Starting our research trip through the endless material of chairs and endless amount of possibilities to wright a research about, we traveled to remote cities to attend group chair exhibitions. During this whole complicated ritual of coming up with a specific chair, I was always thinking of the simplest one. One that I could really describe because it would be just basic. And what is about basic that fascinates me is that anyone can imagine themselves on it. It might not be the most comfortable chair but for sure it will be one to spend some study hour on.
During these basic thoughts on basic chairs, my mind would travel to the chairs that I had been sitting on for 12 continuous years in my life, from the moment that I started primary school and finished high school.
It is probably be the chair I have been sitting on the most. I have spend endless amounts of time getting bored on this chair, getting back pain on this chair and always trying to switch between positions as to find the right place for my feet. This would be in school, when I would bend my knees, place my legs under my butt so that I have a pillow on the basis of the chair with my feet coming out of the empty space, right under the piece of plywood supporting my back. Teachers would not allow non upright positions.
I remember I was then complaining to them on why they were using a comfortable chair with foam pillows for their desks in class, while us, a mass production of students in a mass production education were sitting on mass production chairs.
This would be just four steel legs and two molded pieces of wood. Thin plywood.
On the group chair exhibition I found myself identifying with Jean Prouvé’s Standard Chair produced during the 1930’s-1950’s since it looked very similar to the school chair I was recalling at the moment.
Going through the background of Jean Prouvé and his architectural achievements I got informed about his fascination with mass production of machine-made furniture and his constant adaptation to the problems of his times through working in a collective union with fellow architects such as Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray and Sonia Delaunay. In 1930, Jean Prouvé joined the French Union of Modern Artists(UAM), a groundbreaking movement who’s artists proclaimed ’We must rise up against everything that looks rich, against whatever is well made, and against anything inherited from grandmother…”. Apparently, through this collective way of working, simple and basic furniture for collective use were produced. Educational furniture was some of them.
This is when I realized that my visual connection of his chair to my school chair was not random. The name of it gives it away: “Standard Chair”.
Unfortunately I never got to sit on one of the Standard Chairs but I am convinced that it feels more or less the same.
Both chairs I am comparing take the stress on the back legs where they bear the weight of the user’s upper body. Prouvé incorporated this simple insight in his design for the Standard Chair: while steel tubing suffices for the front legs, since they are subject to less stress, the back legs are made of voluminous hollow sections that transfer the primary weight to the floor.
Feels like it is a chair to keep you aware and well-postured. I remember sitting on ugly yellow cubular (rectangular) steel legs when new, clean and polished chairs arrived having tubular(round) steel legs. A small detail I remember since somehow I prefer the first ones. I can also recall the high pitch sound of these steel legs when you would boringly move the chair in the classroom by scrubbing it on the floor. It sounded like it is going to collapse, like all the rust-proof elements would finally get un-proofed. But they didn’t.
They survived through many years, through many students sitting awkwardly on them, vandalizing them, chipping off the layers of the plywood one by one on your front classmates’ chair, writing nonsense with blanco pen in the back of it or making graffiti on it.
There was also this plastic black cap used to block the empty space of the tubular steel at the edge of it. This cap that you could patiently remove during the boredom of the class, revealing the empty space, where you could dispose your chewing gum if the teacher would see you, where you could loose your pen or hide a cheating note.
I am mostly fascinated with Prouvé’s chair because it somehow summarizes all these memories in an official and prototype way. All these years of experiencing the school chair were brought to the foreground at my first encounter with this chair, proving to me that I was sitting on it without even realizing it. That it was Him behind it.
It seems like his industrialized Standard Chair was indeed used in schools at that time and that it did inspire even Chinese companies to copy it and send them to schools all over Europe by stacking them on each other just like a good mass production product would do.