"Pro" by Konstantin Grcic (Flötotto), "Catifa 46" by Lievore Altherr Molina (Arper) and the predecessor of all these and following chairs, the "Plastic Chair" by Charles and Ray Eames (Vitra/Herman Miller). Photo © Flötotto, Arper, Vitra; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
Four legs and a seat shell
by Thomas Wagner
Jun 13, 2015

They have names like “Substance” or “Elephant”, “Alfi” or “Catifa”, “Dot”, “Pro” or “Sedan”. They were designed by such renowned greats as Naoto Fukasawa, Konstantin Grcic, Alfredo Häberli, Lievore Altherr Molina, Jean-Marie Massaud, Jasper Morrison, Neri & Hu, Luca Nichetto, Scholten & Baijings and Marcel Wanders. And yet all these chairs follow the one and same pattern. It was clear to see at the Salone del Mobile in Milan: Here we have it, the universal chair of 2015. Not all models are from this year; the wave has built up over the last few years. Yet the type of chair obviously marks something like the current technological status, is relatively economical to produce, meets users’ requirements and caters to current tastes.

Four wooden legs, one plastic seat

So what does it look like, you ask? The universal chair of our so diverse days preferably has four wooden legs or a wooden base frame, but is also available with different feet or frames, for instance in metal. Mounted on the legs or base frame is a seat made of plastic or recycled material, available in various colors, some fresh, some restrained, and often in versions with and without armrests. In terms of typology the base frame and seat shell still come from a single source. In this respect a rare harmony prevails, meaning each detail is important. It is the subtleties that make the difference. Those who simply rely on their eyes and study the typology will easily miss it.

One and the same forebear

All these chairs can be traced back to one famous ancestor. Which poses the question: Is at least conventional contemporary furniture design secretly still oriented on the principles and patterns such as primarily established and developed in the mid-century design of the 1940s and 1950s?

The forebear in question is none other than the “Plastic” or “Fiberglass Chair” by Charles and Ray Eames. As early as 1940 the Eames were interested in the idea of three-dimensionally deforming plywood panels to produce formfitting and therefore comfortable seat shells. At that time however it was not technically possible to realize such seats. Yet the Eames did not quit and continued to work on the problem during World War II. They had initial success with the famous molded plywood leg splint they developed for the US Navy in 1942. When the War ended the Eames were able to apply the knowhow they had gained to produce tables, children’s furniture, partitions and chairs, although the seat and backrest remained separate.

The idea of a formfitting seat shell made from a single piece continued to fascinate the Eames. They experimented with plywood and aluminum, but the results were unsatisfactory. It wasn’t until, when searching for alternatives, they hit upon fiberglass-reinforced polyester resin that a solution was in the offing. When the Eames Office held the international competition “Low Cost Furniture Design” in 1948, Charles entered the new chair series.

The material, still unknown in the furniture industry at that time, enabled the seat designs to be series-produced and new technical and aesthetic standards to be set. Plastic was economical, easy to shape, rigid and yet flexible, and had an attractive haptic quality. In 1950 the plastic seats with armrests (A-shell) were launched on the market, and soon after also in a simpler version (S-shell). These were the first series-produced plastic chairs in furniture history. They were subsequently combined with numerous base frames, which expanded their range of uses. In 1993 Vitra discontinued the production of the fiberglass models for ecological reasons. The "Plastic Chairs" went back into production in 1999 and 2004, now in recyclable polypropylene.

Variatio delectat

Although today consumers no longer need to be made to take an interest in modern design, the tried-and-tested patterns seem to have lost little of their appeal. If we consider the current successor to the archetype, we notice that regarding the organic form of the seat shell itself, its edges and the dynamic sweep of the back and side sections, there is a note of friction with the original, leading to a desire to explore further versions. The same holds true of the link between frame and seat shell. Moreover, the range of (recyclable) materials available as well as their colors and haptic qualities have considerably increased.

Shell, sweep and edge

This is how Alfredo Häberli works, to pick out just a few examples, with his “Erice Chair” with its perforated seat, and with the “Segesta” series (both for Alias) with delicate armrests protruding from the upper part of the shell. “Hal” (Vitra) by Jasper Morrison is available not only with an A-shell that is open at the sides and clearly tilts downwards at the front edge as well as a gently curved S-shell. Indeed, in this version it is also available in both plywood and plastic (and with a slightly padded and leather-covered seat) and can be combined with no fewer than 15 base frames. In contrast, the seat shell of Morrison’s “Alfi” collection (Emeco) presented in Milan combines a flat seat with a rounded backrest that hugs the lower back and has a grip opening allowing the chair to be carried. The seat is made of 100% recycled waste materials (92.5% polypropylene and 7.5% wood fibers) and the frame is made by Amish craftsmen using local ash.

For “Stereo Wood” (Casamania) in contrast, Luca Nichetto has indented the polypropylene shell sitting on a cross-strutted frame and lends its clearly three-dimensional form an additional accent by having it fold back on itself at the upper edges. For the “Sedan Chair” (Classicon) Neri & Hu built a complete wooden frame bearing a seat shell that is flattened at the edges. Konstantin Grcic in turn designed a rounded seat shell for his “Pro” (Flötotto), giving the backrest a clear S-curve that brings dynamism to the form and calls to mind a human spine. In this way he creates space for various seating positions and integrates lumbar support.

For all the obvious differences, the typological pattern remains the same. So we can say that it really does exist, the universal chair of 2015. You just have to recognize it in all its guises – and take note of the subtle differences.

MORE on Stylepark:

In Chair World: Despite all the technical innovations, the notion of the substantive and super-normal currently prevails.
(30 October 2011)

Design as a culture of dialogue: Thomas Edelmann met Jasper Morrison to speak with him about adulthood, working in different locations and shell seats.
(27 April 2011)

"Alfi" by Jasper Morrison (Emeco) and the "Plastic Chair" by Charles and Ray Eames (Vitra/Herman Miller). Photo © Emeco, Vitra; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
"Sedan" by Neri & Hu (Classicon). Photo © Classicon; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
"Elephant" by Eva Paster and Michael Geldmacher (Kristalia).
Photo © Kristalia; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
"Sharky" by Eva Paster and Michael Geldmacher (Kristalia).
Photo © Kristalia; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
"Duna 02" by Lievore Altherr Molina (Arper). Photo © Arper; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
"Duna 02" by Lievore Altherr Molina (Arper). Photo © Arper; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
"Form Armchair" von Simon Legald (Normann Copenhagen) and "Elephant" by Eva Paster and Michael Geldmacher (Kristalia).
Photo © Normann Copenhagen, Kristalia; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
"Erice" by Alfredo Häberli (Alias). Photo © Alias; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
"Pro" by Konstantin Grcic (Flötotto) and "Alfi" by Jasper Morrison (Emeco).
Photo © Flötotto, Emeco; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark
Two times „Hal" by Jasper Morrison (Vitra). Photo © Vitra; graphic © Sarah Böttger, Stylepark