From Their Seats: The Legacy of the Modern Chair at the Art Institute of Chicago

Stepping into the Modern Chair gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, one is greeted by a small audience of seats. Among them sits a curvy wooden lounge chair from 1946; Gerrit Rietveld’s Red-Blue Chair, circa 1921; Rudolph Schindler’s sleek Wilshire Medical Office Side Chair, created in 1943; a metal mesh diamond chair designed by Harry Bertoia in 1952; and, in the very back, the 1933 Chaise Longue, covered in plush cowhide and topped with a pillow.

Chaise Lounge Chair Designed 1928 by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand
Chaise Longue
Designed 1928 by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand

This little collection, located in Gallery 285 of the Modern Wing, displays some of the engineering marvels that launched twentieth century chair design into the modern ideal of the chair. Its glass doors draw open to a proud set of seats: twelve chair models, each unique in its own right, yet corresponding in character like a group of good friends. Wood, metal, fiberglass; recliners, office seats, loungers—all slyly aesthetic and angled for comfort.

Greeting viewers into the gallery, a guard stands beside the door, smiling at the guests and keeping watch over the chairs.

Wilshire Medical Office Side Chair Designed about 1943 by Rudolph Schindler
Wilshire Medical Office Side Chair
Designed about 1943 by Rudolph Schindler

As guests walk through, she makes sure the chairs are serving their present function, which now, simply, is to be seen—do not touch, do not scoot, and by all means, do not SIT on these chairs.

Yet, one cannot discount, these chairs were created for the very act of sitting. Through this little irony, they are something almost of legend—works of art and feats in engineering, standing as homages to design. Made during the mid-pages of the twentieth century, these models were designed with form, function, and comfort in mind. Their creators (Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, and Charles and Ray Eames, to name a few) instigated breakthroughs in engineering through the manipulation of materials such as plywood, aluminum, and various fibers—materials that previously had been deemed far more stringent. The designers made them un-stringent, creating designs that were not only functioning, but formally appealing.

Now we are an audience to their marvel chairs. Transcending the simple purpose of having a place to sit, these chairs accumulated character with playful postures, poppy aesthetics, and ergonomic function. They have curves and poise and little hints of sass.

Red-Blue Chair Designed 1918 by Gerrit Rietveld
Red-Blue Chair
Designed 1918 by Gerrit Rietveld

They are stylish, smart, and they factor the form of the human body into every facet. With that, they received huge commercial success in their era, matching with the flowing, pop-culture feel of the times, while also offering comfortable places to flow right on into and take the load off. Succinctly, “the modern chair” became the forerunner of seating for the century to come.

And so the modern chair, once serving as a place for actual sitting, serves a new purpose. Enjoying their retirement in their humble little gallery at the Art Institute, these forerunners are now grandfathers, aged but relevant. Looking to these chairs, we are reminded of the comforts their designs have generated to the following generations of designs—stylish, timely, and fit for function.

The security guard glances at her watch as the last of the guests shuffle out. Viewers depart from a day at the museum, and go to take a load off their feet in the comfort of their own couches and recliners at home. As the doors to the gallery close, the chairs wait for the dawn of the next day, when another set of eyes can come to rest upon their seats.

The Modern Chair exhibit is part of the rotating Design Episode series at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is located in Gallery 285 on the second floor of the Modern Wing, and will run until October 2nd 2016.

Stephanie Lenchard Warren
Stephanie Lenchard Warren

Stephanie Lenchard Warren is a visual artist and nonfiction writer. Her work explores finding ourselves in nature as well as the nature in ourselves.