The ChairSEAT OF INFLUENCE
THE CHAIR HAS NEVER DUCKED ITS POTENTIAL FOR POLITICAL STATEMENT. THE BROKEN CHAIR IS A VAST WOODEN SCULPTURE BY DANIEL BERSET THAT STANDS BY THE PALACE OF NATIONS IN GENEVA, ITS MISSING LEG A DEFIANT, POWERFUL PROTEST AGAINST LANDMINES.
The chair I’m sitting on has a number; it’s 9B and I’m on a flight between Richmond, Virginia and Boston, Massachusetts. Chairs aren’t simply places to take the weight off your feet; they mark territory, they give status, and, in the case of an aircraft, they denote the power to travel. Chairs are both currency and metaphor, and we love them. A monarch becomes a ruler by ascending to a throne, a business tycoon wins power by taking a seat on the board, that same tycoon gains even greater status by becoming the chair. Rosa Parks started a civil rights revolution by taking a seat on a bus, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears wouldn’t have had the same heft if it had been a chairless story that simply revolved around three bowls of porridge. The fact that Goldilocks encroached on the bears’ chairs is what gives the story its subversive charm.
When we say we ‘have an Ercol’, ‘would love a Wegner’ or that we’re ‘saving for a Bertoia’, it’s invariably a chair that we’re talking about. Just before my mother died, she wanted to give me one last present from her belongings. Instinctively, I chose a chair – Norman Cherner’s 1958 armchair in walnut.
Every time I walk past it, I run my fingers over its curved form and its sinuous, swooping arms. When I sit on my Cherner, it creaks softly, and its plywood layers yield to my back. My chair is both a beautiful object that I use every day, as well as a poignant reminder of my mother.
The Design Museum in London understood the resonance of the chair as cultural metaphor and icon when it published the book Fifty Chairs that Changed the World. The title is a little tongue in cheek, but the key designs of the last 150 years do, in their way, form aesthetic staging posts through the decades. In 1859, Michael Thonet unleashed modern mass production with a chair. It was his now ubiquitous No.14, also known as the bistro chair. The radical technique Thonet devised of steam bending beechwood made serial furniture production possible for the first time. His prescience in designing a chair that could be packed up and then assembled later meant that, for the first time, as many as 36 chairs could be packed into a one cubic metre box and shipped around the world. Le Corbusier, known for a chair or two himself, said of the No 14 that “never was a better and a more elegant design and a more precisely crafted and practical item created.” It’s hard to imagine a production of Cabaret without a No 14, and where would Paris cafe society be without its bistro chairs? The two seem indivisible. The 1960s, meanwhile, are represented perfectly by Verner Panton’s S chair. Panton was entranced by the radical potential of plastic, and his aim was to create a chair in a single, unbroken piece. The slinky, futuristic S chair with its spaceage aesthetic and its ability to go anywhere made it the perfect microcosmic representation of the first moon landing in 1969.
The chair has never ducked its potential for political statement. The Broken Chair is a vast wooden sculpture by Daniel Berset that stands by the Palace of Nations in Geneva, its missing leg a defiant, powerful protest against landmines. Less successful was the film star Clint Eastwood, who staged an ill advised political protest with a chair, to show his support for Mitt Romney and his Republican presidential campaign. Eastwood had a rambling twelve minute onstage conversation with an empty chair, which, he said, represented Barack Obama and his empty promises. The chair won the argument. Eastwood appeared confused, the chair looked reproachful. The Obama campaign immediately tweeted a photo of the back of the president’s chair, with Obama’s head peeking over the top: “This seat’s taken”, it said. American television actress Nancy Lee Grahn was ruder and tweeted, “20 years ago I wanted Clint Eastwood to make my day. Now I just want him to take his pills and be grateful he doesn’t need Medicare.” Not even Eastwood can mess with a chair.
Museums and galleries around the world are heaving with precious and original chairs. There is one gallery, however, that glories in its possession of a fake. In 1963, photographer Lewis Morley took a picture of London showgirl Christine Keeler sitting naked on what looked liked Arne Jacobson’s famous 3107 chair. Only later did it emerge that the photographer had used a fake that he’d bought for a few shillings. The fake propelled the 3107 to even greater stardom and continues to do so. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has acquired the chair Morley used, making it a knock off that could, rather satisfyingly, be called the ‘original fake’. The real and the imitation stand together as the perfect embodiment of the indomitable power of the chair. Each informs the other, and while the real has the purity of purpose of its original design, its knock off cousin has its own slightly wonky charm. Like every other iconic chair ever made, both enjoy the longevity that their original occupants so patently lack.