home as epigrammatic objets d’art to signify wealth and taste. From the chaise longue Corb designed with Charlotte Perriand, to the Eames recliner, intended to replicate the feeling of ‘a well-used first baseman’s mitt’, the roll call of mid-century modern ‘design icons’ has become a familiar catechism of lifestyle pedlars.

‘Bring on the bonfire of the architectural vanities’

Historically, furniture making was the preserve of largely anonymous craftsmen and artisans working within established parameters of materials, forms and cultural imperatives. You had to stick with what you knew so, up until the modern era, only a handful of seating types emerged and endured. History’s stout yeomen never had access to laser cutting, 3D printing or indulgent manufacturing cabals in the manner of today’s aspiring Chippendales. But – lest this be construed as a Simon Jenkins-style jeremiad about how things were so much better in the 18th century – when technology, materials and a new way of seeing periodically intersect, they still contrive to momentarily grip the imagination. 

The adaptation of bent plywood was a particular Ur moment: peeled birch tree trunks layered, glued, moulded and shaped to make thrillingly voluptuous, alien artefacts, like the high-backed madmen’s thrones Arne Jacobsen devised for the fellows’ dining room at Oxford’s St Catherine’s College. Refined by Jacobsen and other Scandinavian Modernists, bent ply was once a radical gene splice in the evolution of modern furniture, pregnant with possibilities. Now, however, ubiquitous to the point of cliché, it has become synonymous with a bland democracy of Nordic tastefulness – everywhere yet nowhere. 

Rietveld chair 1bb

Rietveld chair 1bb

The iconic Red and Blue Chair was designed by Gerrit Rietveld in 1917

Jacobsen himself was fated to become better known for his chairs than his buildings, his destiny sealed when a nude Christine Keeler parked herself on a rip-off of his famous Series 7, with its calculatedly anthropomorphic silhouette. Regarded as a slightly soft-centred Scandi-Mod, Jacobsen successfully leveraged the power of the architect as a purveyor of more than just architecture, reconceptualising the 19th-century idea of the gesamtkunstwerk, a building as a total work of art. 

Compared with his fellow German or Eastern European Modernists, Jacobsen had no distracting existential or political scruples. He simply went to work with a view to making things better, being hyper-industrious and intuitively geared to the modern condition of constant change. In a cadenza of productivity, he kept his career rolling while expanding into a plethora of sidelines (posters, cutlery, jugs, tickets, lamps, gardens, tables, ashtrays, even a hearse). But it is his chairs with their monosyllabic appellations – Ant, Egg, Swan, Drop – that became his epitaph.

‘To own it is breathlessly described as “bringing the dream of owning a piece of the New York skyline that much closer to being a reality”’

I doubt that Bjarke’s more cumbersomely named VIA57 will feature in catalogues or command exorbitant auction-house premiums in 50 years’ time, but his foray into furniture is still emblematic of the current sluicing lure of commodification, which encourages architects to greedily expand their design repertoires. This reached a preposterous nadir in 2014 when Frank Gehry was invited to produce a handbag for Louis Vuitton retailing at £2490 on completion of the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. 

Gehry, who started his career as a subversive scavenger but long ago moved into cruise control, was unrepentant, seeing it as a natural repository for his talents and subset of what he does for a living. He also has form in terrible contemporary chair design, beginning with crude experiments in curved cardboard and culminating in objects that resemble petrified explosions in a plywood factory. But perhaps worst of all, his breezy, freewheeling, ‘fuck-you’ approach encourages others to think they can do the same. 

Architects being courted to produce expensive trophy stuff as branding extensions is nothing new. The cult of modern celebrity long ago seeped into architecture, and a rarefied echelon of superstars now regularly churns out ‘signature’ items, such as chairs, shoes, handbags, yachts and watches. This is all somewhat indulgently and depressingly removed from the real purpose of architecture, but such troubling predispositions doubtless shrivel in the warm glow of till receipts. Yet such over-designed and over-hyped excess diminishes us all. Bring on the bonfire of the architectural vanities. 

This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to pick up your copy today