A brief research of who she was and where she came from
In February 2015 me and my class from Basic Year at the Rietveld Arts & Design Academy visited the exhibition “Possessed by chairs” at the Gocrums Museum.
The intention of the exhibition in Gocrum was to celebrate the history of design through picking out around 90 iconic chairs from the 100 past years. 90 chairs exhibited, a pretty broad selection from everywhere – everything from Scandinavian classics like Eero Aarnios famous Balls Chair, Hans J Wegners Papa Bear arm chair, chairs by Alvar Alto to international classics such as the MR 20, and off course – a couple of chairs made by the Dutch famous architect Gerrit Rieveld.
During my visit at this exhibition experiencing all those chairs, some questions popped up in my mind at one point. With looking at 90 chairs and every single one made by a male designer I couldn’t stop asking me: if all this chairs were made by men, who were they made for? Also for men? When I once thought about this I couldn’t stop looking at the chairs from another perspective.
I also somehow got a feeling that a lot of the chairs that were exhibited had a great aura of power in themselves and that one had to have a bit of courage to actually sit in them. I got a feeling of some position of power in the interaction with many of the chairs and I this brought me to even more questions about the purpose and the receiver of the chair, who it was meant for? Not many of them had a relaxed and non-hierarchic voice, which for me often is what I am looking for when I want to do the act of “sitting”.
But walking thorough this selection of chairs there was one that caught my eyes and that said something else to me.
It was a leaned back chair that almost reminded me about a sun-lounger, with a light green textile cover in a kind of plating webbing technique. For me the chair was manifesting a feeling of enjoyment and desire and in contrast to the other chairs that I felt it was speaking about something else. I got very touched by it.
When the title of the chair became clear for me it even more triggered me, because this chair actually had a woman’s name – “Pernilla”. A chair made for a woman? Later on I also found it kind of funny that the designer was a Swedish one, as I’m also Swedish. Did I unconscious recognize the chair from our home. Is it something underlying in the Scandinavian design that I’m not aware of but that has an impact? Why did I feel that I so easily could relate to this chair? Who was this Bruno Mathsson and who was Pernilla? I therefore decided to conduct my research on this questions.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Bruno Mathsson was born in a small city in the south of Sweden called Värnamo. Since Bruno was the fifth generation in a family of master cabinet makers Bruno was learn early how to to carpeting by his father. Värnamo was a small place a bit isolated from the rest of the world but this was not something that stopped Bruno from getting input from his surrounding world. After a visit at the Roohska Art and Crafts Museum in Gothenburg and he kept the contact with the manager of the museum and because of him was able to borrow literature from the museum. Soon large boxes filled with books were sent by trains between Gothenburg and Varnamo and by this Bruno had the chance and opportunity to educate himself through detailed study.
In 1930, at the age of 23 years, Bruno got the opportunity for the first time to put all his study and theories into real practice since he was commissioned to design a new chair for the Varnamo Hospital. Bruno took the chance to create something that he saw as less traditional and decided to make a chair without the old conventional and quite shabby sprung upholstery that the chairs of the hospitals used to have. He wanted to still keep the quality of comfort and he finally came to an unusual solution with a frame covered with plaited webbing supported by arms and legs in sold birch. The chair was not received very successful and the staff of the hospital nicknamed the chair “The Grasshopper” [x] and did not use it long after which they put it in the attic. What they did not know by then was that this controversial chair and the technique of plaited webbing would later be considered as one of the most famous art and design technique and style in Swedish design history.
Even as this first mission didn’t led to a immediate prosperity Bruno continued his work and carefully studied the ”mechanics of sitting”. He wanted to find the perfect sitting line, or curve and this he approached by different ways. One way of finding it he got through sitting in a snow-drift and then study the imprint his body had made. He began experimenting with techniques of bent laminating wood to gaining skills and found out compotes of great strength with gracefully executed minimalist details.
Between 1933 and 1936 Bruno through this research of sitting in snow-drives and so on, Bruno designed amongst others three results that would come to be three of his famous basic chairs. It were three chairs in one series that he called “Working”, “Easy” and “Loungechair” model 36. These chairs were all designed using one piece of frame covered with plated webbing supported by separate bent laminated legs.
The three basic chairs can more or less be seeing as a breakthrough in Bruno Mathssons career because in 1936 Bruno got the opportunity to have an own exhibition in the Roohska Arts and Craft Museum (the same museum as where he got the books from in his earlier years) where he now could show his work for a much bigger audience. The exhibition was to become a big success and this led to a recognition of Bruno Mathsson as one of the leaders in the design from Sweden.
One year after the exhibition Bruno was asked to participate in his first international exhibition in Paris, “Paris Expo”, where he also won the Grand Prix for his bed “Paris” that he also showed. His furniture were received with a great appreciation and admiration and he got a lot of interested from all over the world. This also directed to an order of chairs from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The same year his furniture also got represented at other exhibitions such as the world exhibition in New York and the Golden Gate-exhibition in San Fransisco.
WORKING IN AND OUTSIDE OF SWEDEN
Bruno Mathsson sometimes did struggled with the traditional approach that Sweden had to furniture design but still his home country meant a lot to him and he decided to stay and run his business in his city of birth – Varnamo, all his life. Here he had his roots and he could, in an safe and calm environment, develop his design works. Staying and working in Sweden didn’t mean that he did not aspire a international career. In early years he started to create a network around the world. In the 1940s he made a longer journey to the US with his fiance Karin which resulted in lots of new inspiration which led to an architectural work that would become very famous as built houses in glass. Houses placed in a city in Sweden called Kosta called and that is today week visited and called the Mathsson Glasshouses. The light was of great value for Bruno and that is something you can see both in his work in glass but also in the furniture. A close relation to the nature is also something you easily do feel when you study Bruno’s work and in creating the glasshouses he was able to get an intimate and direct relation to the nature as part of the idea of what a building can be.
Later during the winter times Bruno used to go abroad and spend some time in Portugal, and leave Sweden for some months working in one of his own glasshouses that was established. He always tried to stay updated and this was supported by leaving Sweden time to time, for some time. In the 1970′s Bruno also had a project going on outside of Europe, being part of a panel discussing design with a several hundred interior architects in Tokyo.
The huge success that Bruno Mathsson and his companions experienced in the coming years meant hectic years for the small family company as the biggest part of the production was produced for export. The Second World War did however slow down the business a bit and for some years Bruno did directed more effort to the domestic market. By this Bruno also got more time to develop his own design further and in 1944 he launched the classic chair for resting “Pernilla 2” and then one year later the deck chair “Pernilla”. It was a chair in the typical style of Bruno Mathsson in which he used the technique of bending the laminating wood to get the curve he wanted and the plated web in the color of light natural green that covered the whole chair besides the armrests. “Pernilla” was also resourced with something that almost looked like a Canterbury which the sitting person could use for reading without having to use the hands.
The chairs were both named after a female journalist from the Swedish Newspaper “Dagens Nyheter” who had earlier visit him for an interview in 1943.
BRUNO MATHSSON AS AN ARTIST
Bruno Mathsson was a unique artist, he had a strong own intention and goal. He was a striking artist, got the self/will and had a lot of stubbornness. He was attracted by the simpleness where less is more. He always went for creative methods to reach the knowledge he needed for making the design he wanted, as for example the way of study the imprint of the body from the snow after sitting in it. His design was grasping for the pure form where finding the elegance was of a stronger impact. He always wanted to reach a good combination of functionality, ergonomic quality and beauty.
Something that was typically for Bruno’s design was that he built the chairs by gluing the veneer in layers and by this reach a capacity of bending them in the line or curve which could meet the curved, motion of sitting.
One more thing that signified Bruno’s products of design was that he almost always named the chairs by women. Eva, Mina an Miranda are beside “Pernilla” three of the most famous furniture that he made and were all named after women he met and had been important to him. This gave every chair a sense of certain identity. He continued his work for several years and never lost the aim of always being up to date. In 1981, at seventy-four years of age, he created a workstation for computer users that was equipped with a so called “wing” that supports the users shoulders. The last piece of furniture Bruno Mathssons made he made at the age of 90, the easychair “Minister” in 1986.
Bruno Mathsson died in 1988 leaving behind a rich cultural heritage. Today Bruno Mathssons design is still very present and even though its 70 years since he was busy as a designer the chairs seems trendy and to stays young.