... And we’re back! We just needed to sit out for a while. Speaking of which: this issue of No News News is dedicated to chairs – those essential furniture pieces that have often been at the very center of the good vs. bad design discourse. Here, we consider chairs not for their aesthetic pedigree but for the stories they tell – from photographer Michael Wolf’s Bastard Chairs of late ’90s China to the scandalous secret life of a Le Corbusier recliner. Time to put your feet up.
No News News #6 featuring Anna Uddenberg, Augustine & Josephine Rockebrune, Bohan Qiu, Celia Solf, Ewa Effiom, Jockum Hallin, Marie Tomanova, Michael Wolf, Nitzan Cohen, Thomas Hauser, Yağmur Ruzgar and Yinka Ilori
As it happens, I’m writing this almost imperceptibly supported by Hermann Miller’s “Aeron” model. Called “just ugly” when it launched in 1994 and yet still earning a place in MoMA’s permanent collection in the same year, it’s long been the go-to-seat for office drones and gamers with a budget alike – or anyone else who spends a lot of time at their desk. Yet there are many aesthetes who’d only allow the Aeron’s “health-positive design” to be rolled into their workspace over their dead, lifeless bodies.
And who can blame them? Chairs are more than utilitarian objects, or function meets ergonomics. They are at once the most basic and also the most versatile pieces of furniture. As such, almost every up-and-coming designer tries to create their own take on “four legs plus seat plus back rest,” with chairs frequently the gateway drug to experiments with tables, vases and cars. Here at NNN, we aren’t all total design geeks – some of us have even been working on this issue from – gasp – seats that are so lowly they don’t even have a proper name. Instead our goal for this issue was to look at chairs and the stories they tell while trying to steering away from boring discussions about material (Martindale Abrasion Test, anyone?), first editions and the distinct qualities of canon-making classics as much as possible.
Apropos of taking a rest: We had to dial it down a bit recently. After blazing through the first five issues of No News News and launching our T-shirt collection in collaboration with the estate of the late Vogue Germany editor Angelica Blechschmidt in September, we needed to sit back for some time and train our focus elsewhere. We hope you don’t mind – our promise being to publish a new issue “every four weeks or so” – and that you’ll continue to stay with us for the next numbers of No News News. In the meantime, we suggest catching up on older issues in our archive and to not waste too much time on IG. Unless of course you want to follow @exlibris.berlin, where we’ll host a virtual gallery of “anything chair” in the upcoming weeks.
See you in 2021 – hopefully sitting comfortably on as many bistro chairs, bar stools and beach recliners in as many far flung locations as possible.
As we sit and contemplate 2020, and perhaps mourn the innocence of 2019, it is fitting that we also stop to consider the humble seat on which we find ourselves. After all, as London-based multidisciplinary artist Yinka Ilori puts it: “Chairs are really powerful objects. They hold a lot of feelings and emotions.”
Ilori has always had a thing for seating: He started out in 2011 repurposing discarded chairs, transforming them into pieces that tell parables that are both comical and sincere. A son of Nigerian immigrants, his chairs form a rich and vibrant tapestry that recall the Dutch wax prints Yinka Ilori grew up with as a child. Initially, these were often an amalgamation of several chairs, a method inspired by Martino Gamper’s “100 chairs in 100 days,” and as such, forced the viewer to reconsider their view of waste.
For Ilori, each chair or collection is associated with a Nigerian parable, bringing buried narratives to light and giving space to these clashing cultural references often conveniently ignored in today’s Britain. “Fusing my narrative onto that particular chair, using my Nigerian heritage and narrative of storytelling – that reminds me of being at home and being with family,” he said in an interview in 2017. He is fully aware of the colonial contradictions inherent in his use of the Dutch cloth and its popularity in West Africa, and chooses to celebrate these complications.
Physical manifestations of a verbal tradition
For his chairs, Yinka Ilori dismantles the components, both material and immaterial, into their composite parts and then reassembles them into a new piece, ready for use. He either sources the chairs or chooses the Nigerian parables first, since in his work the two are symbiotic: one does not exist without the other. For him, chairs carry the imprints of human souls: “When you sit on a chair it takes in all your energy,” he says. His chairs are personified, with their own narratives. They are the physical manifestation of the verbal tradition of his ancestry.
And yet, Ilori’s attachment to these traditions comes with complications. The designer was jealous of his parents’ clear Nigerian identity as opposed to the ambiguities of his own first-generation immigrant life. His art builds off this jealousy, and his chairs are an exuberant tribute to the messiness of his experiences. Today he wears his identity like a badge of honor: “I want to take bits out of my culture and retell them: My British heritage fused together with my Nigerian heritage.” His optimism is as inescapable as his saturated color palette.
To compare Yinka Ilori’s work to Memphis’ postmodernism, or to brand him as a mere colorist would be missing the point. This is not color for color’s sake, but storytelling in three dimensions. More fruitful is comparison to another British-Nigerian Yinka: Shonibare, whose work is equally committed to the idea of the hybrid. Likewise, Ilori’s work presents a truer and more complex representation of what it means to be British.
In the last couple of years the artist-designer’s work has transcended the world of furniture and now includes a skatepark in Lille, the Dulwich Pavilion in 2019, design for the exhibition “Get Up Stand Up Now” at Somerset House, the refurbishment of Thessaly Road Bridge in Wandsworth, and even a homeware collection, all of which communicate the vibrant and rich stories that he has always told. To me, they all seem to communicate one specific Nigerian proverb, that Yinka Ilori has surely taken to heart: “Seeing is better than hearing.”
Ewa Effiom is a Belgo-Nigerian architect and writer based in London, who in 2020 – with all the unrest – has found an affinity for seating. Though chairs are his preferred mode of sitting, he sometimes also perches on stools and settles on sofas.
The late Michael Wolf called them “Bastard Chairs” – these scrappy, mended, just-about-usable seats that he photographed in Beijing and other Chinese soon-to-be megacities. When working on this project just before the turn of the Millennium, Wolf was detained twice by the police for “doing something which was harmful to the Chinese state”. Even though Wolf saw the chairs as a positive sign of ingenuity, a testament to their owners’ resourcefulness, locals worried that the photographs made the country appear backward. Now, more than two decades later, Wolf’s pictures are a document of life on the streets as China was beginning to gear up on the international stage – but the people’s street furniture wasn’t up to speed yet. We agree with Wolf in his reverence for these designs: his bastard chairs just look fantastic in their thriftiness.
All images are taken from Michael Wolf’s Sitting in China (Steidl). The photographer – a long-time contributor to German weekly Stern – focused his work and lens on dense metropolises around the world. He died in Hong Kong in 2019.
AS SEEN BYJOSIE THADDEUS-JOHNS
These days we are helplessly chained to the practice of sitting. Even before the pandemic, experts suggested that in the West we sit for nine out of every 24 hours. And now, with even socializing often involving sitting down at a desk, the butt-on-chair feeling is more familiar than ever. I’m sitting while I write this; you’re probably sitting to read it. This one-player game of musical chairs comes with a tinge of dread – after all, as the popular adage goes, “sitting is the new smoking,” causing higher blood pressure and, like most things if you google them hard enough, cancer. But until very recently, sitting was the domain of the powerful, not so much the endurance sport it is today, and more of a performance.
“Chairs throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages were seldom designed to be comfortable, but served above all as symbols of dominion and authority,” says curator Heng Zhi, who worked on the 2019 exhibition Seats of Power at the Vitra Design Museum. A throne is an instant route to portraying power: the traditional high back and wide arms help convey the look of someone who will deliver judgment, send their henchmen after you or defend Westeros against invaders.
The exhibition traced how chair design has shifted along with our ideas about power. In the 20th century, our seating began to convey the idea of democracy, with seating streamlined and cookie-cutter, emphasizing the level playing field of these power centers. Seats of Power used a picture of Ivanka Trump, Christine Lagarde and Angela Merkel sitting on Hella Jongerius’ East River Chair, at the W20 Women’s Summit. The chair is low-slung and colorful, allowing the sitter to appear open to the people.
Modernist ideas of one-size-fits-all are laudable but ultimately fall a little flat when the needs of people sitting on them are not taken into account, however. Lagarde and Trump appear uncomfortable and tense, with their knees pinned together, as Merkel lounges. The difference? She’s wearing trousers. As journalist Rose Eveleth notes, chairs used on stage at conferences are not suited for people wearing what many femme people are encouraged to wear when they are put on stage: a dress. If the skirt-wearing sitter wants to avoid the Basic Instinct moment while in the spotlight, the they must remain rigid and keep their knees stuck in one place for an entire talk. Not exactly the thing to make you feel powerful.
Neglecting these issues creates further friction for people to reach those seats of power: We are not all the same. Accommodating these differences makes sure that everyone ends up on the same level.
Writing for the New York Times, Economist, Frieze and more, Josie Thaddeus-Johns is a freelance arts and culture writer and Senior Editor of No News News. She wrote this wearing her recently-received transatlantic order of our EX LIBRIS tees. (Have you got yours yet?)
STUDIO VISITNO ARMCHAIRS PLEASE
“Armchairs don’t work for me,” said Thomas Hauser, when No News News visited him in his studio recently. “They tend to make the model sink into them with their knees almost above their head.” The photographer’s dislike for anything other than an upright chair when it comes to placing his models seems justified: after all, it’s called sitting for a portrait, not lounging. And much like the steady hand of a draftsman or painter, Hauser’s method takes time – at least by photography standards. With his preference for working with large-format cameras such as his 1972 Linhof Master Technika and with only daylight coming through his studio windows, he has to deal with shutter speeds up to 1/15th of a second – way too long for a standing model who’s already been told to hold a pose for some time. Just a blink of an eye or a flinch of the shoulders, and the developed image will turn out partially blurred.
Having started his career with a fetish for stripped-down, nude photography, Thomas Hauser is the first to admit he’s super specific about every single detail of his photographs. Naturally this includes the very chair the model is sitting on – sometimes rendering the actual person somewhat auxiliary: “Of course, I would never tell a model how important the reflection on the back of a chair is to me – they’re not supposed to feel like the accessory to a light effect,” Hauser said. Yet seats are so essential to his photography, he can really only work with a handful, most of them stained, beat-up finds from studios he shares. It’s not that he hasn’t tried working with a designer chair once – a newish design by Italian producer MDF – but that took all the attention away from the model: “You would only look at the chair,” he said. It seems that to photographers like Thomas Hauser, and perhaps, for the sitting population at large, the best chairs are the ones you hardly notice.
Thomas Hauser’s monograph Thomas Hauser: Girls Seen is due out in January at Patrick Remy Studio. When not working on personal projects he lends his craft to brands from Maison Margiela to Bottega Veneta.
FURTHER READINGJOSIE THADDEUS-JOHNS
We all know about house porn, where you look through images on estate agents’ websites to imagine all the great places you might live. We fetishize these places and turn them into dream locations for ourselves. But what happens, one might ask, to the houses in actual porn? Augustine and Josephine Rockebrune had this very question, when they realized that one specific chair, the LC4, had become surprisingly popular in adult movies. This phenomenon, which they call “unsettling and bewitching,” led them to start documenting their finds, later published in the photo book We Don’t Embroider Cushions Here.
Named for the phrase with which Le Corbusier dismissed his eventual collaborator Charlotte Perriand upon first meeting her, the book is a spot-the-chair game, where the surrounding scene is about as X-rated as you can get. In some, the actress is tied to the chaise lounge’s classic tubular lines, in others a patent, strappy, platform-heeled foot perches dominantly next to it. In many of the book’s images, the chair simply sits nonchalantly in the background, a subtle indicator of “vibe” more than anything else.
As the Rockebrune sisters (yes, it’s a pseudonym) explained to No News News, the preponderance of this specific chair appears to be a bit of a happy coincidence: “It all comes down to the extensive use by production companies of the same four to five rental houses in San Fernando Valley, where the chaise lounge is a part of the furnishing.”
Once they identified the houses featuring Le Corbusier and Perriand’s masterpiece, the book still required rather extensive research. The pair watched enough films to find material for a while, before passing the task on to a team of internet researchers in India. So which was the pair’s favorite usage of this fetishistic, languid design? “We have innumerable favorites and many more that did not end up in the book,” the pair said. “But the opening shot of Venus followed by four men walking towards the LC4, has always been a subject of great jouissance to us.” And now, it is for us too.
Augustine & Josephine Rockebrune’s We Don’t Embroider Cushions Here will soon be published in what is already its 3rd edition via Sammlung Preislos.
For this special edition of our beloved Procurement section, we asked seven creative types from Shanghai to New York about their favorite chair: Why they like it, and what, if anything, they would change about it. For those that owned their favorite model, we got even nosier – how are they using it? Naturally their answers were as varied as their respective fields, but one thing became clear: If aesthetics are what you live and breathe, you can’t sit and not think about what’s underneath your butt. We’ve captured some of those reflections below.
1 – Anna Uddenberg
When asked why she chose the Bambi Chair by Czech architect Bořek Šípek, Anna Uddenberg’s answer is simple: “It speaks for itself.” The Swedish artist, whose sculptures made from everyday objects and materials are described as “furniture-esque” themselves, is equally humble about the genius of its design, saying that she couldn’t add anything to it: “I wouldn't change a thing, it’s just perfect the way it is.” We suggest a virtual inspection of Uddenberg’s “Climber” and “Focus” series, via her gallery’s website, to discover her inventive take on seating arrangements (we promise, you’ve never seen a body draped over a bar stool like this before).
2 – Bohan Qiu
“I always had a thing for the combination of black leather and silver metal,” says Bohan Qiu, the founder of PR agency BOH Project in Shanghai, about his favorite chair. “Bauhaus but not boring” is how he describes Gerard van den Berg’s 1980s design for Montis. “It looks like a scrotum, a race car and a lounge chair in a Dutch psycho’s surgery room all in one. It’s ultra masculine but not in a disgusting macho way,” he adds. Qiu is lucky enough to actually own van den Berg’s design, and proudly shared some pics with NNN over Instagram. Yup, we can attest to all the above.
3 – Nitzan Cohen
“Enzo Mari’s Box Chair is the only designer chair I know where you could enter the store, buy the chair and walk out with the chair in a transparent plastic bag,” said Nitzan Cohen, designer and professor of Product Design at the Free University of Bolzano, and who also runs his own design studio. He calls Mari, who died earlier this year “ingenious” for the way he creates a visual statement with his perforated plastic design. “Character-wise, it is a radical chair, not aiming to please and ‘be nice’,” he explains, recommending all but the very last element of this seat. “It’s a great piece of plastic engineering and a chair that lasts – except for its way-too-soft, sweet, cartoon-like rubber feet.”
4 – Yağmur Ruzgar
Yağmur Ruzgar, the co-founder of Berlin-based creative studio Paleworks, likes her furniture to have “a sculptural, artistic touch—alongside mere functionality.” No wonder then, she opted for Michele De Lucchi’s First Chair from 1983 as her favorite. De Lucchi’s creation, says Ruzgar, is one of those pieces that have “a soul, an attitude, and contribute to the overall atmosphere rather than only accomplishing their pragmatic mission.” And while she currently doesn’t own a First Chair, she definitely has her eye on acquiring one – she even has a spot picked out. “I’d have this between-fields piece in the corner of my living room, where it would have a space of its own.” In a perfect world Ruzgar would prefer artist Ayşe Erkmen’s version that employs a different material for the back and armrests. One can dream, after all.
5 – Celia Solf
“My favorite chair is the Throne Chair from New Tendency. I use it as a free-standing object in my living room, where it can basically be employed for anything: as an additional seat when there’s one missing at the dinner table, as a reading chair next to my bookshelf where it also doubles as book stand or as a table for a vase of flowers. There’s no rule for this chair, which makes it perfect for any situation.” This love letter to the utilitarian qualities of New Tendency’s minimalist throne comes by way of Celia Solf. She is the creative director for Chateau Royal – a new hotel due to open in Berlin next summer.
6 – Jockum Hallin
Hardcore fans of Our Legacy have to be quick (like, nano-second quick) to get their hands on items from the Swedish label’s limited drops (a process that has even spawned memes about their devotion). So, when it comes to taking a load off, Jockum Hallin, co-founder of the brand, likes to keep things a little less frenzied: “Alvar Aalto´s Stool 60 for Artek was designed almost 90 years ago. It’s completely timeless and can be put into any room and context,” he says. Growing up in Sweden in the 1980s, Hallin and his colleagues have been subjected to Aalto furniture from a young age. But that hasn’t kept them from furnishing the Our Legacy office, showrooms and even their private homes with Aalto’s Stool 60. “What we admire and respect with Alvar Aalto and Artek’s timeless design is the ability to exist in both worlds, to be functional and decorative at the same time”, explains Hallin – much like Our Legacy’s garments, we might add.
7 – Marie Tomanova
“I fell in love with the Cassina LC2 Petit Modele Armchair by Le Corbusier and it has been my favorite chair since the time we got it,” says photographer Marie Tomanova. “It’s standing in our living room, in front of our book shelf at our East Village apartment. I love to sit in it while drinking my morning coffee and enjoying the view of the next-door community garden full of trees and morning sunshine. The LC2 feels so cozy and comfortable, almost like it’s hugging you as you dive into the soft wool cushions. I love to collect beautiful furniture but I like it even more when it’s also practical. This chair does it all for me.” Tomanova is the chronicler of Downtown NYC’s new generation. Her series “Young American” has been featured on Purple, Forbes, Artnet and others.
Every issue of No News News features a dedicated book plate. These ex libris, as they are also called, are commissioned works of art traditionally used to indicate ownership of one’s books. This specimen was created for Ettore Sottsass, who trained as an architect before going on to design classics such as his “Miss don't you like caviar” chair:
Editor: Hans Bussert (V.i.S.d.P.)
Art Director: Enver Hadzijaj
Senior Editor: Josie Thaddeus-Johns
Proofreader: Redfern Jon Barrett
Web Development: Bruno Meilick
Image credits: Thomas Hauser, Michael Wolf
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