Vintage armchair: Its history and icons
Vintage armchairs have become increasingly popular in recent years. They bring a touch of history and an extra soul to a contemporary and standardised interior design. At least 20 years old, they bear witness to the demands of their time, the issues and hopes of a past society. Focus on the vintage armchair of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.
The 40’s: The meeting of aestheticism and utility
We have deliberately chosen to deal with aspects of the vintage chair from the 1940s onwards and the “modern design” style (we will not discuss here the Art-deco, Art Nouveau, etc. styles still influential in the 1940s).
These years were characterised by a major historical event: the Second World War. The economic and social context was therefore complex. The desire and need for reconstruction marked the second half of the decade. In this particular context, great designers emerged and tried to transcribe the demands and needs of the time in their creations, and in particular in their armchairs. In 1940, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA) organised the competition ” The organic design in home furniture “. Through this event, the museum wished to highlight new talents who were keen to create furniture that was both beautiful and useful. Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames will together propose several pieces including the Organic Chair.
At the time, only a particularly realistic visual of the prototype was presented. It would take ten years for the chair to be produced and marketed by Vitra. The forms are fluid, pure and organic, the materials are light and not superfluous. These characteristics make it possible to offer optimal comfort thanks to a shell that is ideal for the points of contact with the body. On the other side of the Atlantic, more particularly in France, Jean Prouvé met with great success, notably with the Visiteur armchair (1942).
This piece, which is particularly comfortable thanks to its removable cushions, is functional but also aesthetic and calls for conviviality. In Germany, the Bauhaus school also saw the emergence of numerous armchairs under the influence of the “modernist” style.
Following the Second World War, Europe faced a great industrial shortage and could not benefit from the same resources as those available in the United States. Designers therefore used readily available materials. A true design approach marked the vintage chair of the 1940s. European designers were driven by the conviction that the continent’s future could only be achieved through export. Some very beautiful pieces were created during this period, such as :
Jean Royère and the Fauteuils Boules (1947)
Hans Wegner and the CH27 Model (1949)
Italian designers have been particularly successful in creating elegant but comfortable vintage armchairs (foam rubber upholstery from Pirelli). They are the starting point for the sculptural approach.
Carlo Mollino and the Ardea armchair (1944)
The 50’s: Sculpture and purity
The society of the 1950’s was lulled by theAmerican way of life : an idealized life in a warm interior. These years were the beginning of the consumer society and the advent of mass-produced furniture. The vintage armchairs of this decade are a continuation of the sculptural approach of the late 1940s that emerged in Italy. Techniques and materials made great advances in the early 1950s. Thermoplastic, steel, aluminium and formica are therefore very present in a vintage armchair from the 1950s. These technical improvements led to the creation of functional armchairs with clean, modern lines. The legs are very slender and the colour is more present and more vivid. The style of the 50’s design armchairs reflects a joyful society wishing for a cosy decoration.
Great names in design created armchairs during this period that have become mythical:
Verner Panton, a Danish designer, has created numerous armchairs. The first ones date back to the 1950s, with the famous Bachelor. Intended for young people, this armchair was very popular because it was easy to dismantle. The C1 model stood out for its geometry. Originally, the foot was cone-shaped, but this variant of the model is very rare.
Hans Wegner is a great name among 20th century chair designers. The Teddy Bear chair is named after the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It is known for its excellent comfort. The Sawbuck chair is characteristic of Danish design in its modernity. It combines quality, comfort and functionality.
Arne Jacobsen, Danish designer and architect is one of the representatives of the functionalist movement. In 1957 he created the Egg Chair, a mythical piece of furniture thanks to its original and innovative design. The Egg Chair has stood the test of time with its avant-garde design and renowned robustness. The Swan chair, created the same year, was designed for the Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, a place built by Jacobsen. It is also very comfortable and original.
Both chairs have curves instead of straight lines, which was visionary for the time.
Pierre Paulin, French designer, is famous for his work on seating and the materials used in the design of armchairs. The Oyster model has particularly thin legs that make the shell seem to float. This imbalance creates a particularly aesthetic and elegant ensemble.
Lina Bo Bardi armchair
Italian architect and close friend of the designer Gio Ponti, Lina Bo Bardi has met with great success in Brazil, her adopted country. The Bowl armchair is her best-known creation. The legs are slender, the round and comfortable shell is designed to be able to rotate at the convenience of the person sitting.
Marco Zanuso, an Italian designer, created the Senior armchair in 1951. This model is very innovative: it contains latex foam instead of springs. This allowed the designer to create an armchair with bold lines.
Gio Ponti is also an Italian designer renowned for his innovative vision. The visionary curves and shapes of this armchair have made the Distex one of Ponti and Cassina’s greatest successes. Timeless, it has always been as attractive as ever.
Charles & Ray Eames
Charles and Ray Eames are famous for their “plastic chairs”, chairs made of fibreglass (LINK article) and for the numerous chairs with modern shapes and a certain comfort. The Aluminium models were created after three years of work. This chair is used in offices, but it is interesting to know that it was originally designed for outdoor use. The Eames couple wanted to make up for the lack of garden furniture.
The 60s: A need for freedom
The sixties were the “freedom” years. The youth of the time no longer felt in tune with the values promulgated by the previous years. Designers wanted to break the codes of design and fight against conservative values. The desire to experiment with new shapes and materials is reflected in each of the chairs created during the 1960s. They are innovative in their approach: the seat loses a few centimetres in order to give a more relaxed posture to the person sitting. The shapes are fanciful and meet the needs of the youth of the time to be able to change armchairs according to their desires.
As its name suggests, the Concorde armchair was designed to decorate the Air France lounge for Concorde flights at Charles-de-Gaulle airport. This vintage armchair was a great success as it was particularly comfortable. It offered Air France customers a real moment of relaxation before boarding the Concorde. This was the beginning of a series of other armchairs for public places, such as the Louvre Museum.
Eero Aarnio’s Bubble chair is captivating because of its innovation: a suspended bubble. Made of acrylic glass and steel, this chair offers its user a unique perception of light. The Bulle armchair is still a mythical piece today.
The Toy armchair by the designer Rossi Molinari is also representative of the pop and carefree style of the 1960s in its shapes and materials. It is also made of acrylic glass.
The Girolle armchair takes its name from the shape it inspires. Created in polyester and fibreglass, it embodies the desire of the designers of the 1960s to innovate through style and to respond to the light-hearted spirit that animated the youth of the time.
Joe Colombo is an Italian designer who has designed many armchairs including the Superleggera model. Very ergonomic thanks to its components (walnut, PVC, foam padding and leather), its design is really surprising. This armchair is a legendary piece from the 60s.
The 70s: A quest for modernity
Real experimentation has taken place. The shapes of the armchairs are round, the colours are acidic and even psychedelic. These creations seduced design enthusiasts, who expressed great dissatisfaction when the chairs became more sober following the great crisis of 1973.
Gianfranco Facchetti, Umberto Orsoni, Gianni Pareschi, Giuseppe Pensotti and Roberto Ubaldi found the design group Gruppo G14. The Fiocco armchair is a model that reflects the experimental research of the designers of the time.
The Attica armchair designed by Studio 65 evokes columns and classical architecture. An amusing and original armchair, it is also symbolic of the pop spirit that animated the designers of the 1970s.
Pierre Vandel is a French designer. He created the Vertèbres armchair in the early 1970s. Made of steel and leather, it is imposing and reminiscent of the backbone. Original and particular, it knows how to seduce the amateurs of vintage armchair of the 70s.
Panton’s range of System armchairs has won over both private and professional customers. It can be found in homes as well as offices. Panton has created a wide range with many different upholstery options.
Recognising a vintage armchair
Vintage armchairs, whether from the 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s, are seductive because of their authenticity, originality and history. Major publishers are re-producing the great landmark pieces of those years. Once the reproduction rights have been purchased, it is possible for them to produce an armchair that meets the exact criteria of the original designer. The reissued chairs are of high quality and provide the promised comfort.
Inspirations and copies
When surfing on the internet, it is easy to find websites offering armchairs directly inspired by the designs of the time. Please note that these are not re-editions, but copies. Moreover, the law requires that the words “inspired by” appear clearly. However, the quality and comfort will be much lower than in an original edition or even a re-edition and the resale value will be almost zero.
Some sites do not take into account the rules in force and sell online copied pieces, without legal mention, thus generating confusion in the minds of Internet users and enthusiasts. The best sign of deception is the price, which is much lower than the original model. The materials used are much less noble and give a clue to the unauthentic nature of the pieces offered.
We invite you to read “1000 chairs” published by Taschen, by Charlotte and Peter Fiell, in order to discover a large panorama of vintage armchairs from the 20th century.