The Chair Men

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The Chair Men

Words by Mr Oli Stratford | Styling by Mr Olie Arnold

6 April 2016

Five of London’s leading craftsmen explain what makes an exceptional seat.

From Chesterfields to monoblocs, wingbacks to cantilevers, there are hundreds of types of chair. But why? Mr Ralph Caplan, the venerable American design critic, had a good explanation. “A chair,” he wrote in his book By Design, “is the first thing you need when you don’t really need anything.” For Mr Caplan, a chair is the first object that moves society away from mere survival to living. Tired of hunter-gathering? Take a seat.

Creating a chair is as pure a design job as you might hope for. It’s an object with a function – you can sit on it – but one that is non-essential enough to provide a designer with a blank canvas. Which is why almost every designer at some point in their career makes a chair. As the role of Hamlet is to an actor, so is a chair to a designer. It is the calling card of the design trade.

In celebration of this perennial of the design world, MR PORTER sat down with five London-based masters in the field, and soon realised that a chair is never just something to sit on.

Poly Scrap chair

Something of the itinerant lurks in the work of Mr Max Lamb, a furniture designer who frequently moves production out of the factory and into the wilderness of nature. Since graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2006, Mr Lamb has built a practice designing and making wherever the wind might take him, be it sand-casting pewter on a beach in Cornwall, southwest England, or gathering stones from mountain slopes in Iceland. “To a degree those places shape the final design,” he says, “especially in terms of geography, climate or geology. But it’s mostly about getting hands-on with a material.” Mr Lamb’s limited-edition furniture designs are formed as primal shapes cut from rough-hewn rock or sawn wholesale from felled trees, while his Poly Scrap chair is an example of him at his most ingenious and resourceful. The chair is built from polystyrene offcuts from his other projects, which are then assembled in geometric arrangements before being coated in a protective rubber coating. Who engages with such designs? “Anyone and everyone who sees them,” says Mr Lamb. “Engagement isn’t dependent on ownership any longer. That’s one of the beauties of the internet age.”

What’s the appeal of chair design?

Chair design is relevant to me because it is the format I use to exercise my ideas. A chair is a good test for material and fabrication processes, and because a chair is human in scale and invites human interaction. The emphasis of my exercises in seating is on the exercise, not the seating. A seat is simply a perfect archetype for learning how to design and make stuff.

A lot of your work seems to be about making and craft, and moving away from the factories and industrial design. Why is that?

I do work with industry and factories, too, and my hands-on methodology is purely a means to an end. I need to touch a material, to get dirty, to understand where I, as a designer, can fit into its existence. What can a lump of stone, a block of polystyrene, a slab of steel, or a branch of a tree do and be? How do I achieve that with minimum input and maximum efficiency?

Munich chair

There is a long tradition of fashion designers trying their hand at furniture, with distinctly variable results. For every Mr Raf Simons – mohair and wool fabrics for upholstery brand Kvadrat – there is a Mr Jean Paul Gaultier, who designed a working chariot for the living room. Fortunately, Mr Cathal McAteer, founder of London-based fashion label Folk, falls into the former camp. “I have met various designers who freely cross disciplines very well,” he says. “Not all the work that comes out of that will be good, and a great deal of shit will never see the light of day, but the constant process and discovery are in themselves nourishing.” Working with German furniture designer Mr Leander Angerer, Mr McAteer developed the Munich chair, a classic rocking chair for the Flushing Meadows Hotel in Munich. Folk’s reputation was built on its attention to materials and detailing, and Mr McAteer’s furniture looks set to follow the same principles. “I always work in exactly the same way, be it wool or wood, silk or steel,” he says.

How and why did you get involved in chair design?

I’ve been fascinated with furniture for longer than fashion. I just had no idea how to find the door that would get me involved. My journey was not conventional, and the normal routes didn’t reveal themselves. Why now? I found the damn door.

How did the collaboration with Mr Angerer come about?

Leander and I met via friends in Munich, although he was studying at Central Saint Martins in London at the time. We found mutual ground immediately, working between his studies and my work to create a lighting system that we used for Folk’s Soho store. From there, I was asked to design a room in the Flushing Meadows Hotel and Leander was working nearby in his father’s workshop in the Allgäu. Through many conversations and emails, the rocking chair became what it is.

Why settle on a rocking chair?

It just felt apt for the hotel. A simple, gentle rock just felt so right. The heart of the chair really started in Munich. It’s made using wood that was already set aside by Leander and his father, and I think its soul was formed when Leander got down to making it in his father’s workshop.

Backbone chair

Design is usually based around the production of new objects, but Mr Yinka Ilori is one of a rare breed of designers who are more interested in working with what we already have than in creating something new. A graduate of London Metropolitan University, Mr Ilori fashions vibrant upcycled chairs out of furniture he finds discarded on the streets of London (“If you ever see me walking through London, you know what I’ve been up to”). He creates intoxicating chop-shop hybrids that blend vivid colours, hybrid construction and visual narrative inspired by traditional parables of Nigeria, his parents’ country of birth. “Aesthetically, I am always drawn to an object that looks like it’s on its last legs,” he says of his double-seated Backbone chair. “I can always see the potential in it.” It’s a sustainable business that builds on Mr Ilori’s flair for bricolage and his ability to generate harmonious wholes out of riotous assemblies of colour and pattern. In the words of Mr Robert Venturi, the great post-modernist architect, “less is a bore”.

How easy is it to tell stories through an object like a chair?

Chairs reflect who we are as individuals and we form relationships with them without even knowing it. If we look at human relationships, we don’t instantly trust people in the way we trust a chair, which is funny but true. Chairs have phenomenal stories to tell. Each one has been sat on by so many people we may never come across. That’s the beauty of storytelling through them. I can unravel those stories and then incorporate my own.

What story is the Backbone chair telling?

Backbone was based on somebody in my secondary school whose friends steered him down the wrong path, so he never reached his full potential. At times I just wanted to tell him to grow a backbone and say no to people, but it wasn’t my place. The chair itself was a 1950s café chair, but I played around with the configuration of the backrest and lowered it. What’s interesting is that some people find that new position comfortable, while others really don’t. But the idea is to get people to speak about how they feel. Most of the chairs I create are both functional and unfunctional. The important thing is that they provoke conversations that would have never been ignited without that chair as the starting point.

V&A 08 chair

Being true to materials is a watchword in design, but some practitioners are better at it than others. Take Mr Tomás Alonso, a Spanish designer whose work elegantly stretches material possibilities, shaping metal into curving organic forms and reducing solid wood to delicate, slender sticks. “I try to use materials’ properties as an intrinsic part of the object, so that the material, combined with the way it is manipulated, becomes the shape of the object,” he says. His V&A 08 chair, designed as part of a furniture series for the Victoria and Albert Museum, is a case in point. The seat is made from reclaimed Victorian ceiling boards, with the frame formed from a single piece of machine-bent coloured metal tubing. It’s a playful design, but one that shares the sense of function that Mr Alonso has cultivated in furniture for Ikea, Cos and Danish design brand Hay. “I think objects should exist to be used and enjoyed, and therefore they should be functional,” he says. “Some functions are new because our needs evolve with the way we live, but some functions haven’t really changed that much – we still need to sit down somewhere.”

The V&A chairs look quite precarious in their construction. Why pursue that kind of design?

Those chairs are actually more like 3D sketches of what a chair could be rather than finished pieces. I was experimenting with connections between wood and metal tube, and I thought the chairs could be a good way to test some of those connections. I wanted to juxtapose the sleek, painted machine-bent tube with the patina of hand-worked natural wood. So each chair is made from a different ‘drawing’ of a bent tube, around which the wood structure is then built. I got the ceiling boards from an amazing place called Leaside Wood Recycling Project, which sadly closed its doors recently due to the increasing cost of land and the proliferation of new building developments in east London.

Why does chair design remain relevant?

Do we need another pair of shoes? Or another bicycle? Or another light? Not really, not from the perspective of someone living in a world already filled with stuff. But from the perspective of someone making things, there is always the challenge of trying it with a new technique, a new material, a new level of comfort or language, or for a particular context or situation. Things are rarely made out of pure need any more. But it’s where need stops that culture begins, isn’t it?

Basket armchair

Mr Fabien Cappello is a designer who makes the most of what is around him. He founded his studio in 2010, and has designed stools and tables from discarded Christmas trees, created ceramic jugs and vessels for the bars of Odivelas in Lisbon, and, last year, piloted a series of street furniture for Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey. “When it comes to our material world, [domestic or functional design] is one of the most advanced forms of design thinking there is,” says Mr Cappello. “It’s the story of objects shaped by a long process of trial and error.” Working with galleries such as Libby Sellers, Nilufar and Stanley Picker – as well as local manufacturers in the places he visits – Mr Cappello elevates everyday objects into pieces of aesthetic and functional consideration. His Basket armchair, a careful twist on the traditional Windsor chair, is a perfect example of how he designs, having been meticulously developed out of a series of scale cardboard models. “I always start a project with a strong intuition of what I want to do and I never really improvise,” says Mr Cappello. “I have a visual image of the furniture and then it’s just about being able to define that in 3D.”

Why were you interested in looking at the Windsor chair for your Basket armchair?

It falls between an armchair and a dining chair, which I think is nice, and I was keen on updating that. I wanted to remove the turned-wood elements, which I’ve always considered a little bit too decorative. But I kept the feeling of craftsmanship by creating the ash lattice that forms the arm and backrest. It’s a little bit like a DJ doing a remix; you keep the essence of the track, but give it your own vision.

Are there any chairs by other designers that you particularly admire?

There is one that I always think about: the green metal chairs that populate the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. I love their straightforward steel-tube structure and they have a primitive feeling to them. You can almost imagine the workshops in which they were made. The chairs live in the park, and I like looking at the configurations they’re left in – placed in front of public benches by groups of teenagers, or left in funny rows facing the afternoon winter sun by retired Parisian sun seekers. And, of course, you might find a couple of chairs left kicking around in the most secluded corners of the park by lovers.