Saturday, 1 September 2012

Passion for design

        Probably the most successful British chair of the 20th Century is the polypropylene  stacking chair by Robin Day for Hille International. The tooling costs were around £6,000 and it retailed at under £5. I was always inspired as a designer maker by the giants of mass produced innovation and found myself an increasingly reluctant member of an exclusive social club - British Designer Makers from the 1970's onwards.  I did work on the shop floor of a furniture factory as a trainee designer in 1973 but found the British mass production furniture industry depressing in the 1970's.

Stacking chair by Robin Day for Hille (1966)

      However, another icon of late 20th Century furniture design recently caught my eye in a local 'junk' shop which was a must have for me - four 'Supporto' chairs by Fred Scott, also for Hille International. I only want one for my quirky office but I am having to buy all four and hope to pass the others on. This is the classic original ergonomically designed modern office chair but most in my heritage city would be ignorant of its existence.


'Supporto' chair by Fred Scott for Hille (1979)

      It is not the first time I have picked up a scoop locally. A couple of decades ago. I picked up a classic Harry Bertoia chair from my local market for £5 and use that in my home. Who is Harry Bertoia you ask? We know who Simon Colwell and Cheryl Cole are! 


Harry Bertoia chair (1957)

         But back to the plot - my passion for furniture design is re-kindled when I see a classic modern chair and my home is just too full of chairs so I am having to build a separate sealed storage area for my micro museum! The very first chair I made was actually a copy of 'The Chair' by Hans Wegner and I delighted in spokeshaving the arms which are highly sculptural. I made it out of teak when I was 17 and it was one of my major pieces when I was at Shoreditch College, so I must have made that chair in 1966 and all it needs today is a fresh smearing of Danish oil. The cane seat is still immaculate despite occasional use over the years. 

'The chair' by Hans Vegner (1949)

I think it is important to know our history. I visited the Cheltenham Celebration of Craftsmanship exhibition last week and apart from feeling somewhat let down by the chairs on show (the public chair competition), noticed a table by a maker that was an exact copy of a table by a designer maker friend of mine - John Coleman in the 1980's. I actually could not bring myself to mention this to the exhibitor so here I am referring to it on my blog. But surely in this age of 'graduate masters degree' furniture maker they have studied their history, especially the recent history of designer makers? In my Furniture Today DVDs the history is detailed with hundreds of images of furniture design and many colleges stock my DVDs. 

Veneered Table by John Coleman 
'Maker Designers Today' exhibition at Camden Arts Centre 1984

         I am certainly not accusing this maker of blatant copying as the design possesses a certain structural rationale that could be conceived by more than one mind. But in a previous exhibition there was a submission for not just a direct copy of a classic design but the design itself, a stool was used and the top just re-veneered in burn walnut which stuck out like a sore thumb! I alerted the exhibition curator but goodness me I am not a member of the design Police but just surprised by ignorance in this graduate craft culture. 

Laminated birch stool by Alvar Aalto (1933)

          The wonderful thing about furniture design history is that it may be far from popular culture but it has a lasting and satisfying dimension to it and something to pass on. On my 90th birthday I intend holding a retrospective exhibition of my furniture designs and also show my chair collection which one day will be handed down.

  Cantilever chair in elm by Jeremy Broun (1984)
 inspired by Marcel Breuer's 'Chair with no legs' (1927)

          The designer Ron Arad once said to me 'a chair should have a very good reason for being'*. I would agree with that. It would be arrogant to claim total originality as we all know ideas come from somewhere and I think at least if one is inspired by one design to create another, the source should at least be acknowledged as a respect for that designer. But what does that silly old-fashioned term 'respect ' mean today? 

* 'The Chair' video 1990 (now on DVD) by Jeremy Broun

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