This month Canadian Interiors has published “One Arm Clapping” by Michael Totzke, a short feature about John Tong’s stool design for The Drake Commissary. (See an earlier version published in the Globe & Mail here: “Toronto’s latest Drake enterprise has a familiar theme”) While it is a great article, especially in that it features the designer’s voice and gives a shout-out to local suppliers and manufacturers, for me it leaves a few unanswered questions.
First is the issue of design inspiration that falls flat. Totzke interviews Tong about his sources of inspiration, and repeats an anecdote about the designer’s experience of bar-hopping in Barcelona on a Vespa with new friends. The link between the Drake stool and the Vespa scooter seat, however, is not entirely clear. Is it the shape? Is it the sit experience of the padded cushion’s slight give? Is it the combination of soft seat and cool industrial metal? Is it the change in sitting posture when riding versus when parked? Or is it the tailgate party atmosphere of scooters and their drivers parked outside on a warm Spanish night? In other words, does the Vespa scooter reference really help us to understand this stool design? Unlike motorcycles or bicycles, drivers of Vespas do not straddle the scooter seat (like the passenger does) but perch at its front and rest their feet on the step-through frame’s floorboard. This link needs more discussion; right now it feels like a cool-hunter cue that doesn’t go far enough.
Secondly, given its proposed role as a leitmotiv for the Drake properties, there are too many unexplored aspects of the stool’s form. Totzke cites the one-armed stool’s earlier incarnations at other Drake properties and notes that, except for its namesake one-arm feature, this one is different. But what are the differences? We learn that the Drake Commissary version has a round seat and a tubular-steel pedestal base. We have to figure out for ourselves, however, that earlier versions had a square seat, four wooden legs, and a contrasting metal footrest. This seems like a pretty significant design development! The new version curves the armrest and mounting plate around the pivoting drum-like seat, so that it reminds me of Charlotte Perriand’s swivel dining chair, designed in 1927. Granted, Tong’s stool has a cantilevered, asymmetrical, wood-covered armrest, instead of Perriand’s padded tubular full backrest. The sitting posture on a stool is also different from that of a dining chair. But the circular upholstered seat, tubular metal, and dynamic pivoting feature in both forge clear links between the two. This is interesting because, after finishing her work with Le Corbusier in Paris, Charlotte Perriand worked closely with Jean Prouvé, another French designer with whom she found an affinity for working in metal. On this point, I remember reading in Wallpaper magazine feature that for this project John Tong was impressed by a visit to a reconstructed Prouvé building. Such connections are important to discuss because they place the object’s design in a larger network of ideas. There is a hybrid approach to design development here that can be reflected in the design discourse.
I like this stool. Its asymmetrical curved arm works nicely with the radial balance of the curved seat. I think that it is an improvement on the earlier square seat with rectilinear arm/backrest. Plus, the stool plays with transformable function and symbolism in a way that lets the user decide what to make of it. Despite the article’s rather facile title (‘One Arm Clapping’ implies a link with the Zen Buddhist question-without-answer ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ that has become largely trivialized by mainstream media) Tong’s one arm stool resists easy categorization. Its form and inspiration are caught in a web of material, technological and cultural references that, as Totzke astutely points out, symbolize the whole Drake vibe.