3 Stores/3 Chairs: Looking for a Modern Modern
Dike Blair
published in ArtByte, Vol. 2-#2, Summer 1999, pp. 88-93

During the sunset of our century interior design and furnishings are experiencing a boomlette. Lifestyle arguments for creative interiors are fueled by a bullish economy, the retreading of lounge culture and institutional chic, and magazines like Nest and Wallpaper. In NYC, furniture stores hug those same blocks of precious real estate first embraced by the art world and later swept away by the fashion boutique. Many of the stores deal in modern antiques, or reproductions, from the 1940's, 50's and 60's1 and collectors' desire has driven the prices of furniture by George Nelson, Herman Miller, Eero Saarinen, Ray and Charles Eames, etc. through the roof. But I'm more interested in young designers' passion for the modern which I believe is deeper than a post-modern sampling and/or nostalgia.2 Although the marketability of nostalgic retro-design is part of the equation, I would suggest that there are implicit qualities to classic modern design that beckon designer and consumer alike. I would also suggest that the computer creates a need for a contemporary modern design-but my conjecture will come later.

First, I've chosen the showrooms of three firms; Cappellini Modern Age, Kartell and Totem, and selected one chair from each to represent general trends.3 These are retail showrooms for firms that also license, distribute and/or manufacture designs under their label.4 Each store has a different image which is carefully tailored to fit their product. In terms of pricing, Cappellini Modern Age is high end, Kartell is middling and Totem runs the gamut from cheap to the dear. The criteria for selecting the chair was to pick a chair that the store, itself, used at its computers.

Cappellini Modern Age/Werner Aisslinger's, Juli

Cappellini Modern Age (CMA, henceforth) is a result of the recent (1998) marriage of one of NYC's best stores to one of Italy's strongest manufacturers of modern furniture. Both matured during the 80's and 90's and the couple have an air of avant-garde sophistication. The showroom is a converted Soho gallery across the street from Knoll Design,5 and is relatively un-designed-it pretty much allows the objects speak for themselves. The designers that CMA assembles, like Piero Lissoni, Lloyd Schwan, Marcel Wanders and Michael Young,6 form an aesthetic unity that is close to Knoll's during its salad decades.

CMA used Werner Aisslinger's, Juli, from 1996 at its monitors. Juli's body is directly related to Arne Jacobsen's Swan chair from the late 50's-Its tubular, inverted-hat stand base relates to Le Corbusier chairs but is really quite contemporary. One great thing about the Juli is its technology. Its polyurethane foam body is completely self supporting (there's no shell) and this gives the colored foam on the uncovered, the non-deluxe, version a deeply saturated, integral color. Juli is remarkably comfortable yet firm-the foam flexes just the right amount. Although the primary usage seems directed at office (the adjustable deluxe comes with swivel and casters), the chair is elegant enough for multiple home/office uses. Juli speaks to tradition and the newish moves it makes, it makes elegantly. The Juli retails for $630.

Kartell/Antonio Citterio and Oliver Löw's, Dolly Folding Chair

Kartell has been manufacturing furniture in Milan for roughly 50 years. As part of an international branding effort, Kartell has opened a showroom in Soho on a strip that is home to the last of the Chelsea-hold-out-galleries.7 Designed by Ferruccio Laviani, the showroom is loft-like and multileveled. The narrow entrance dictates a vertical display that is handled quite effectively with glass shelves supported by cable. The light in the space is particularly attractive and it highlights Kartell's trade in translucent colored plastics. Like their goods, the showroom design is high-techy and Euro. Antonio Citterio and Oliver Löw's, Dolly Folding Chair is at their computer.

The 1999 version of Dolly has jettisoned the stylistic confusion of the original 1996 design-it's tougher, more streamlined and better suited for office/institutional use although it certainly works well in the home. Dolly reflects Kartell's technical sophistication (it's made from fiberglass-reinforced polypropylene) and look. Its Italian design heritage immediately evokes Carlo Mollino's erotic whiplash design. Dolly folds (something of an anomaly as most modern chairs are designed to stack); it has an integrated arm rest which doesn't extend forward enough to bump the desk and, when folded, nests in an arresting configuration. It is light without being flimsy and with its strong, industrial gray surface, it is distinctly masculine. The basic Dolly retails for $210.

Totem/Karim Rashid's, Oh chair

Founded in 1997, Totem is definitely the youngest and edgiest of the 3 design firms-they're in Tribeca, they have a cool web site (www.totemdesign.com8), they mount monthly exhibitions that feature the work of a young designer and, if you're not convinced, they designed RayGun Magazine's new digs. The multileveled store is crowded but devides into discrete areas defined by function. They sell $12 mouse pads (Karim Rashid) and $3500 sofa beds (James Irvine). The feel of Totem is contemporary "global"9 which is subtle but distinct from the modern "international" feel of the other showrooms.

At one of Totem's computers is Karim Rashid's, Oh chair.10 The Oh (1998) is very much in the tradition of the collaborations of Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen-it's a lightweight, inexpensive, stacking chair. However, the negative space ovals in the body of the Oh, which provide graphic presence and light weight, could not, and would not, have been executed with 40's technology and aesthetic. They require advanced plastics technology and speak of CAD. The Oh's smoky-blue, translucent plastic body is also very contemporary (somewhat iMacesque)-it seems to say, "I may be cheap but I'm not hiding anything." Of the three chairs, the Oh is least designed/intended as a desk chair, but its price ($50) and its simplicity make it most interesting.

Some thoughts on Juli, Dolly and Oh

These are attractive, thoroughly conceived chairs; but I wasn't convinced in the same way that Eames, Nelson etc. convince-they're not masterpieces-and I think there are several underlying reasons for this. Good design for the sake of good design is fine. But what guides great design is a philosophy or politic, be it utilitarian (Bauhaus), utopian (modern) or sybaritic (swinging 60's). I would suggest that the guiding principle of Juli, Dolly and Oh is marketing. I think the reason we have so many references to classic modern design is not so much about a yearning for simpler times but a yearning for meaning that transcends consumption. Perhaps another reason that these chairs seem less important than the classics has to do with the art world. Eames and Saarinen had Calder and Arp to inspire them. Today, even our best young sculptors are more likely to reference design rhetoric than to create new forms. The absence I feel in the chairs' design I also feel in the formal branch (the conceptual branch is quite healthy) of the contemporary plastic arts.

I have a couple reasons to believe that these chairs point the way to even better chairs in the near future. In the last couple decades it has been athletic wear that has wedded new technologies to new forms. New synthetic fabrics and radical designs are seen on the playing field before the runway and have inspired the fashion world. I think the office chair is analogous to the athletic shoe; the ergonomics of lumbar support, the latest in plastics technology and CAD will continue to improve the office chairs that will increasingly do double duty in the home. I should note that even though many classic modern chairs work in home and office, their wide usage in the home is a contemporary phenomenon-a bit of design revisionism-as their aesthetic qualities have become more apparent with time.

Traditionally, young professionals have tended to spend more time and money expressing their immediate outward appearance (clothes) than they do their inner expressions (the home). But that is changing, and like many things in flux these days the engine of the change is the computer. Every home computer needs a chair and consider designing seating for web site designers alone and you have a pretty solid market. (And despite my argument that market is not an end-all, it helps.) The computer has led to the home office and the home office has expanded to become the start-up business with a homey feel. "Home" breaks the recursive loop of, "A designer sitting in a chair at the computer, designing a better chair in which to sit at the computer." As the boundaries between work and leisure blur (and it may be that blur that defines our time), the home becomes an important fashion accessory. Chairs, like Juli, Dolly and Oh, point the way to creating even more beautiful and startling forms for the evolving environment of institution-office-home.


1 It seems high time to lower the qualifier of "antique" from a century to, let's say, 40 or 50 years.
2 I find it hard to imagine that the particularly ugly furnishings from the 70's and 80's will someday be collected and reproduced, but nostalgia has a perverse logic of its own.
3 In their introduction to the book, 1000 Chairs (Tashen, 1997) Charlotte and Peter Fiell make a good argument that chairs encapsulate all of the design issues of a given time. 1000 Chairs is an invaluable and fascinating reference book.
4 Quite frankly the arrangements and exclusivity of the designers to these firms was beyond my grasp. Some items are exclusive to one store, some are commissioned and some are only distributed.
5 I mention Knoll because they are probably the model for these design and manufacturing firms. Since the 70's Knoll has been less successful (in my mind) in home furnishings and has mostly excelled in the area of large office design.
6 Although neither of these objects fit the criteria set here, I found Wanders's "Shadow Collection," a series of lamps in white cotton, among the most intriguing objects I've seen. They're stark and clean and look like they come from a Platonic lampland or a VR world that is proportioned slightly larger than our own. Michael Young's "Smarties" are constructivist colored foam seating lozenges that offer a cooler/cleaner option to the bean bag chair.
7 There is something ironic about their location coupled with their slogan, "Kartell's Art of the Everyday," as they represent and cater to the kind of tenant that is gradually replacing the everyday Soho art gallery. But that's real estate.
8 The site is really well designed and has a great robot cam effect for identifying and pricing the contents of the showroom.
9 They represent Japanese (Squeezedesign/Patrick Chia), Swedish (Rune Koivisto) but they like to trumpet the emergence of a new American design (Elizabeth Paige Smith, Ross Menuez, Lloyd Schwan).
10 See NYT special design insert, "The Shock of the New" article, Craft: From Eureka to Your House (The evolution of a $50 chair), by Phil Patton, 12/13/98, pp. 96-100.