‘A chair is the ultimate design challenge’, says Fredrik Paulsen, designer and curator of Back 2 Back, deliberately echoing what has become a truism within the profession. In this exhibition, twelve contemporary designers, working with different techniques and materials, take on the stuff of legends: the chair.
In its design, a chair is subject to very specific requirements: a seat, a backrest and usually, but not always, legs to support it all. But within these seemingly restrictive requirements remains the potential for an infinite range of designs. Indeed, it is possible to tell the history of design in the past 150 years through a sequence of chairs. That story usually begins with Thonet – the Austrian manufacturer who pioneered the use of bentwood, the abolishment of craftsmanship and the industrialisation of furniture making – and continues with Marcel Breuer’s use of tubular steel, Alvar Aalto’s use of plywood, and Charles and Ray Eames’s use of plastics.
This pedagogical devise has been used in everything from the promotional posters by Vitra, to a plethora of museum collections across the world, in which chairs are placed together to mark the progress of time. With a similar display of studio-based work produced in the last year, this show begs the question: what makes a chair iconic?
While playing with the idea of a design canon, this exhibition highlights a sociological aspect inherent in every chair. A chair is a piece of furniture intended for one user at a time, it is flexible and can easily be moved around. As Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory goes, every object that changes a situation is an agent (regardless of whether it is a human, a cat or a chair). The question is, does this agent make a difference to another agent’s behaviour?
The answer is yes. Although a chair doesn’t make us sit down nor control our instincts, it can influence, encourage, permit, enable and forbid our actions. In some contexts, like in modern schools and learning facilities, rows of chairs are questioned, whereas group seating is suggested to encourage students to engage with each other and the teaching. In other settings, however, such as a train station or an airport, chairs tend to be fixated. The chair then instructs the user that there’s an authorised way of sitting, one that usually prevents eye contact and interaction. A chair is also a marker of status beyond its visual and material properties. In parliament, at the theatre, or at a best friend’s wedding, the location of your chair reveals a relative scale of political, economic or social influence.
Here the chairs are placed back to back in a succession. At the same time, the title refers to a double act commonly found in the DJ booth, where two DJs stand back to back. While one is spinning a record, the other is preparing the next track. It is in such collaborative spirit that the designers work here stands together, despite the chairs not facing each other. Although, every chair in this exhibition has been conceived in a separate studio, they are also the result of an ongoing exchange of ideas between friends and colleagues. These designers have each other’s backs, so to speak.