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Discover the Chair, 1600 - 2000

Discover the Chair, 1600 - 2000

From 11 am to 6 pm


Pictures of the exhibition

  • Chair, 1950s, Martin Eisler (1913 - 1977) & Carlo Hauner (1927 - 1997)
  • Chair, 1950s, Martin Eisler (1913 - 1977) & Carlo Hauner (1927 - 1997)
  • Sculptor's Chair, s.d., France
  • Sculptor's Chair, s.d., France
  • Pair of arm chairs, ca. 1950, Giuseppe Scapinelli (1891 - 1982)
  • Arm Chair "Easy Chair", 1950s, Pierre Jeanneret (Genève, 1896 - 1967)
  • Arm Chair "Easy Chair", 1950s, Pierre Jeanneret (Genève, 1896 - 1967)
  • Series of four "Bridge Chairs", ca. 1955, Pierre Jeanneret (Genève, 1896 - 1967)
  • "Chauffeuse", 1950s, Pierre Jeanneret (Genève, 1896 - 1967)
  • "Chauffeuse", 1950s, Pierre Jeanneret (Genève, 1896 - 1967)
  • Pair of "Savonarola" arm chairs, 17th century, Tuscany, Italy

Discover the Chair, 1600 - 2000

From 11 am to 6 pm


Story of the exhibition

Discover the Chair, 1600 - 2000

Axel Vervoordt is pleased to present "Discover the Chair", a unique open house event featuring dozens of artistic interpretations of the chair — a common everyday item with an uncommon history and an intriguing potential for redesign and reinvention.

The diverse pieces included in “Discover the Chair” span a vast historical range — starting in 1600 and continuing up to and including the year 2000 — a four-hundred-year span that offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into the varied examples of the designs for sitting.

The chairs on view possess contrasting historic and geographical backgrounds, but all dwell in the realm of sculpting, thus encouraging admirers to consider each chair’s creator, purpose, and manner of creation.

Who made it and when? What is the material? How was it made? What is its style? Does the chair communicate essential details about its culture of origin? What space does it occupy? And ultimately: What is a chair for?

In the words of architect and designer George Nelson, the founder of American modernism together with Charles and Ray Eames: “Every truly original idea — every innovation in design, every new application of materials, every technical invention for furniture — seems to find its most important expression in a chair.”

Whether a chair embodies studied concepts of form, function, or purely aesthetic enjoyment, its designer may not always provide a similarly high-minded answer but one that is nonetheless entertaining. A prime symbol of a chair that synthesises form, function, and construction is the iconic Zig-Zag Chair by Gerrit Rietveld, an example of which is on display in this exhibition. Rietveld said about the chair, “It’s not a chair, but a designer’s joke.”

It is with a similar sense of thoughtful analysis, historical consideration, and keen playfulness that we invite visitors to explore “Discover the Chair”. The dozens of examples are spread throughout the Kanaal site, on nearly every floor, and in every nook of the Corner Building, allowing visitors to create their own experience of the exhibition, being guided by what attracts their aesthetic eye and intellectual interest. Consider the chair and discover it, uniquely, for yourself.

We hope that visitors walk away with a renewed understanding and appreciation of the chair, which sits proudly like a lighthouse or a beacon in a landscape, projecting a point of reference in the ever-changing history of design.

When asked why architects make chairs and furniture, Charles Eames replied, “So you can design a piece of architecture you can hold in your hand...”

Towards a Democratic History: From Chairman to Chair of Man

As much as any other piece of furniture, the chair has a unique relationship to its user. Let us start by looking at its history. The earliest representation of a seat with a backrest comes from an exquisite, well-known Cycladic sculpture of a musician playing a harp-like instrument, ca. 2800 B.C.

Without backrests, depictions go back much further. It is worth noting that chairs were not as commonly omnipresent as today. Chairs have evolved from symbols of power and authority to daily objects of comfort only during the last few centuries. Up until ca. 1600 A.D., chairs with backrests were not commonly found in modest homes but reserved for palaces, monasteries, and other places where figures carrying earthly or heavenly powers were seated. In the homes of commoners, chests, benches, and stools provided seating.

Despite their shift in function and much broader use from ca. 1600 onwards, many chairs from the 17-19th centuries still display characteristic aesthetics and design elements from ancient times.

For example, our selection includes a cross-legged and folding “Savonarola” chair, a type that originated in Renaissance Florence, just like the closely related “Faldstool” chair, which was used by catholic bishops as a portable “throne” when officiating outside of their cathedral.

Both are closely related to the ancient Roman ‘sella curulis’, a cross-legged chair “of the state” that was reserved for the highest officials. Cross-legged chairs have also been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs dating to the New Kingdom.

The second example of ancient aesthetic principles that have endured — or resurfaced — in modern times can be observed in the Klismos” chair. Originally a Greek invention from about the 5th century B.C. that was revived in neoclassical times, the elegantly curved backrest — extremely challenging to craft in ancient times — offered support and comfort for the sitter, while the curved and tapered legs provided stability to the whole. As proof of its ancient origins, the design can be seen in ancient depictions on painted pottery and in bas-reliefs, or even round sculpture. (fig. 1)

Several chairs included in our selection showcase the same curved backrest initially brought forth by the ancient Greek Klismos chair.

“Metal plays the same part in furniture as cement has done in architecture.” Charlotte Perriand

Take a Seat at the Front: Chairs Move Forward

During the last 150 years, the design of chairs has followed general developments in architecture and technology while at the same time reflecting the changing needs of their respective societies. The advent of widespread industrialisation in the mid-19th century required a new approach to manufacturing, which resulted in the emergence of industrial design, thus creating new opportunities for designers.

Chairs were no longer crafted to be visually heavy, but light. Timeless beauty was still sought, now captured by spare precision rather than ornamentation. The simplicity and smoothness of the surface were prized elements that are evident in many chairs from this period. Experiments with bentwood by the Thonet brothers and later with tubular steel by Marcel Breuer revolutionised the approach of chair production. In some ways, industrial furniture opposed the arts &crafts movement (and vice versa), emphasising efficiency and time management over artisanship.

These ideas originated in Europe but quickly expanded to other places by the mid-20th century, where they evolved away from the dichotomy between efficiency and artisanship. During this period, it’s interesting to note that many established architects also became important furniture designers, which naturally influenced their creations.

For example, Le Corbusier’s and Pierre Jeanneret’s designs for Chandigarh, India, are an interesting marriage between the industrial ideals of modernist furniture and the appreciation for craftsmanship.

Several chairs on view at Kanaal were part of the furniture for the newly built Capital Complex. Pierre Jeanneret designed these with an economy in mind, dependent upon local skills and materials.

The collection offers valuable insights into monumental modernism's design ethos, as well as the intimate scale of everyday use. The low cost of labour versus the higher cost of mass production meant that local teams of craftsmen received the outsourced manufacturing. Blueprints were circulated to teams who interpreted the drawings into the finished articles. Therefore, the furniture reveals a hands-on approach to construction. Every item displays variations in detailing, construction, and fabrication. Chair legs are sometimes square-edged, sometimes rounded, sometimes 1 ½-inch thick. Even the finishes varied. Occasionally, the teak was clear. Other times, it was stained resulting in subtle aesthetic variations.

“I knew the land I trod on, the never-ending sea ahead, like the sky, the river squeezing the land against the sea…” José Zanine Caldas

From Nurture to Nature: Europe’s Chair Craft Moves South

Mid-century modern design in Brazil was heavily influenced by immigrants from Europe, many of whom arrived after the Second World War and — paradoxically — contributed to one of the country’s presiding cultural ideas: brasilidade (Brazilian-ness).

In essence, this entailed abundant use of local materials and crafts, and an overall relaxed atmosphere, visible in the laidback forms and very low seats of many chairs included here.

References to European design traditions remain equally part of the visual language, but the combined output is unique, highly qualitative, and undeniably Brazilian.

Various examples can be discovered at Kanaal, by designers such as Lina Bo Bardi, Martin Eisler and Carlo Hauner, and others. All of these, in their way, vividly embody the ideals and traditions outlined above.

José Zanine Caldas holds a somewhat more peculiar place in Brazilian design. His initial designs adhere closely to the mid-century brasilidade described above, but in his later years, he became inspired by how local craftsmen carved canoes and rowboats out of felled trees. As a result, Zanine Caldas interfered minimally in the natural forms, leaving alive the memory of the forest's destruction through his organic chair designs.

His work is a testament to the power of natural wood and its beauty as a material. His chairs are cut out of solid pieces of wood, like a classic sculptor transforming a block of marble into a statue. A pioneer in forest preservation and ecology, Zanine Caldas intended to plant a new tree every time another was cut down for one of his projects. He wrote several essays on the relationship between Brazil's forests and its people, drawing inspiration and knowledge from architectural history, philosophy, and local folk tales. Caldas can be considered a modernist who “reconverted” to a more primal artisanship to preserve and celebrate the beauty of nature.

“Always design a thing by considering it in its larger context —
a chair in a room,
a room in a house,
a house in an environment,
an environment in a city plan.”
Eliel Saarinen

Between Form and Function: Highlights from “Discover the Chair”

American architect Louis Sullivan describes the essence of the philosophy of modernist and functionalist design and architecture when he writes: “Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function”.

The function of a building or an object lies at the core of how it should be designed. This mode of thinking was predominant in the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. However, throughout history, many different approaches emerged in which form does not always take on a secondary role.

The Vitruvian Triad, in which architecture and design must exhibit three qualities — utilitas (utility), firmitas (firmness or stability), and venustas (beauty) — can be projected upon practically every piece presented at “Discover the Chair, 1600 - 2000”.

Throughout Kanaal, a few particularly interesting cases reflect on the paradoxical relation between form and function.

  • One of the first examples is the Sculptor’s Chair, presented in Kanaal’s Artist Studio. This piece exhibits all elements of form following function, with its foldable back and movable arm holders for different positions. It does not employ one piece of extra wood that doesn’t support the practical use of this chair: to aid an artist at sculpting.
  • Sparking debate was one of the goals of Jonas Bohlin while designing his Concrete Chair. The Swedish designer created it in 1981 as his graduation project at Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm. A post-modern inspired design, it offended the Swedish functionalist tradition. Made merely out of two industrial materials — concrete and metal — the chair calls into question what’s more important: form or function? A beautifully elegant and simple design, it fulfils its straightforward purpose as a seating object. It’s devoid of superfluous materials. However, it doesn’t do much more than that, calling into question its level of comfort. Therefore, it seems appraised rather for its sculptural value than its convenience. The sculptural qualities of the concrete chair could thus be regarded as prevailing. What are we looking at exactly? A chair or a sculpture?
  • Clearly offering a bold answer to this question is Læsø XV (Chaise Lounge) by Danish artist Per Kirkeby. Although hinting at or even mimicking the shape of a chair, is it meant to be seated on? It takes the form of a chair, leaving aside any functionality. It resembles a lounge chair or daybed, almost like the Louis XV which can be found on the same floor. Trained as a geologist, Per Kirkeby became a romantic and heroic abstract Nordic painter, yet he’s increasingly well known for the brick sculptures he created from 1966 till his death. The total oeuvre of Kirkeby’s brickworks hold a particular position in the history of European Minimalism. The first works in 1966 appear at the same time as the Americans Carl Andre, Sol Lewitt, and Donald Judd began their investigations into industrial materials and shapes to suggest another way of looking and experiencing a new singularity of form.
  • A prime example the synthesises form, function, and construction is the notorious Zig-Zag Chair by Gerrit Rietveld. Before designing the final version in 1932, the Dutch designer and architect from the art movement De Stijl, experimented with lots of different materials, from metal to fibre, each time failing in the process. He eventually found the solution in planks from the Bruynzeel shelving systems. The infamous Z-shaped chairs are comfortable and sturdy while exhibiting a wittiness and playfulness only the greatest of an artist can bring forth. The sculptural value of these pieces of furniture is indisputable.

Throughout “Discover the Chair” visitors are offered numerous opportunities to read each chair’s history, through its choice of material, shape, form, construction, use, and ideas. Axel Vervoordt is pleased to encourage the on-going contemplation of this fascinating yet common object as centuries of designers have responded to the question of sitting, the act of being seated, and it’s evolving potential for reinvention.