As part of my summer reading, I’m getting back to books that I have collected over the past year. One of these is Witold Rybczynski’s Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair – A Natural History (2016). When it was first published last summer, Mark Medley interviewed Rybczynski for The Globe and Mail and I was struck by the famous Architect/Author’s closing comments. Rybczynski declared that: “I don’t find most of the contemporary work very interesting. I tended to ignore it in the book. We’re not in a period of great furniture.” (Read the full interview here)
I completely disagree. We may be entering a new period of great furniture. But we won’t see it if we continue to look for modernist icons (which lazy specifiers place in repetitive interiors), surround ourselves with status quo objects (which multi-national companies can overproduce today due to manufacturing improvements), and neglect discussion about current design practices and passions.
Today’s metrics of evaluation have expanded beyond the close observation of heroic form and a willful pursuit of the functionalist stylistic idiom. In addition to what it looks like, we are starting to appreciate the context for furniture design, manufacturing, and use. Elegant designs combine a sensitive approach to material with thoughtful responses to manufacturing technologies and ethical, sustainable business practices. We need to be concerned with how contemporary designs explore cultural values and lifestyle choices that are particular to our age.
In Canada, there are many established furniture manufacturers who are supporting new design work at an expanded scale. (See my post “New Furniture” here) There are also many local designers who are exploring alternative practice models. Here are just two examples: Speke Klein, who opened their practice in 1997, and shows a commitment to local production; Coolican & Company makes small batch furniture that is sold both online and through local retailers.
One could evaluate these two contemporary practices based on a search for ‘iconic’ designs that populate public spaces – as Rybcynski did in his closing argument about the telling prevalence of the Eames Chair in public spaces. (Note that Speke Klein’s Mary chair fills the interior of the Massey College Chapel, Toronto, recently named one of only two Chapels Royal in Canada!)
Or, one could start another conversation based on how these practices are building on a different set of design values. The founders of Speke Klein, for instance, studied under one of the great post-war British studio furniture makers, John Makepeace, at his school Parnham College in Dorset, England. In both his furniture design activities, and his pioneering approach to wood sourcing and stewardship, Makepeace left a strong impression on generations of furniture designers and makers. Peter Coolican of Coolican & Co. trained at the Rosewood Studio, a small woodworking School in Perth, Ontario. Currently run by Ron Barter, a founding member of The Furniture Society, the Rosewood Studio was started in 2002 by Canadian craftsman Ted Brown who based on his own training on the esteemed woodworking visionary James Krenov (College of the Redwoods, California). Influential in their own ways, both Makepeace and Krenov both conveyed a commitment to working with wood as a practice aligned with designerly thinking. They were part of the designer as craftsman movement initiated in the 1970s that continues to provide options for designers responding to today’s post-industrial challenges.
Contemporary furniture design is interesting; to ignore it is a mistake. If stylistic paradigms have shifted, and indeed if what furniture lovers care about is changing, then critics ignore these transformations at their peril. To suggest, as Rybczynski does, that a book on the history of chairs does not need to confront contemporary design is misleading. By paying attention to the changing values and enthusiasms of contemporary furniture designers we can learn how to better chart a course for the future.
[image: KRW’s copy of Witold Rybczynski, Now I Sit Me Down – From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016)]