Compared with its recent exhibitions of paintings on copper and works from ancient Egypt, the Phoenix Art Museum's "Great Design: 100 Masterpieces From the Vitra Design Museum" is a welcomed dive back to the commonplace. Instead of rarities and treasures, it features objects familiar to just about everyone's backside.
It is a show of chairs.
The 100 here are a small sampling from the 1,800-piece furniture collection of the Vitra Design Museum--a spin-off from the Vitra company, a renowned Swiss firm that has been producing furniture since the mid-1950s. Over the years, its stable of designers has included Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Mario Bellini, Philippe Starck and others.
Yet the collection--and this show--goes far beyond those designers. It includes some well-known monuments to sitting by the likes of Eero Saarinen, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld and other notables from the pantheon of 20th-century design.
The works are arranged loosely around the themes of technology, construction, reduction, organic design, decoration and manifesto. The idea being that some furniture exemplifies these basic areas better than others. Yet most of the chairs here reflect all of the above.
The exhibition covers the past 150 years. Yet most of the chairs were made in the past 75. So they cover the binge of invention that modern materials, processes and thinking have brought to old assumptions about the function and appearance of basic household and office furnishings.
This is very much a show about Modernism's impact on one object. Even people who despise Modernism's reductivist approach--and there are plenty of them--would have to say that few other cultural tides have had a greater impact on the way people see and use the manmade things around them.
In the case of chairs, mass production gave designers the power to put their ideas and sensibilities under every tush. It's evident that modern materials and methods enabled designers to turn the chair's traditional post-and-beam wooden construction into increasingly refined experiments in form.
Some on view here are exuberantly playful. Verner Panton's "Pantower," for instance, is half jungle gym, half climbing sofa, which only the wacky 1960s could have produced. Gruppo Strum's "Pratone," shaped and colored like enlarged blades of grass, is another pop gem. Yet most of the chairs wear the stern faces that Modernism gave its practitioners and followers. Works by Rietveld, Ludwig van der Rohe, Corbusier, Saarinen and the Eameses, to name just a handful, were more than just chairs. They were sleek embodiments of an entire movement--sitting utensils that broke old molds and set new standards that we still haven't surpassed or escaped.
Since its introduction in 1860, Michael Thonet's chair number 14 with the bentwood back has been a regular of bistros, restaurants and cafes all over the Western world. And you can easily see the license its looping grace and structure may have given Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer and other designers to create tubular steel-framed chairs.
One of the primary distinctions of many of these works is their visible fittings and joinery. Structure became the new ornament. And the old style of ornament, as architect Adolf Loos once put it, became a crime.
Thonet's, van der Rohe's and Breuer's innovations were just the beginning of a trend that moved designers to replace the post-and-beam structure of traditional chairs with sweeping lines that rose from the floor and doubled back on themselves to support a cantilevered seat.
Such sculptural gestures did more than unleash chairs from their rectilinear confines. They goaded subsequent designers to see the lyrical simplicity that bent and laminated wood and constructions of tubular metal allowed. If four legs could be turned into a sweeping set of connected lines, why not reduce the entire structure--as Gerald Summers did--to a single piece of molded, undulating plywood?
The driving force behind the simplicity of many of the works here was mass production. It imposed an economy on both the materials and processes used to make forms. So you see designers attempting to do the most with the least. Arne Jacobsen's "Ant Chair" is a gem of stackability. The well-worn slogan that resounds through most of the works is "less is more."
But not everyone viewed it that way. Plenty of people saw--and still see--the simplifying forces of industry turning less into less. Less comfort. Less practicality. Less in familiar textures, details and materials. Less in just about everything that had given chairs their humanity and warmth. Some observers have accused Modern design of swapping coziness for cold, bare structure, and turning a thing of comfort into one of clinical correctness.
But few chairs are as cozy and comfy as Harry Bertoia's "Diamond" or Saarinen's aptly named "Womb Chair" or some of the recliners that the Eameses designed.
Modernism's party line was that these "forms followed function." But they and other equally comfortable and experimental chairs reveal that form didn't follow function nearly as much as it followed material. The use of new materials, such as plastic, fiberglass, polyester resin, acrylic, corrugated cardboard, urethane foam and wire- and chrome-plated steel tubes gave function a new range of possible forms. Forms that had never been seen before. Along the way, it transformed the very identity of usefulness and what people expected useful--not to mention desirable and beautiful--things to look like.
New materials made chairs like George Nelson's marvelous "Coconut," Bertoia's "Diamond," and Andre Bloch's "Bellevue" not just possible, but expected and almost ordinary.
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Modernists were once inclined to say that useful things were beautiful because they look like what they are. New planes, boats and cars have the aerodynamic and hydrodynamic sleekness of birds and fish--forms that had been visually and physically resolved through eons of purpose and evolution. But what defines the look of a modern--or even a postmodern--chair? Its back? Its legs? Its seat? Quick eye appeal is the more likely answer.
That might explain the absence here of any works by Edwin Shoemaker and his cousin Edward Knabusch--the true designers for the masses. They created a throne and a foot rest all in one. It's called the La-Z-Boy.
"Great Design: 100 Masterpieces From the Vitra Design Museum" continues through Sunday, June 27, at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central. For information call 602-257-1880.