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A History of Modern Chair Design: From Arts and Crafts to Art Nouveau

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A History of Modern Chair Design from Arts and Crafts to Art Nouveau

In an article published in The Studio (vol.10, 1897), the architect and designer M.H. Ballie Scott declared: ‘The essential point then in the choice of furniture may be said to be not so much the individual merit of a particular thing as its relation to everything else in the room. The furniture should appear to grow out of the requirement of the room to represent the finishing touches to the scheme which had its Inception when the first stone of the house was laid.’

This passage is indicative of the design philosophies that prevailed in the late nineteenth century and which are evident in the work of Charles Francis Annesely Voysey (1857-1941), Henri van de Velde (1863-1957), Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) and Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956).

The furniture of the period owed much to the Arts and Crafts Movement, which had its roots in the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris. The work of Ernest Gimson (1864-1919) reveals an insistence on craftsmanship: the bobbin-turned arms, back and stretchers are reminiscent of seventeenth-century furniture, and combine with the rush seat to produce solid, durable, functional objects.

Gimson, chairs

The Art Nouveau style and the European preoccupation with the East profoundly affected the design and decoration of chairs in this period. A.H. Mackmurdo's Thistle Chair of 1883 represents the birth of a new style: the swirling pattern of the back exhibits the ‘whiplash curves’ of Art Nouveau.

Mackmurdo, Thistle chair, 1883

Meanwhile, in E.W. Godwin's ebonised wood chairs and sideboards, the stern geometry of planes set at right angles and the black finish are evidence of the craze for Japonnerie.

Godwin, Ebonised chair

With Voysey, an interest in craftsmanship and a love of unstained oak gave rise to a number of elegant chairs with great simplicity of line. These were highly influential because they were frequently illustrated in The Studio.

Voysey chair, 1902

However, it was with the Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh that true genius appeared. His designs were conceived as sculptural forms with little regard for craftsmanship, indeed his Tea Room chairs were ill suited to the rigours of continuous use. His furniture was strikingly individual, but reveals an interest in Japonnerie, and at times has an affinity with American Shaker designs. It was Mackintosh above all who saw furniture as an integral part of any interior design scheme, whether for one of Miss Cranston's Glasgow Tea Rooms or the interior of a private house.

Mackintosh, Hill House chair

Mackintosh, Argyle Chair and Armchair, designed for the luncheon room of the Argyle Street tearooms in

Glasgow

The Belgian artist, Henri van de Velde was inspired by Ruskin and Morris to turn his attention to the Decorative Arts. Despite his influence on the social ideas behind the German Werkbund, he designed and executed interiors for wealthy patrons. These interiors exhibit an exuberant style, but highlight the close relationship between the furniture and the surrounding architecture.

Van der Velde, Armchair

Josef Hoffmann was one of the designers who founded the Wiener Werkstatte in 1903. Hoffmann came under the spell of Mackintosh, and his work shows a fascination with straight lines and squares, so much so that it earned him the nickname Quadratl Hoffmann (Square Hoffmann).

 Hoffman, Armloffel chair, 1908

Hoffman, Armchair

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