From Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Renzo Piano: how top architects have helped to reinvent the chair

Agata Toromanoff

Architects have been adding chairs and other items of furniture to their design repertoire since the beginning of the 19th century.

The relationships and similarities are often surprising, and raise some interesting questions. What is it that distinguishes a chair designed by an architect, rather than a furniture designer? Why would an architect want to design one?

Is it possible to apply the creative solutions used for buildings to the design of furniture? Often, the qualities found in architects’ buildings are also evident in their chair designs; items of furniture, like manifestos, become signatures of a particular style.

Early influential figures who have crossed the architecture/chair Rubicon include Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Charles Rennie Mackintosh; Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Charles and Ray Eames are luminaries of the mid-century Modernist movement; and in the contemporary era we have pieces by Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and Thomas Heatherwick.

Here are some fascinating examples taken from new book Chairs by Architects.

Mario Botta

The Quarta chair for Italian furniture company Alias was based on a design from 1884 and realized 100 years later. It is constructed from two intersecting triangular elements; the larger one works as a frame, while the smaller intersects it at mid-height and acts as a seat.

The chair has an architectural presence and displays Botta’s keenness to combine large volumes into unified yet diverse wholes. By comparison, his design for a church in Seriate, Italy – built on a square site – consists of two irregular shapes that rise dynamically next to each other, one resembling a gate the other in the shape of wings.

It’s a solid volume, but shaped in a very sculptural way; despite their sturdiness, they have a feeling of ethereality owing to the interaction of light on diverse surfaces.

“I designed a chair-object to pursue the image and memory of an architecture, which was strong and transparent,” says Botta. “I was searching for a ‘presence’, real and magic at the same time, appearing and vanishing tantalizingly close or hazily distant like the memory of a faraway echo.”

Waro Kishi

The TS Chair was initially produced for display at an exhibition. The name comes from the Tsuzuki Flat project that Kishi was designing at that time and where he ultimately intended to use the chair.

The cantilevered frame, including the low backrest, is a graphic combination of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. The aluminium creates an elegant but sharp structure, which is complemented by a thin board serving as a seat.

A similar approach is reflected in Kit House, a student-union building revamped by Kishi for the Kyoto Institute of Technology in 2010. The design aimed to connect the interior and exterior of the building without clear divisions. Many brick walls are semi-translucent, while others are simply glazed.

Because of this, the construction sits well in the context of the landscape. Its façades and particularly its open interiors are ordered by horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines that intersect harmoniously with plain surfaces.

Julien de Smedt

The reverse engineering that went into the creation of the Bone Chair included the removal of non-essential material from each section, leaving no superfluous elements. The construction and bone-like shape result in a functional seat with an original appearance. De Smedt describes his design as “the dissection of a chair, cutting away all the ballast material. What is left is ‘bone’, a chair’s skeleton.”

A similar impression occurs with De Smedt’s Iceberg residential development at Aarhus Harbour, a revitalisation of a disused container terminal. The project includes a housing system that provided a total of 200 apartments. The highly inventive shapes of the buildings resemble, as the name suggests, icebergs, but are also reminiscent of other organic structures, such as rocks or diamond crystals.

Renzo Piano

Renzo Piano is best known for the Pompidou Centre in Paris but he also has a chair design in his portfolio, the Piano Design Chair, manufactured by Riva in 2014.

Made from solid wood with no metal elements, the chair has an inclined back and a wide, carved seat to create a comfortable ergonomic shape. Like the architect’s buildings, the chair appears both solid and light at the same time.

One of Piano’s latest architectural projects is a new building for film company Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé. In order to slot the structure between the neighbouring 19th-century houses, it was built in the shape of an egg.

The structure is dominated by gigantic timber ribs and covered with translucent glass tiles, and look as if it has been carved, like the Piano Design Chair, to achieve the optimal shape. Both works inhabit their space elegantly but sturdily, in keeping with the ideal of form following function.

Kengo Kuma

Kengo Kuma is famous for using three-dimensional lattices, which form volumetric structures that appear transparent and light, both inside and out. He prefers to use local materials whenever possible, creating structures that harmonize with the surrounding environment.

The GC Chair, striking in its simplicity, was developed especially for the GC Prostho Museum Research Design Centre, with the architect believing furniture and its setting should be parts of a whole.

Kuma’s architectural philosophy echoes the way he thinks about furniture design: both must be incorporated into their surroundings and create a harmonious relationship with the people who use them.

Chairs by Architects by Agata Toromanoff, published by Thames & Hudson, is out now priced £16.95

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