People Sitting in Chairs, and the Designers Who Created Them

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SAS Royal Hotel with a woman seated in a Model no. 3110 chair© Fritz Hansen, courtesy of Laurence King

What are the factors necessary to turn a well-designed chair into an icon of its generation? Milly Burroughs investigates

From making a seat to taking a seat, there’s power in parking your posterior. We’re all familiar with the potent nuances spotted in awkwardly choreographed routines of sitting and standing as familiar groups navigate formal dinners and business exchanges. Equally, in popular culture the chair has become symbolic of soliloquy and profound isolation – think Christine Keeler astride an Arne Jacobsen classic, or a Bond villain swivelling ominously in his leather throne. Much like the visual references that end up defining them, thoughtfully designed chairs have the capacity to become icons of a generation and go on to dictate the narratives of environments built around them. 

As celebrated in Modern Scandinavian Design – a new book from design aficionados Charlotte and Peter Fiell and furniture expert Magnus Englund – the work of designers such as Verner Panton forces us to explore and actively engage with disruptive perspectives on interaction. Panton’s innovation was comprehensive and influenced design in many ways. His eponymous stacking chair challenged both traditional aesthetics and the use of new materials in furniture. His approach enchanted the design world he lived in, and continues to capture the imagination of those charged with creating images which project the contagious yet unattainable social discomfort presented by pop culture stars; one of Vogue’s most instantly recognisable covers is Nick Knight’s 1995 shot of a nude Kate Moss perched awkwardly on a chair Panton designed to fit the human body like a glove.

Many would argue that what separates design from art is its problem-solving purpose. For years after Edison invented the commercially viable electric bulb in 1879, people searched for a way to eliminate glare without reducing the amount of light available. Poul Henningsen thought of it over a cup of coffee. It was the winter of 1925–26 when the designer experienced his lightbulb moment. Today, the PH lamps created for Louis Poulsen can be seen in interiors around the world, and the product looks as contemporary now as it did in the 1939 Copenhagen ‘demonstration room’ he designed so that potential customers could lean back in their chairs and gaze up at the constellation of pendants. 

Similarly, Arne Jacobsen’s famous Drop chair is still in production, whereas the hotel it was designed for has almost completely disappeared. Room 606 is the last surviving original interior of Copenhagen’s SAS Building, and the hotel has become something of a shrine. Design-lovers flock to the 274-room destination with only one in mind. A product of 1950s glamour and a fascination with sculptural furniture design, Jacobsen’s pale turquoise haven is a “tour de force of International Modernism” and now acts as a flawlessly preserved time capsule for those wishing to experience an age of all-consuming Scandi-euphoria.

Eero Aarnio’s painfully over-replicated 1962 Ball chair is another example of instantly recognisable Scandinavian design. Despite debuting more than 50 years ago at Cologne Furniture Fair, the spherical piece – a product of Aarnio’s wish to smudge the boundaries of art and design – continues to find itself leading narratives of futuristic living defined by the optimism of postmodernist themes.

Considering the inherent childishness associated with modern Scandinavian products, it’s hardly surprising that some of the best examples were designed specifically for a pre-teen demographic. Nanna and Jørgen Ditzel’s toadstool is another Danish export, and demonstrates a perfectly executed desire to address the differences in how children experience design, and to cater to their imagination rather than stifle it. The result is a bottom-heavy, stackable stool. One photograph in particular shows the designers’ neighbour’s daughter sat on it while simultaneously admiring a perfectly balanced tower, slightly too tall to have been created by the girl herself.

Modern Scandinavian Design is out now, published by Laurence King.