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Our Furniture—Ourselves?

While flipping through Modern Furniture: 150 Years of Design, I couldn't help but stop and smile at seeing the same monobloc chair sitting on my backyard deck sitting there on the pages of a proposed history of modern furniture design. When we think of modern furniture design, we too often think of wildly experimental and wildly expensive items found only in the homes of the rich and famous. However, as Andrea Mehlhose and Martin Wellner , founders of the design company Fremdkörper and editors of Modern Furniture, show, modern design is all around us in such a ubiquitous way that we barely notice. Recognizing the power of design to simplify and change our lives can help us recognize a great deal of our culture. Modern Furniture demonstrates that our furniture really tells us a lot about ourselves.

The first thing that strikes you about the design of this history of modern furniture design is that time runs in reverse. Mehlhose and Wellner explain that reversal by stressing that their book “focuses on current design, which is why we have chosen to stray away from the generally more common chronological approach and instead begin by presenting the most contemporary pieces of furniture… Historical connections and contexts, developments in materials and form languages might only become evident later on, yet clarity never suffers.” On my first run through, I played along and began with the modern pieces before going old school. The effect feels a little subversive at first, but I did feel a greater appreciation for the founding fathers and mothers of modern design after seeing just how those roots spread in so many directions later on. As critic Max Borka writes in one of the many entertaining and illuminating digressive essays, “Design history can be reduced to one single polarity… On the one hand, there was the curvy, dynamic, organic and spontaneous line that evoked the natural. On the other hand, there was the straight line, caught in a grid or chessboard pattern, and later evolving into the box.” By starting with the ending rather than the beginning, you really get a full sense of how the curvy and the straight have battled for the past century and a half.

Modern Furniture allows the furniture to do most of the talking. A generous sampling of high quality photos give you a full picture of the state of the art over the decades. As smoothly and sleekly as that reverse chronology flows, it doesn’t flow evenly. With 80 plus pages devoted to the 1980s, but just 16 pages covering the 40 years from 1899 through 1859, Modern Furniture can feel less like “150 Years of Design” and more like “I Love the ‘80s.” However, this survey unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve and more than justifies the inequality with fascinating explanations of the New German Design and Italian-founded Memphis movements that injected new energy into design throughout the 1980s. The Memphis style, with its “optimistic” approach and desire “to arouse emotions through the object,” especially transformed the ‘80s into a golden, transformative age for furniture.

The real stars of the show, however, are the individual pieces. Just when the text becomes for the uninitiated a dizzying game of musical chairs, tables, etc., the helpful digressions point out places to stop, look, and think. Yiannis Ghikas’ 2011 coat rack titled Game of Trust (in which Y-shaped poles lean on one another for support while keeping your coat from touching the floor) subtly comments on this age of distrust of authority. Tejo Remy’s Chest of Drawers (“You can’t lay down your memory”) from 1993 “represents a new, experimental, intelligent and also humorous approach to design” by reusing old drawers in a new configuration the way that the design art itself recycles and reinvents previous ideas. In calling Andrea Branzi’s 1985 Animali Domestici chairs “post-apocalyptic survival props,” Modern Furniture acknowledges the seriousness and the silliness of the objects with which we choose to surround ourselves. (Fremdkörper manages to insert even its own 2009 A1 table that looks like a tiny stretch of the German Autobahn in the parade of seriously funny furniture.)

But just when you think it’s all a joke, factoids such as the $1.5 million USD that Marc Newson’s 1986 Lockheed Lounge Chair commanded at at auction in 2007 make you stop short. Limited edition works such as the Lockheed chair (which Madonna featured prominently in the video to her song “Rain”) illustrate the vast divide between design stars and those who collect them and Billy Bookshelf, “99%” crowd down at Ikea. Tom Price's limited edition 2008 Meltdown Chair PP Tube, which price himself calls “controlled chaos,” could be considered a physical representation of the financial meltdown of that same year (but priced for the “1%).

By the time you get past the designs of Le Corbusier, the cantilever chair of Mart Stam (and later Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer), the overflowing creativity of the Bauhaus, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld’s 1919 Red-Blue Chair (described as a “manifesto of De Stijl esthetics,” almost a Mondrian you could sit in), the early German genius of Josef Hoffmann and Otto Wagner, and the amazing but underappreciated creations of Irish female designer Eileen Gray, ur-texts of modern design such as the works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Michael Thonet’s simple, but paradigm-changing bentwood No. 14 chair from1859 are ready to take their place in the pantheon. It’s a breathless ride for 700 pages, but you’ll come out of it knowing more about modern design than when you began, and hungering for more.

Go to pretty much any school, cafeteria, or waiting room in the world today and you’ll find some variation of Robin Day’s Polyprop Chair. This “unpretentious icon” supports us without our ever noticing for days, months, even years of our lives. Modern Furniture: 150 Years of Design informatively, idiosyncratically, and entertainingly teaches us not to buy into the pretention, but rather to recognize these icons of our lives—the new religious objects of our daily culture so close at hand but far from our thoughts. Seeing the design of your environment through the eyes of Modern Furniture will help you see the design of your life clearer than ever before.

[Image: 2008, Meltdown Chair PP Tube, Tom Price, © Christoph Bolton.]

[Many thanks to h.f. Ullmann for the image above and for a review copy of Modern Furniture: 150 Years of Design.]

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