Architects and Furniture


Alan Powers



There is a persistent tendency to simplify the story of design, in furniture no less than in other areas. 'Classic' status, once awarded, becomes self-reinforcing through museums, sale rooms and licensed reproduction and tends to be reflected back through historical accounts, which usually omit details of production beyond the original launch.

These pieces have become irretrievably implicated in a complex game of prestige and positioning and their later history will one day be recognised as an important aspect of the history of taste. They may be more durable than the tulips that were traded in 17th­century Holland, but their symbolic value is similarly divorced from their use value, and for this reason it is not in everyone's interest to lift the veil on the ways in which these few survivors came out on top of the evolutionary pile. Association with a famous architect or designer has certainly helped to forward the cult of the modern classic, despite being at odds with so many expressed Modernist intentions of anonymity and widespread availability.

What are the mechanics of the process by which architects have designed furniture during the 20th century? One might initially posit three different situations. First, architects design furniture in order to furnish their own buildings. This would cover most of the production of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work was not available in the open market in their lifetime. Had Giuseppe Terragni's tubular steel chair for the Casa del Fascia in Como of 1930 been made commercially available at the time, his name would surely rank as a furniture designer on the strength of a single piece that was more visually and constructionally beguiling than its better-known contemporaries.

This category extends also to a number of other designs which began as being specific to individual buildings, such as Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair or Alvar Aalto’s Paimio chair, both being put into production after their first appearance in the buildings (the Barcelona Pavilion 1929 and the Paimio Sanatorium 1931) after which they are named. Eileen Gray's designs were originally made in ones and twos for specific commissions, but only became more widely available after her death in 1976.

Second, architects design furniture speculatively at times of inactivity. Into this category would fall most of the furniture of Ernö Goldfinger, designed in London in the 1930s in the hope of making both money and reputation. After the Second World War, he became committed full-time to architecture, although still greatly interested in the details of furniture and fittings from an aesthetic and ergonomic viewpoint.

Goldfinger's plywood pieces have in fact been manufactured from the late 1990s onwards by his grandson Nicholas. Peter and Alison Smiths on seem to have designed furniture to fill the gaps bet ween buildings, as well as developing a fine sense of its intrinsic value in their own work and that of the Modernist pioneers. In a later generation, Ron Arad studied architecture at the Architectural Association (AA) in London but on leaving in 1979 found that his predilection for furniture coincided with an absence of attractive architectural opportunities.

Third, furniture is designed in collaboration with a manufacturer and distributor with the primary intention of achieving retail or contract sales. The architects will no doubt specify their own pieces for their own buildings, but their activity is not distinguishable from that of a designer who is not an architect. In this category comes the furniture of Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, most of that of Alvar Aalto, and Charles and Ray Eames, as well as less well-known designers such as Josef Franck, Finn Juhl and Kaare Klint.

Not all Modernist furniture designers have been architects, and some have become architects only after beginning their careers with furniture and interiors. Robin Day, for example, has designed systems for specific buildings including the Royal Festival Hall (1951), and Gatwick Airport by Yorke Rosenberg and Mardall in 1957. Three outstanding contributors to the culture of architecture - Gerrit Rietveld, Pierre Chareau (co-designer of the Maison de Verre, Paris) and Jean Prouvé - were not architects, but brought to the conception of buildings a new set of ideas and priorities derived from a designer's way of thinking laterally about materials and realising their expressive qualities.

Prouvé said: 'there is no basic difference between the building of furniture and the building of a house’.

It was a Modernist article of belief that the conventional trade education in any field would probably only produce stale thinking, and that a designer with the right outlook could aspire to a set of skills which, because they were not too specific, might open up new forms and production methods. Chareau, Prouvé and Eileen Gray were consequently excluded for many years from the history of architecture.

In English Modernism of the 1930s, Wells Coates and Serge Chermayeff both designed furniture and interiors before launching into architecture, for which neither had any formal training. Chermayeff, having recently left Waring and Gillow, signalled his conversion to Modernist principles by setting up a company, PLAN Ltd, in 1932 that manufactured under licence unit furniture designed by Franz Schuster of Vienna, a collaborator of Ernst May in the Frankfurt housing schemes, and chairs based on designs by Knoll of Stuttgart.

There have been other furniture designers who simply avoided getting involved in the architectural process at any point. In England, the most notable from the inter-war period was Gerald Summers, whose bent ply armchair of 1934 formed from a single piece sheet of material has belatedly achieved some of the fame accorded to Aalto and Breuer.

The involvement of an entrepreneur could make all the difference between a piece becoming famous only as a prototype, thereby frustrating the intention of multiple production implied in Modernism, and its actual multiplication. Furniture production attracted some part-time enthusiasts in the 1930s such as the historian Sigfried Giedion, with his Wohnbedarf company in Switzerland, who was able to use his contacts among architect members of the Congrès lnternationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), of which he was founder and secretary. For Jack Pritchard, whose lsokon company was patron and manufacturer of Breuer’s wooden pieces of the 1930s, this was one component in a varied intellectual and business life. Pritchard nurtured the production of the Breuer pieces through the remainder of his long life, and his descendants have once more arranged for their production in London.  Neither of these men was a conventional businessman, and perhaps had they been more focused on profits they would not have chosen the furniture designs they did.

Among the post-war production stories, the Hille company is notable since it existed from the early years of the century onwards and made reproduction pieces, but in the hands of its third generation it changed over to modern design and a contract system of distribution after the Second World War. Robin Day became its chief designer, but only because Leslie and Rosamind Julius, young directors of Hille, saw his work at MOMA in New York in 1949.

The Thonet company was crucial to the wide distribution of a number of pieces which through this attention became 'classics’, including Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair, No B3 (1925), and Mies van der Rohe’s cantilevered chair No MR533 (1927). The Breuer chair was first made by Standard Möbel before Thonet took it over, and Alexander van Vegesack notes in his 1996 history of Thonet that it failed to sell widely until it was relaunched in the 1960s by Gavina of Bologna, with the name Wassily attached to it for the first time. Le Corbusier, a devotee of Thonet's bentwood café chairs, such as Model No14 (1859-60) and the Vienna Chair, Model No 9 (1902-03), with continuous back and arms, was involved from 1930 with Thonet for the production of seven of the pieces designed by Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret and himself, and shown at the Salon d'Automne in 1929. The fact that the French company Thonet Frères had branches in many different countries through the multinational Thonet-Mundus, based in Vienna, was an added incentive to working with them, although George H Marcus, in his book Inside Le Corbusier: the Machine for Living In (2000) records that Mart Stam’s much less well-known tubular pieces sold better from the Thonet catalogues during the 1930s. Piracy of the designs was also a problem from the beginning.

The later history of the pieces shows how in Le Corbusier's lifetime they shifted position from being modern to becoming modern classics. Initially Corbusier's fan Heidi Weber in Zurich arranged a limited edition re-release in 1959, in collaboration with Hans Girsberger, the publisher of Le Corbusier's Oeuvre Complète. Charlotte Perriand's name was dropped from the attribution, although she continued to receive a third share of the royalties. Then in 1965, the year of the architect's death, Cassina of Milan, which has changed the course of furniture history by a series of such resurrectionist moves, began production with construction details modified by the master.

The production of Alvar Aalto’s furniture offers one of the most consistent stories of close collaboration and continuity. His earliest designs were a deliberate attempt to remedy what he saw as the coldness of tubular steel furniture (several pieces of which he owned himself) by using wood, ironically going back to the material the use of which by Thonet inspired the metal chairs. The stacking chair was commissioned by Otto Korhoren, the technical manager of Huonekalutehdas in Turku in 1928, and first used in one of Aalto’s buildings in the Turku exhibition of 1929. The sequence resumed in 1931 with pieces for Paimio, and in 1933 Aalto’s pieces began to be exhibited and sold internationally, including a showing at Fortnum and Mason in London which led to the establishment of the Finmar company in England, partly under the direction of the architectural writer P Morton Shand.

Research by Kevin Davies has revealed that Finmar supplied 24 retail outlets, in London, Bristol and Edinburgh. Aalto’s pieces were remarkably cheap, partly owing to the low labour costs in Finland at the time, but supplies were erratic until Shand and his associate Geoffrey Boumphrey suggested to the Helsinki gallery owner Maire Gullichsen that she should start the Artek company to manage production, which nonetheless remained based at Korhonen’s factory as before. This turned out to be an inspired move, for not only has Artek served Aalto’s reputation well by continuing production, but the introduction provided the basis for the Gullichsen’s commission of the Villa Mairea. Finmar was restarted in London in 1949 by the Dane, Paul Ernst Stemann, originally a journalist. Aalto’s furniture was less favoured during the 1950s and 60s than Danish and Swedish pieces that suited the style of the period better.

In addition to Cassina, the TECTA company in Germany has enriched the range of design classics with pieces by Prouvé, Breuer, Mies (with Lilly Reich) and the Smithsons.

None of these stories of skilful interweaving between the designer and the consumer can compare, however, with the focus brought by the Vitra company to the whole concept of modern furniture, and particularly the modern chair, in the last two decades of the 20th century. The importance of the subject has been emphasised at Vitra by a combination of scholarship and production that has skilfully conferred many of the attributes of antique furniture on pieces which, in their contemporary production, have escaped the taint of being ‘reproduction’. The combination of international touring exhibitions, servicing the design museums of the world, with ‘collectible’ buildings at the company’s headquarters at Weil am Rhein by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando, has provided the requisite number of layers of cultural dressing for a series of designs that makes the whole enterprise more typical of Post-Modernism than of Modernism. The production of miniature versions of some of the company's favourite models by Bertoia or Eames exemplifies a deliberate separation of the image of the furniture from its function.

The history of pre-1939 modern furniture, particularly the pieces designed by architects, can now hardly be separated from its post-war meta-history, often leading to a wilful confusion between Modernism then and Modernism now, since pieces of fifty or more years ago are upheld as ‘timeless’ classics. The cult of the signature architect has contributed not a little to the canonisation.

Furniture has so frequently been seen as subsidiary to architecture that the counter-argument has never been fully tested. Richard Weston's monograph on Aalto (Phaidon 1995) shows how Aalto’s important shift from Functionalism to organic form, inspired by Moholy-Nagy, first bore fruit in his furniture designs. Did Charlotte Perriand’s choice of pony skin as a covering for the chaise longue in 1928 help to stimulate Le Corbusier in a similar direction, as William Curtis suggests? Peter Smithson may have the last word in his book Flying Furniture (1999) with Karl Unglaub, quoting from a text of 1965:

what I most admired about Rietveld was his quietness. His seemed to me to be the only pattern of behaviour for a true architect. Rietveld touched only small things, each was given a life of its own, enriching the town (usually his home town) for its own ordinary sake. But it sometimes turned out to be a world event touching everyone.


Originally published in Furniture + Architecture. Architectural Design, 2002.

With thanks to Alan Powers.




METAL WORK by W.A.S. Benson