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The Pitfalls of Objects – Episode 1: Nature is Super
von Thomas Wagner | 1/30/2009

A chair remains a chair. You know what you have got with it. You think. You can sit on it, dangle your legs over the armrest, pile books on it, leave clothes on it, and much, much more. The chair: a basic item of furniture par excellence. A table and a bed and a wardrobe and ... and ... and ... also prove extremely robust in their respective functions. So do they still exist, the constants of our Western-influenced living style in the world? Yes and no. For we also know, a chair has long been far more than a simple basic commodity and average piece of work crafted according to tradition by carpenters, upholsters and metalworkers. People who design chairs today are familiar with the challenge and the need for originality that go with them.

So our relationship to things is more complicated and complex than we actually think when we pare chairs, tables, beds and cupboards down to their function. Superficially speaking, things not only change their form when new production processes and materials are used, their basic symbolic configuration is also always affected. Indeed, not least of all in this way do people nowadays seek to maintain their bond to things, to reflect and to understand themselves and their relationship to the world in them. This may sound abstract, but it is not in the least, after all things surround us not just as objects to be used, but as signals. They form their own mini-societies and serve as co-authors when we need to design ourselves as part of a story. And thus it is worth asking not just about which shapes and materials, which fabrics and surfaces are regarded as trendy, but also which symbolic repertoires are currently en vogue, and which stories such things tell about our relationship to the world.

Ever since an increasing number of species have been vanishing from the Earth, nature has only been allowed to be itself in reserves and at the same time people have been thinking in great style about replacing natural materials with technology in bionics, biotechnology and nanotechnology, biomorphic forms and floral patterns have been penetrating our homes noticeably frequently. At least here, within our own four walls, nature should be present. Not just as natural materials, but also as a harmless and peaceful image of nature and growth. As such, at present we encounter branches and leaves, all kinds of meshing and patterns reminiscent of these on armchair covers, curtains and tabletops, in the structures of chairs and amusing stools.

Ross Lovegrove was one of the first to identify the opportunities inherent in the symbolic preservation of nature which in reality faces destruction and to coin a term in which technology and a reference to nature merge, ‘supernatural'. Using injection molding technology and fiberglass-reinforced polypropylene, Lovegrove also created a stackable chair and an armchair bearing the same name, the form of which, as Lovegrove says himself, looks "slender, strong and healthy". His design is an excellent example of the self-confidence in design required to test a synthesis of a symbolically charged organic form and an out-performance of nature using cutting-edge technological processes. Primarily on account of its perforated backrest the chair looks like a cool pop version of a harmless reference to nature, whose elegance is able to aesthetically contain any kind of bad conscience.

In terms of a sophisticated, yet culturally broken reference to nature, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec's new "Vegetal" chair for Vitra also comes to mind. Here, it is not just the two brothers' preference for organoid forms that plays a role. There is a nice story about how the chair came to be: It is said to have been the knowledge of an unconventional technique applied in 19th-century North America, which involved young trees being shaped into chairs as they were growing, that gave the designers the idea to design a chair themselves that looked as it had actually grown.

However, chairs do not grow today either. And on closer inspection the use of dyed polyamide in subdued colors creates confusion, at least on the symbolic level, for polyamide is, as we can see from its name, a plastic, i.e., exactly the opposite of an organic natural material, which is subject to the laws of growth. As a chair it works very well, there is no question, especially as "Vegetal", despite all the differences in the material, alludes both to early 20th century subtle floral garden furniture and the wondrous furniture by the Swiss sculptor and craftsman Diego Giacometti, the brother of the famous Alberto Giacometti, whereby all this has been transformed and updated with verve. "Vegetal" is not in the least nostalgic; it has a completely contemporary feel. And yet, when someone suggests that it is created from a controlled growth process, it brings to mind, on the symbolic level, nothing other than the cultural domestication of nature and its integration into the image we have of it.

Chairs like "Supernatural" and "Vegetal" thus reveal a new level in the approach to symbolically upgraded nature, which fundamentally differs from pure surface phenomena, as they appear when classics such as Arne Jacobson's "Egg Chair" and the S 411 by Thonet are covered with fabrics bearing floral patterns. The new chairs are generally hybrids, formed from a symbolic reference to nature and technical sophistication. The extent to which they are caught up in the intercultural and - such as the façade of Jean Nouvel's "Institut du monde arabe", which consists of open sculptural elements and alludes to the decorative wooden lattices in front of windows used in traditional Arabic architecture, so-called "Mashrabiya" - need such cultural stylizations and transformations is a topic for investigation on its own.
Marcel Wanders also makes use of the old process of imitation when he conjures up an attractive stool, "Shithake" (Moroso), from a well-known Asian mushroom. A plastic version of the stalk and cap is not only an ironic statement, but symbolically speaking a part of the living room is also transformed into shady undergrowth, where mushrooms sprout up from the damp ground. Patricia Urquiola takes a somewhat different approach with her "T-Table" (Kartell), as from a distance the top of the sidetable looks like a dense mesh of branches flooded with light, but on closer inspection turns out to be n irregular, abstract pattern. Thus the reference to nature and artificiality remain in balance.

The asymmetrical honeycomb seat design of the "Caprice" chair by Marcello Ziliani (Casprini), also made of plastic, shows another version of the technical adoption of structures originally borrowed from nature. The honeycomb is not just a natural structure, it is also considered extremely stable, which is why it is used in a technical context wherever the objective is to save weight while at the same time increasing stability. However, Ziliani deliberately modifies the honeycomb structure and breaks through its strict regularity, occasioning an effect and thus making it interesting. At the same time he animates the surface of his object, which in fact seems overcrowded, because the seat and backrest have a perforated design. In the end, a chair like "Viento" by Dondoli and Pocci (Bonaldo) demonstrates that in order to animate an object, a perforated backrest can be designed like the view through a window into the leafless branches of a tree, without it harmonizing with the chair as a whole. This only goes to show that it is still risky and no simple task to imitate nature.

THE EGG by Arne Jacobsen for Fritz Hansen
Shitake by Marcel Wanders for Moroso
Shitake by Marcel Wanders for Moroso
Caprice chair by Marcello Ziliani for Casprini
Viento by Dondoli and Pocci for Bonaldo
L'Institut du Monde Arabe by Jean Nouvel
Supernatural Stuhl by Ross Lovegrove for Moroso
Supernatural Armlehnstuhl by Ross Lovegrove for Moroso
Vegetal by Bouroullecs for Vitra
Vegetal by Bouroullecs for Vitra
T-Table by Patricia Urquiola for Kartell
T-Table by Patricia Urquiola for Kartell