furniture design

furniture design
   Absolute design values were widely rejected after the 1951 Festival of Britain (Seago 1995). A culturally determined, standardized style and ethos neither suited automated manufacture nor the approaches of a new generation of contemporary designers. The emergence of a pluralist attitude to furniture design in Britain reflected European and American developments in postmodernism and the avant-garde. Aspects of popular culture and technical innovation are clearly demonstrated in the collection of twentieth-century chairs at the Design Museum in London.
   Antelope Chair (1951), designed by Ernest Race, is a typical example of the British Contemporary Style (Woodham 1997). Bent metal rod, manipulated into a fluid structural support for a plyformed seat, is more reminiscent of light aircraft production than traditional furniture manufacturing techniques of the 1950s. This new look shared influences with the work of influential European designers including Arne Jacobsen (Ant Chair for Fritz Hansen, 1953). As British designers continued to explore the possibilities provided by new production and material technologies during the 1960s, Robin Day’s ubiquitous Polypropylene Stacking Chair for Hille (1962) demonstrated how an innovative manufacturer combined contemporary design with new technology (Garner 1980).
   American architect Charles Eames was a major influence on the work of many British designers including Fred Scott. Scott’s philosophy of restraint, informed by a careful study of ergonomics and a fluent knowledge of material and production technology, placed him at the centre of a new modernist movement. His Supporto Chair (1979) is widely acclaimed as a twentieth-century design classic.
   Leading architects have helped to raise awareness of innovations related to contract furniture design; for example Norman Foster’s Nomos Conference Tables for Tecno (1986) and Francis Duffy’s expertise in office system design have informed many British manufacturers. However, the most important influence on the emergence of the British new wave is the interest and commitment of design entrepreneurs such as Zeev Aram, Terence Conran and Sheridan Coakley. Terence Conran changed the complexion of British furniture when the King’s Road Habitat store opened in 1964. Much new design came from Conran’s studios, as many young designers aspired to work in his Covent Garden consultancy during the 1970s and 1980s. By example, he encouraged a new generation of designers to set up small workshops in London and other major cities. An exhibition of Modern Chairs at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1970 featured over one hundred designs by an eclectic mix of international designers. Reyner Banham wrote: ‘However you look at it, the area worst blighted by “furniturization” lies right under the human arse. Check the area under yours at the moment’ (Glazebrook 1970). The exhibition paid little attention to the pop movement of the 1960s, as there was only one notable inclusion: the inflatable Blow Chair by Zanotta (1967). The Whitechapel exhibition raised the profile of European furniture and, in 1971, British designers Jane and Charles Dillon pioneered a working relationship with the Milanese studio of Ettore Sotsass. It was his Memphis Studio that became the influential voice of postmodern design in the early 1980s (Sparke 1987).
   Meanwhile, Ron Arad and colleagues at the Architectural Association (AA) rejected postmodern design as ephemeral (Sudjic 1989). Arad studied at the AA until 1979, in a time of experimentation and the pursuit of architectural ideas over technique. His Rover Chair, designed in 1981, utilizes car seats as ‘creative salvage’. After working for leading European furniture manufacturers in the 1980s and 1990s, Arad was appointed by the Royal College of Art (RCA) as Professor of Furniture Design in 1988. Many British manufacturers failed to meet the aspirations of young designers, and a rift opened between what architects prescribed and what manufacturers were producing. Spurred on by what was happening in Italy, enterprising designers such as Rodney Kinsman of OMK (Dormer 1987) began to compete for the attention of influential architects during the 1980s by organizing design and production. At the forefront of this movement were Peter Christian and Paul Chamberlain of Flux. In the mid-1990s, London reclaimed its reputation as a leading centre for fashion and the arts, and a small number of furniture designers including Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton and Ross Lovegrove emerged as members of a European furniture design elite. Morrison’s designs for batch production in the mid-1980s utilized manufacturing processes outside the mainstream British furniture industry. A typical example of this approach is the Laundry Box Chair. In 1986 he wrote: ‘he (the designer) builds his own factory, not with bricks, but from the sprawling backstreets teeming with services and processes for materials both common and uncommon to his trade’ (Dormer 1990).
   Sheridan Coakley’s patronage of Matthew Hilton and others helped to raise European awareness of young British design talent and in 1995, Hilton designed the Orion Armchair for the prestigious Aleph brand at Driade in Milan. By promoting a disparate group of individual furniture designers as ‘the inventors of cult objects’, Driade developed the reputation as a creative hothouse rather than a manufacturer of furniture. In 1997, Ross Lovegrove (highly regarded and recognized for his outstanding creativity in Europe and America) joined the Aleph group to design the Spider, Spin and Bluebelle. His new ‘biomorphic’ designs were made possible by the ‘freedom to think about objects using advanced technology in a contemporary context’. Few British furniture manufacturers have challenged the Italian ‘dream factory’ ethos. John Coleman’s Zupo Chairs (1997) for Allermuir (Rich 1998) combine craft and design excellence in a uniquely British style. This successful partnership between design and manufacture in Britain is indicative of a newfound confidence.
   Further reading
    Dormer, P. (1987) The New Furniture, London: Thames & Hudson.
    Garner, P. (1980) Twentieth Century Furniture, Oxford: Phaidon.
    Glazebrook, M. (ed.) (1970) Modern Chairs, London: The Whitechapel Art Gallery.
    Rich, T. (1998) ‘Lancashire Hotshots’, Design Week 22(5): 12–15.
    Seago, A. (1995) Burning the Box of Beautiful Things, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Sparke, P. (1987) Design in Context, London: Bloomsbury.
    Sudjic, D. (1989) Ron Arad: Restless Furniture, London: Fourth Estate.
    Woodham, J. (1997) Twentieth Century Design, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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