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Formative Furniture

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This list of memories isn’t ordered according to my memory but according to the year of manufacture and so it’s an unintentional history of materials, technology and trends over the past fifty or so years.

Ahh the 1932 1227 Anglepoise desklamp, designed by George Carwadine! Circa 1975 when I was in second year, I bought mine secondhand along with a double-elephant size (cedar!) drawing board and stand. The square base of this one looks familiar, although some had a G-clamp to attach it to the upper edge of the drawing board. Now that I think of it ….

The design of this chair was unchanged for most of the 20th century. It probably had a name but I just knew it as a drafting chair. Mine was all black and I bought it new to go with my drawing board and lamp. Drafting chairs like this existed for as long as there was hand drawing. Probably only Japanese manga artists still use them. For a few years I lived in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro area in an apartment across the road and a couple of stories higher than one where some manga artists/authors lived. I recognized the chairs, the tables, the lamps, the takeaway food, the long hours …

The MoMA website tells me my first formative chair was designed in Argentina in 1938. For me it never had a name but many know it as the Hardoy Chair, Butterfly Chair, Safari Chair, Sling Chair, or Wing Chair. Its correct name, MoMA tells me, is The BKF Chair after its designers Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan, and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy. I learn that the first two exported to the US went to Fallingwater by one Edward Kaufmann Jr. The first chairs had a leather “sling” but later canvas ones were inexpensive, stylish, and very popular with architects and people wanting a California vibe for their patio. I thought it very modern. A relative must have had one because I know it wasn’t that comfortable, and that rainwater would collect in the canvas if it was left outside. Taking it undercover must have been cumbersome as the steel frame was rigid and not that light. Left outside, it rusted. They’re still being produced, in the US by Knoll.

The Noguchi Ceiling Lamp 60D was designed in the early 1950s and, though I never had one, student houses everywhere had a cheap copy machine made with wire instead of hand-tied bamboo.

In 1975, now in my second year and liking all things Japanese, I did pay full price for an Akari 3X Table Lamp. Designed in 1951. They give off the best light with the old incandescent bulbs they were designed for.

My memory of spun aluminium lampshades is from the 1960s but it was the previous decade when manufacturers discovered they were simple and inexpensive to make as long as the shape was vaguely conical. These lampshades came in many anodized colors but I remember gold and turquoise were popular. Too inexpensive and ubiquitous to ever be regarded as a design classic, they were everywhere for a while and then disappeared, much like laser-cut metal screens came and went in 2008.

The 1956 Saarinen Tulip Chair is another chair I didn’t know had another name. They seem to have always been around and part of my mental library of furniture. Again, as a kid, I thought it was very modern but this was probably because I’d already seen either it or something referencing it on The Jetsons. In the 1960s, as now, the future was all curvy and white but it was 2017 when I sat in one for the first time. I discovered that the upper part swivels, making it difficult to reposition the chair unless you lift it. When sitting down, it also means you have to sit first and then swivel to face the table. Standing up and sitting down become things you have to think about. This is the price you pay for the absence of visual “clutter”.

Much of my first knowledge of contemporary furniture came via television shows. It may be a false memory but I remember seeing and liking a chair like this in the 1960s Irwin Allen series Lost in Space. It would have been all-white. The Herman Miller website tells me it is the Nelson Coconut Lounge Chair, designed by George Nelson in 1956.

The Folding Black Canvas ‘NY’ Chair was designed in 1958 by Takeshi Nii. I didn’t know that in 1975 I bought one to put in my dorm room with my Noguchi lamp. Sitting in it was comfortable, especially when cross-legged, but being very low with respect to everything else in the room was uncomfortable. The chair was what we now call flat-packable with the two L-frames and the canvas between them being one piece, and the arms/legs being the other. Assembly involved using two bolts each side to attach the L-frames to the arms. This chair had more pieces than the BKF chair but it made sense when you sat in it because the legs spread outwards to stretch and firm the canvas across the back. The chair is light and bringing the arms together folds the chair so it is easy to carry. It seems even more beautiful now I know it was designed in 1958. I must have bought it from an imported furniture and furnishings store called Habitat, which was close to the UWA department of architecture. The store itself was rather architectural, and eventually became the headquarters of the Western Australian chapter of the RAIA. You can imagine why.

The Verner Panton Fun 5 DM Shell Chandelier is sometimes called a Capiz Shell Chandelier and was designed by Verner Panton in 1960. Bond villain Blofield had one in his Swiss mountain lair in the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. As these things go, lair and lamp were blown up just prior to the gunmen-on-skis chase. photo © Mass Modern / Eon Productions, United Artists
By Schilthornbahn – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Arco Lamp was designed by Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni for Flos in 1962, although it’s usually attributed to only Castiglioni. I’ve never wanted one but I appreciated its few parts and how it provides overhead illumination without the inconvenience of a ceiling. The last of the three stainless steel parts must telescope into the second last to allow the height to be changed. These also seem to have been around forever, although the shape of the lampshade has dated, unlike a big chunk of Carrara marble. The drilled hole is a fabulous example of “It’s just design.”

The Lava Lamp was designed in 1963 by Edward Craven Walker who later founded the lighting company Mathmos. I saw one not too long after when my cousin Hadyn gave one as a birthday present to my Aunt Vera who was always the most progressive of my aunts. The lamp had pride of place on the cocktail bar in her living room with its pastel sheepskin rugs and stuffed baby crocodile.

The unikko [poppy] pattern was designed by Maija Isolator for the Finnish fabric and clothing company Marimekko in 1964 but my blue and white Unikko tablecloth was bequeathed to me in 1976 when a friend went overseas to study. This tablecloth always made food look great, especially if served on white plates. It must be because there aren’t any blue foods.

Blow, the first mass marketed inflatable chair, was designed by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino, Paolo Lomazzi, and Carla Scolari in 1967. It was everywhere almost immediately and I probably saw it on some television talk show. It was 2017 when I actually got to see one at a furniture exhibition at Milan’s Triennale Design Museum. (1933, Giovanni Muzio). 1967 was also the year of Jean-Paul Jungmann’s Habitation Pneumatique Expérimentale.

The Pratone lounge chair, designed by Pietro Derossi, Giorgio Ceretti and Riccardo Rosso, was designed in 1966 but production only began in 1971. It’s easy to see how there might have been some problems finding a material that was pleasingly flexible and durable yet still pleasant to touch. Again, it was the same 2017 exhibition before I saw one for real. A sign said “Don’t touch!”

It’s hard to believe the “beanbag” has only been with us since 1968 when Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, Franco Teodoro designed the Sacco. A 1970s staple in student houses, kids’ rooms and children’s reading areas in public libraries.

Photo: Andrea Pavanello

In the same 1968 the modern waterbed as we knew it, designed by Charles Prior Hall, a design student at San Francisco State University. A friend of mine had one in 1975. They didn’t look that different from any other bed but they came at a time when anything was new and different was enthusiastically adopted. New things to sleep on don’t get invented very often.

The 1970-something folding clear lucite Plia chair by Piretti Castelli was something I’d never seen but I admired its clean lines. There’s something about a cantilever. Lucite, I learn, is another name for Plexiglass and Perspex, two names that you heard a lot in the 1970s.

The 1970s [why are dates so vague in the 1970s? doesn’t nobody remember?] Joe White armchair by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino and Lomazzi. I understood that it was meant to look like a baseball glove and looked comfy and comforting. I didn’t yet know postmodernism existed so its associations of secure and winning were lost on me. I must have been borrowing art books from the local library because it seemed like an Oldenburg sculpture you could sit on.

This 1972 Furniture Unit by Joe Colombo was designed to allow all the activities of living in a single piece of furniture. You can see the beds that roll out beneath the television, etc. I still like this idea because it says nothing about what kind of enclosure it should be in. This ought to have been a liberating idea, but nothing happened. Or you could put 100 of them in a grid in an exhibition centre and have some kind of negative city without architecture, a bit like Archizoom’s 1972 No-Stop City but with more creature comforts. I’ve never seen it.

From the pop-art device of taking something ordinary and scaling it up as with the grass chair and the baseball glove, we now have the post-modern device of shrinking something large. This is Gaetano Pesce’s 1980 New York Sunrise sofa. I never wanted one but I could appreciate it as something that a sofa could be. There’s been many Italian designers in this small sample of mine.

The Grandmother sofa was designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brownfor the 1984 Parker Knoll series but I only saw it in a Tokyo store about 1990. The sheer size of the it 88×42×31″ (224x107x77cm) L x D x H made it unlikely to fit in, let alone suit many Japanese dwellings. It was an amazing thing, like some archetypal sofa.

In the same year and Tokyo store was another sofa with perhaps a 1.2-metre high timber back and sides (rather than arms). It was at least 2 metres long, and at least one meter high and 1 deep so it was more room than furniture. The single cushion was packed with down so it was up to you whether that room was bedroom or living room. The image at right is Ettore Sotsass’ sofa for Cassina is the closest image I can find, but the one I remember had a full length timber surround, was much higher, and was so huge the frame had to be put together from two halves. I’ve never seen it again.

In the 1980s Memphis was impossible to avoid. It’s Carlton bookcase / room divider by Ettore Sottsass is the piece I remember most. I didn’t much like the style but it chimed with a theory I was then developing about the fittings and furnishings of a house being physically and aesthetically independent of the space that contains them. My logic was that separating them would make for better furniture and for better architecture. In the same (manila) folder I probably had a photocopy of this in some unlikely room, and probably along with the Joe Columbo Furniture Unit I’ve already mentioned.

The Prince Imperial chair was designed by Elizabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti in 1985 and I learned of it not too long after. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one unless it was two decades later and through the window of a furniture gallery along London’s King’s Road. I liked its unconventional appearance and materials and how it made me think of Africa. Coming soon after Sottsass’s Carlton, it’s too raw and rough to be called postmodern although it probably couldn’t have happened without it. Lacking a pigeonholeable name, Garouste and Bonetti’s “More is more” style has been called The New Romanticism.

This is the end. Furniture had become collectible art pieces divorced from even its ostensible function. Some of the things above (such as drafting stools) simply aren’t used anymore. Other items such as the Arco Lamp and the Saarinen table and chairs still have licensed production but aren’t cheap. The Noguchi lamps were never that cheap but there once was a time when they were affordable for an architecture student. Furniture as collectible art pieces is still being produced but there seems to be little in the way of affordable yet durable and well designed furniture. I include durable as a criteria to exclude much of IKEA’s offerings, although there are exceptions such as the MELLTORP table that is still excellent value for money.

Next week’s post, The 2nd Misfits’ Triennale: WEEK 2, will cover the period August 18, 2020 to August 18, 2021.


  • I love that one too, especially in the light blue. I always get Design Within Reach mailers. I realize after housing and cars, furniture is the next big material ticket item, but who are they kidding? Pretty steep price these days. I guess I’m just “IKEA people” for the time being. 😛

    • I remember that too! There was so much Italian design at the time. I totally forgot. I did own a (Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand) L6 table for about 6 months. In the end I sold it to an architect. I had a couple of other “pieces” at the time but I can’t say they were formative.