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1970s French Furniture Design

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The Architect Statement Chair

Chairs designed by architects are notoriously uncomfortable – a statement probably first uttered with respect to chairs designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was probably his Origami Chair they were referring too, but the clinical chair for Price Tower is discomforting to even look at. FLW’s low cost designs for his Usonian Houses also don’t look much fun.

This reputation of architect-designed chairs might be because an aesthetic for buildings doesn’t readily downscale and I suspect this is because, apart from using our hands to open doors and grab handrails, and using our feet to walk on floors, we don’t actually come into physical contact with buildings that much. If we lived more like the Japanese used to, we might have given ourselves softer floors, for example. Instead, we interact with buildings via furniture with materials and textures we like to touch and be touched by. A space is useless if we can’t use it, and it’s furniture and fittings that allow us to do that.

We can add Gerrit Rietveldt’s 1918 Red Blue Chair and 1932 Zig-Zag Chair to the list. Apart from Schroeder House, Gerrit Rietveld isn’t so known as an architect. His 1934 Zig-Zag Chair doesn’t look particularly comfortable. You can make a stool with four pieces of wood but the least number of pieces to make a chair is probably six. Red Blue Chair uses thirteen but that probably wasn’t the point. At least it was an armchair.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich (huh?) ’s 1929 Barcelona Chair seems designed for a more relaxed way of sitting and a stressful unwitting oneself from it – which is typical of Mies’s blindness to any problem he doesn’t want to see. The Barcelona chair was wide enough for the plus-sized though. Here’s Andy Warhol and David Whitney sharing one in 1964. PJ’s seating and seating arrangements might have something to do with nobody’s look particularly comfortable in this photograph that’s one of those strange ones where nobody seems to be looking at anyone else.

The Middle- and Late Post-modern Era saw architects designing art chairs promoting them and, by association, their architecture as collectors’ items. Offhand, here are a few, in no particular order. [Isozaki 1982, Graves 1980, Venturi & Scott Brown 1980, Henry 1972, Shinohara 1985] There’s only one armchair.

We haven’t seen many armchairs lately. Following Mies’ lead, recently-contemporary architects such as Zaha Hadid eschewed armchairs for less functionally restricting pieces such as tables with holes in them, collector chairs and landscraper sofas. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to have an even more self-conscious continuation of Post-Modern Mannerism but it was.

I know it’s futile, but I long for simpler times, when a designer chair was still a designer chair and a chair that was designed to be furniture.

The Designer Chair

Talk of 1970’s furniture is usually about 1970s Italian furniture. It was fresh in design, modern in materials and manufacture and continued the long history of Italian design excellence. In armchairs alone, there was Blow, the first mass marketed inflatable chair designed by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino, Paolo Lomazzi, and Carla Scolari in 1967. There was the Pratone lounge chair, designed by Pietro Derossi, Giorgio Ceretti and Riccardo Rosso in 1966. In 1968 Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, Franco Teodoro designed the Sacco that we know as the beanbag. The Joe White armchair [1970?] by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D’Urbino and Lomazzi brings Claes Oldenberg’s supersized surrealism into the home.

Three of these chairs showcase the inventive use of new types of plastic and methods of manufacture. The polyurethane “leaves” of the Pratone, for example, had some novel coating preserving their pliancy yet giving them the texture and feel of leather. Despite its appearance, the Joe White chair is exquisitely and traditionally made from leather, but new in being fun like the others. The inflatable chair was seen onscreen in countless television interviews and we all grew up near a beanbag somewhere. Ultimately, the Pratone chair – said to be a chaise longue – was just too weird and one-off while the Joe White already suggested it was designed to be appreciated in isolation as sculpture. You wouldn’t expect to see three or four of them in a living room. If I had to say which is the most different I’d say the Blow inflatable because, despite its material and construction, it’s basically an armchair that forces you to sit upright whereas the other three suggest new and different ways of sitting. Weird as it is, we can imagine what it would be like to lounge in a Pratone, curling up on a Joe White or stretching out on a Sacco. These chairs didn’t reinvent sitting but they did encourage an informality suited to more laidback times. The furniture of sixties’ favourite Joe Colombo has it’s moments, but is generally stuffy by comparison.

I get this. I can understand why one might want to lay down on a sofa and read a book or perhaps have a quick nap, but I’ve never understood the attraction of sofas as a way to sit. I’m most relaxed when slouching, two feet planted firmly on the ground or perhaps only one, the other slung over the arm of a chair. My dream chair for doing this is the 1990’s Gigi Armhair by Gerard van den Berg for Label. It’s wide enough to slouch or sit sideways and the swivel is a bonus for added freedom. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it costs about $3,800. It’s a handsome chair but, if I were to choose a chair on the basis of something to look at alone, I would probably choose the 1948 Eames Chaise Longue. The two may each have five legs but that’s about all they have in common. At $8,700, the Eames chair is more than double the cost of the Gigi despite having fewer components and simpler construction. It could do with a cushion, and thinking this makes me think it’s not that easy to detach comfort from looks.

I searched online for the Gigi Armchair but it was well out of my rice range. I did however find this next chair that somehow reminded me of those red chairs in the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It didn’t swivel but it looked like it’d allow some serious slouching. I bought one and it did, so I bought two more.

About six months later I learned it was the Groovy Chair, designed by Pierre Paulin sometime in the 1970’s. I’d love to see some photographs of it looking groovy in the 1970’s instead of these shots of it in contemporary interiors. He was France’s foremost 20th century furniture designer. Shamefully, I’d never heard of him.

1970s French Furniture Designers

Pierre Paulin

Paulin was born in 1927 and, influenced by Scandinavian and Japanese design, had his first exhibition as a furniture designer in 1953. An early interest of his was stretching swimwear materials over traditionally made chairs. His first major success was the 1960 Mushroom Chair, but before this was (from left) the 1959 Orange Slice Chair and after, the 1967 Tongue Chair and 1968 Ribbon Chair. His innovation was to add foam and rubber layers to a lightweight metal frame and then stretch fabric over it to produce curved and comfortable shapes. Despite being armchairs, only Ribbon Chair has the closest to what could be called “arms”. Orange Slice Chair is the most prescriptive in terms of sitting position, Ribbon Chair and Tongue Chair equal next, and Mushroom Chair the least. I realized I had been misremembering Ribbon Chair as the chair I thought I saw in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There’s a Pierre Paulin website that will tell you more about the man and designer, and also show you pieces that are still in production, many of which are Paulin’s trademark stretched fabric over foam over metal frame. Paulin’s most famous chairs all feature the absence of wood bit it’s the curves and the solid bright colors that give them their seventies vibe.

There’s also this website which showcases and sells many of Paulin’s other designs and it was here I found Groovy Chair, designed sometime in the 1970s – a seventies’ dates are rarely precise. Perhaps it’s because the 1970s don’t seem distant enough to warrant historical accuracy. Or perhaps we’re used to using “seventies” as shorthand to denote a particular style. Anyway. There is also a huge modular sofa called Ensemble Dune that has something of a conversation pit feel about it. Modular anything was big in the seventies but especially with audio equipment and furniture and sofas in particular.

Wikipedia tells me Paulin’s designs were widely popular during their time and this supposedly means good sales. His designs seemed to embody not only the times but also the place, France, because Paulin was recommended by Mobilier National to design furniture for the Louvre and chosen by the then French President Pompidou to redesign their apartments at the Elysées Palace. Here’s what he did. [photos from here] From left to right are the dining room, the smoking room and a suite called the Paulin Apartment.

Olivier Morgue

Wikipedia also tells me that Paulin’s designs were widely popular during their time and have influenced different designers such as Olivier Mourgue who designed the Djinn chairs that were featured in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. If Morgue had been influenced by Paulin’s mid-sixties furniture then I wasn’t completely wrong as Djinn Lounge Chair does share some DNA after all. This name djinn sounded familiar. djinn: an invisible spirit mentioned in the Koran and believed by Muslims to inhabit the earth and influence mankind by appearing in the form of humans or animals.

Olivier Morgue did most of his most important work in the 1960s. From left to right below are his 1968 Cubique Chair, the 1970s Bouloum Fabric Lounge Chair, the Djinn Chair he designed in 1963 when he was 24, and the Djinn Lounge Chair from circa 1964. The design is not recognizably Paulin’s but the materials and process of manufacture seem similar.

Michel Ducaroy

Designed “sometime in the 1970s”, Ducarory’s most enduring design is the Togo Sofa which is modular and has 3-seater, two seater, corner, lounge chair and ottoman modules.

Pierre Gaurice

Gaurice is more of a 1950s and 1960s designer with his economical and colourful designs that seem familiar yet refreshing at the same time. The lounge below is his 1962 Vallée Blanche Lounge Chair. You can find out more about him here.

The reception area Gaurice designed in 1970-71 for the Hôtel Méridien on Boulevard Gouvion Saint-Cyr in Paris was rather fabulous, featuring what may be his Belgian Bullet Luna Lounge Chair from 1961. The hotel is now called the Hôtel Méridien Etoile and the lobby area has been given at least one makeover since. The second image is its current incarnation.

The current design includes what looks like examples of 1970s French furniture design but without the e’sprit nouveau or joie de vivre of any era – unless we see ours in a token individuality within a controlling order? I’m no particular fan of the 1970s. The world was far from perfect but there was still a feeling it could be a better place and that design could make a difference to our lives. In any case, we learned to be satisfed with less.

In the mid-1980s, after his success working for presidents Pompidou and Mitterand, Pierre Paulin released a range of furniture with the emphasis on “craftsmanship”. This is not to say his earlier furniture wasn’t well crafted. It’s just that this new craftsmanship was very much the old craftsmanship displayed by polished wood, joinery and upholstery. [see more pics here] Paulin’s family-run legacy website claims these limited edition pieces foresaw the era of furniture as collectible. This was in tune with 1980s drive to commodify everything, and design detaching itself from the popular market and its needs. The Bauhaus has a dubious legacy. It did separate the process of design from the process of manufacture to make design the main value-adding component and throwing craftspersons under the bus at the same time. What Paulin did was reverse Bauhaus in that he re-linked design and craftsmanship, but Bauhaus 2.0 in that the designers and the craftspersons were still different people. The ostensible aim of Bauhaus 1.0 was to make good design more accessible even if the masses weren’t exactly clamoring for designer tea services factory made from metal. Paulin may not have invented the idea of furniture as collectible art, but he saw the writing on the wall.

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