The Simple Things
TAKE A SEAT
THE STORIES BEHIND SOME OF THE MOST FAMILIAR AND STYLISH MID- CENTURY CHAIRS TELL OF DESIGNERS INVENTING BEAUTIFUL, EVERYDAY SOLUTIONS
You’ll know their silhouettes even if you don’t know their names. They’re the stuff of Bond, The Prisoner and (of course) Mad Men. Mid-century chairs have become part of our collective design vocabulary – designs that are around 60 years old, or older, yet still fresh and contemporary. Each has their own unique story – here we pick out a few – and have helped shape the way we live in our homes.
The term ‘mid-century’ is bandied around but generally covers designs of the 1950s and 60s that have a similar look and ethos, although it can be stretched to earlier and later. The earliest design included here – the Womb Chair – dates to 1946. In fact, the 1940s were really important in the development of what is now thought of as the style. The Second World War encouraged innovations in design – restrictions encouraged experimentation with new materials, while technological advancements paved the way for mass production, which made things more affordable.
Although the United States and Scandinavia are perhaps best known for their designs, in Britain the likes of Ercol and G-Plan were also furnishing new towns and suburbs. The furniture they were making was lightweight, for a generation that moved more frequently, and at a size suitable for the needs of smaller post-war homes. Across chairs, tables, lighting, storage and much more, it was a look that was clean, fresh and modern. It was about doing away with stiff, stuffed chairs and formal ways of living, in favour of simple designs that worked for everyone. They continue to do so today. We like chairs we can curl up in and read (the reason the Womb Chair was commissioned) or chairs to sink into in front of a favourite programme (the lounger designed by Charles and Ray Eames was conceived as TVs began to enter homes). By the time of the hanging chair in the late 1950s, designers were embracing – and encouraging – a whole new liberated way of being.
These designs not only reflect our ways of living but also shift the ways we interact with our homes (and the people we live with). They help us relax. Charles Eames described how he wanted his lounger to have the “warm receptive look of a well used first baseman’s mitt”. They allow us to cosy up with each other or, if necessary (as in the case of the Ball Chair) provide a refuge from the outside world.
We develop an intimate relationship with our chairs. The cushion that becomes moulded by our form; the arm that you work out is exactly the right size for balancing tea and a biscuit. Tied so closely with our habits and daily routines they become associated with the people who sit in them and years of corresponding memories.
Mid-century chairs are now old enough to become heirlooms (as increasingly reflected in prices for original pieces). The status of these chairs has shifted in a more substantial way too, with a recent change in the law now preventing unauthorised reproductions. It seems fitting: these chairs have often taken years to develop, the most successful designs encompassing comfort, stability and resistance as well as looking good in your home. They’re examples of design and craftsmanship that we may be lucky enough to live with every day. But, of course, the finishing touch to these mini works of artistry are the people that sit in them.