A chair is a chair is a chair, right? Wrong, says Hannah James. Photos: Yaeko Masuda.
For thousands of years, the chair – the self-same bog standard item we sit on every single day – was an article of state and dignity, used only by those in positions of privilege and importance. No ordinary household would have owned such luxuries. In fact, until the 16th century, all commoners were reduced to sitting on the floor or chests, benches and stools at best.
We have the Europeans, particularly those involved in the Renaissance, to thank for moving us up in life and into the arms – or armchairs as the case may be – of comfort.
Beginning in Italy in the 14th century, and spreading to the rest of Europe by the 16th century, this cultural movement profoundly influenced literature, philosophy, art, politics, science, religion and pretty much all other intellectual pursuits.
Pursuits that included every individual’s right to comfort, every individual’s right to decide where he can or cannot sit, every individual’s right to choose the chair over the floor. The result being that the chair soon became a standard item of furniture.
Not that there has ever been anything standard about the chair – no matter how commonplace an item it has become. One just has to look at the designs of today to see the truth in this. Solid gold and marble have given way to the luxury of leather and suede. Thrones have been cast aside for the comfort of the recliner and the ottoman. Blocks of wood on legs have made way for beanbags, egg-shaped pod chairs, squashy couches, motorised massage chairs. A sense of self-importance – which back then translated to uncomfortable, chairs built for prominence and placing – has been replaced by a sense of style. And always, from the moment the chair made contact with the posteriors of the masses, imaginative design and a close eye on fashion and trends have played a role in its development.
The chair has varied in size, shape and sturdiness to accessorise, if you will, the prevailing fashions of the time. The oversized hoop, crinoline and farthingale skirts of the 16th century, for example (some as wide as three grown women), called for a chair of almost monstrous proportions. When these fashion bumps (in the road) disappeared, thank God, chairs resumed more reasonable proportions. Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, dandies began appearing in costly, laced coats with tails that required careful handling…and showing off. A ‘conversation chair’ was thus designed, which enabled these fashionistas to sit in such a way as to leave valuable clothing free from creasing.
Today chair designs are less about clothing fashions and trends than about the chairs themselves. We see past and present designers like Philippe Starck, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Charles and Ray Eames delivering the chair a renaissance all of its own. A renaissance that sees chairs as the main attraction, must-have design objects of desire.
The Eames flexible lounge chair and ottoman was a revelation in comfort and style, becoming an icon of the modern age, both useable and aesthetic. Philippe Starck’s very modern reinvention of royal seats from the past, meanwhile, with chairs like the transparent Louis Ghost chair, a Louis XV-style chair in transparent and coloured polycarbonate, are sought after as both works of art and useful dining room objects. But perhaps it was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the pioneers of modern architecture back in the 1920s, who really made the world sit up and take notice with his Barcelona chair – today a world famous marvel of chrome, steel and leather.
Here in Bali there are plenty of shops selling both original designer and designer knock-off chairs. And while a lot of the manufacturers here in Bali focus on the use of wood to get bums off seats and into buying their product, it’s not all about the wood. In fact, there are those who won’t touch wooden furniture at all, preferring to use other natural and synthetic fibres, as well as a good dose of imagination. Nicolas Bour, from Deefusion, who stocks original designs from acclaimed New York-trained designer Kenneth Cobonpue, explains: “What has happened with wood in Indonesia is terrible, both it terms of the environment and the imagination. People sometimes tend to use the beauty of the wood to replace imagination when it comes to furniture design.”
Take one peep at the chairs showcased in Deefusion and nobody could accuse Nicolas and the designers he stocks of any such lack of imagination. Indeed, Kenneth’s ‘Dragnet’ chair is so original and imaginative that known fashion mavens and design buffs Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie own one in green.
Of course, being in Bali, “the copy capital of the world”, as Nicolas puts it, any original designers run the risk of being copied into mass popularity. Nicolas is not too worried, though. “There are two types of client,” he explains, “those who buy the original and are happy to pay for quality; and those who buy cheap copies of the original.” Where do you fit in?
Jose from Manuela Productions agrees that quality is key when it comes to standing out from the chair stacks in Bali. While they aren’t above seeking inspiration elsewhere – Manuela Productions does a chair very similar in style to the famous Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair – his company is all about the quality. Producing primarily sofas in both customised designs and from catalogue, Jose stresses the use of “best quality imported fabrics and foam to ensure a product that is of hotel quality standard.”
For Anmarie from iBal Designs, The Orchard, quality should sit comfortably alongside form and function. “A great chair is both sculptural and functional. That elusive ‘wow’ factor will get the editorial buzz but there is no point making a sensational looking chair that is uncomfortable or unstable.” For her, Marc Newson’s “uber-cool gleaming metallic Lockheed Lounge, designed over 20 years ago and recently auctioned for US$1,500,000,” fits the bill. “Madonna may have lounged on it sexily in her Rain video but the Lockheed was the star,” she says.
From the selection at The Orchard, Anmarie’s favourite would have to be “the Slant Rocker featured in this story. Children love the rocking motion, teens cocoon themselves busily text messaging and oldies always giggle about not being able to get up but want to give it a try. I love the outdoors version in teak with a bright Sunbrela cushion.”
Aside from form and function, Anmarie is inspired by the “wonderful natural materials in Indonesia – beautiful woods, bamboo, rattan, shell, coconut, shagreen – as well as the incredible talents of the local craftsmen. I’ve just returned from Paris for Maison et Objet,” she says, “which is the world’s premier design show. Interestingly, the stands generating the most buzz and crowds were from Asia, where our huge range of natural materials were combined with cutting-edge design.” That said, Anmarie does wish local Bali designers “would create more trends. It breaks my heart to see Indonesia’s precious hardwoods wasted on hideous chairs in ‘luxury’ villas. Other Asian countries like Thailand and especially the Philippines are far more innovative and design driven. We have the same materials, skills and imagination available here, but not the emphasis on design education and nurturing a local design culture.”
Abhi, from Word of Mouth, a slick new design-driven furniture shop on Jl. Kunti, agrees that Bali designers currently tend to follow trends rather than introduce them. “Most things I am seeing in Bali seem to be restrained or restricted by what sells well, rather than what is free from market influences. Which is strange given that there is such a concentration of mad and eccentric people on the island. I think things are going to get madder in terms of design and creativity. I certainly hope so…”
For Abhi, “madder” design means combining function, form and comfort – “My wife’s bum, and her comfort, always inspires me in designing chairs,” he jokes. “Humour is a pretty important aspect that is almost always forgotten in the design of chairs,” he adds. In his world this has translated to a range of egg-inspired chairs that are as comfortable as they are quirky. Their ‘Don’t Break My Eggs’ design – a large metal basket stuffed with cushiony ‘eggs’ – is a favourite. “Fantastic, fun, beautiful and good value,” says Abhi. Sounds good enough to sit on.