Objects of desire

14th March 2003 at 00:00
If you thought chairs were for sitting on, go visit an exhibition where design rules, says Chris Fautley

I think I'm in love. The object of my desire is DKR-2, she of the curvaceous and voluptuous figure-hugging frame, she of the Eiffel Tower-shaped legs and amply padded upholstery nicknamed the bikini. Yes, this bent and welded steel-rod lattice-shelled beauty, designed in 1951 by Charles and Ray Eames, is the answer to the seemingly unattainable: a comfortable workstation chair. And I find it at the London Design Museum's latest exhibition, A Century of Chairs.

I arrive open-minded, figuring that here exclusivity, materialism and aestheticism rank level with - if not above - functionality. Damp;T students will find much to feed the mind, although a simple question will assure weeks of debate: have chairs evolved through design - or technology?

Should you, somehow, exhaust the possibilities there, you can spend considerable time comparing and contrasting the exhibits' function, target market, comfort, shape, colour, size, materials and texture. Worksheets for key stages 1 to 4 are available to inspire, together with workshops and discussion groups. There is also a separate handling collection based on folding chairs.

The exhibition comprises about 60 chairs of eye-popping variety. Design classics by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, recycle-friendly pieces by Philippe Starck, and the revolutionary work of the Eames partnership. There's even a chair from the king of minimalism, IKEA.

Computer terminals enable you to log on to the museum's website to learn more about the designers. (If you are unable to visit the exhibition, it's an invaluable resource in its own right.) Ifound it a good place to start, with excellent background information about chairs and individual case studies. It is also where I made the acquaintance of DKR-2. You can try about two dozen exhibits for yourself - such as the PlayStation chair resembling a chaise longue, and a child's chair made from recycled plastic bottles. The rest are arranged according to theme. Among the items featured in "Metal", I discover a piece, best described as a unicycle without a wheel, by Achille Castiglione. A telephone stool, apparently. Design at work, I conclude.

Meanwhile, from the corner of my eye, I observe a student seemingly asleep in the PlayStation, while across the room a stifled "Argh" heralds somebody trying Harry Bertoia's 1952 steel wire Diamond Chair. Ah well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Back at the "Wood" area, I find work by Frank O Ghery, whose Wiggle Side Chair is made from 60 layers of corrugated cardboard and hardboard. Another one for design protagonists.

"Plastic" (for the technologists), features Mark Newson's blue Fibreglass Felt Chair, inspired by surfers who make their own boards, plus various takes on the stacking chair.

Finally, "Upholstery" - including another remarkable piece by the Eames - Lounge Chair and Ottoman. The entire thing moves to adapt to the sitter's posture But it is DKR-2 that wins my heart, notwithstanding one tiny difficulty. No castors. Not a problem. I'll bolt them to my desk.

Two I wouldn't want at home...

High-backed Chair for Ingram Street Tearooms (Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1900) Mackintosh famously designed interiors and furniture for four of Miss Cranston's Glasgow tearooms. This piece, for the ladies' luncheon room, is of dark-stained oak; its back, boldly erect and comprising a frame with two broad central vertical bars, is more than five feet high. The seat is well upholstered in blue and black fine-check fabric. Maybe Miss Cranston did not want her customers to be too comfortable - or perhaps the posture of Glaswegian ladies was different then. A design classic, none the less.

Chair for the Turin Faculty of Architecture (Carlo Mollino, 1962) An architect, photographer and racing car driver, Mollino also designed furniture. Another solid oak piece, although lighter in colour. With no upholstery, the seat is carved to produce a rippled effect. The legs are grooved and taper to a point, while the back is about four feet high, resembling an inverted wishbone; it thus affords little support. I spent an age trying to get comfortable in this and failed.

and one I would...

Tree Trunk Bench (Jurgen Bey, 1999) This chair is an enormous surprise. The seat is a tree trunk, (some 12 feet long and two in diameter), into which are inserted three bronze seat-backs resembling dining chairs. Of the three "chairs" thus created, one is remarkably comfortable - at least for short spells - affording supreme back support. The downside is that the bark presumably leaves an imprint on your derri re. The other two chairs are less comfortable, but I could have happily taken this home.

A Century of Chairs, until October 26. Groups must book, pound;3.50 per student, KS1-4 free. Workshops and talks by arrangement, from pound;4 per head. The Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1 2YDTel: 020 7940 8782 or email: education@designmuseum.orgwww.designmuseum.org

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