When the old inspires the modern and contemporary design

In 2021, at the Salone del Mobile (Furniture Fair) in Milan, the haute couture house Dior invited 17 designers and artists to present “their” version of the famous Louis XVI style medallion chair designed
by the carpenter Louis Delanois in 1769. A timeless symbol of French elegance, the medallion chair
welcomed visitors to the famous haute couture house in its boutiques. This anecdote tells you that modern and contemporary designers have often been inspired by classical furniture to express their creative talent. Here is a look at classic or modern designs
revisited with boldness and taste !

In 1972, the American-Canadian architect and designer Frank Gehry (1929) paid tribute to the Dutchman Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) and his radical creation, the Zig Zag chair. Made in 1934, the Zig Zag chair is an incredible embodiment of the letter Z. With this chair, Rietveld applied the ideas of the Dutch De Stijl movement, to which he belonged for a number of years: ‘pure’ and minimal forms in dynamic balance

Zig Zag chair, design Gerrit Rietveld, 1934. It wasn’t until 1973 that the publisher Cassina mass-produced the seat.

Gehry created the Wiggle Side Chair in 1972. As with its predecessor, the object created does not go unnoticed and its composition is questionable: cardboard plates are arranged at right angles and glued together. Surprisingly, the seat remains solid and the cardboard is malleable enough to allow for “S” shaped curves.

Wiggle Side Chair, design by Frank Gehry, 1972.
Wiggle Side Chair, detail of the cardboard construction, design by Frank Gehry, 1972.
The Zig Zag chair may also have inspired the design of Verner Panton’s 1960 Panton chair, with a more softened ‘S’ shape.

The designer Alessandro Mendini (1931-1919) became a legend in Italian design with a piece of furniture that leaves no one indifferent. In 1978 he designed the Proust armchair, a tribute to the author of A la recherche du temps perdu. Since the idea of memory and time is part of the French writer’s work, Mendini also decided to remember another era, and decided to bring the Regency-style armchair back into fashion.

Louis XV style armchair in gilded wood and Boussac blue fabric.
Pair of Regency period bergères in carved and gilded wood.

What does Mendini do? He delivers a version of a Regency shepherdess with exaggerated lines that incorporates small touches of acrylic paint, in the image of the pointillism of the painter Paul Signac. Kitsch? baroque? the Proust armchair can be appreciated in different ways, but one thing is certain: it breaks with industrial design to allow for true artistic creation.

Proust armchair, design by Alessandro Mendini, 1978. At the beginning, only about thirty unique pieces of the Proust were produced. From the 2000s onwards, publishers such as Cappellini and Magis began offering other versions of the original model.
Proust armchair, design by Alessandro Mendini, 1978.
Proust Geometrica armchair, design Alessandro Mendini, 2001. For Cappellini, Alessandro Mendini revisits his masterpiece with coloured geometric shapes reminiscent of abstraction in painting.
Photo credit: madd-bordeaux – Lysiane Gauthier
Proust armchair, design Alessandro Mendini for Magis, 2011. A version of the armchair made of rotationally moulded polyethylene, ideal for outdoor use.

In 2002, Philippe Starck (1949) proposed a new take on the Louis XVI style medallion chair, for what was to be a worldwide commercial success. The Louis Ghost chair takes up the aesthetic codes of the Louis XVI armchairs, but in all transparency! The seat borrows simple, straight lines and a tapered base from the original model, but it is made with polycarbonate injection in a single mould, a material that is both transparent and coloured. The result is a work that is both baroque and modern.

Medallion chair in the Louis XVI style covered in toile de Jouy. The medallion chair inspired the designer Christian Dior to create the cannage motif.
Louis Ghost chair, design Philippe Starck for Kartell, 2002.
Louis Ghost chair set, design Philippe Starck for Kartell, 2002. Polycarbonate, in addition to its transparency, allows for colouring: a chic, elegant and timeless chair!

You are probably familiar with the bistro chair made by the manufacturer Thonet. Made in 1851 by Michael Thonet (1796-1871), it has since travelled the world. Model No. 14 of this chair, designed in 1859, made it internationally famous: small, elegant and discreet, it can be found in all European cafés. Keen to keep the legend alive, the German publisher has since produced a whimsical and mischievous contemporary model of its famous chair: the 214 K “Knot chair”, which recalls the genius of its inventor for his mastery of the technique of bending beech wood.

Thonet chair model n°14, design Michael Thonet, 1859. The seat is made of cane, the bent wood is beech.
Chair 214 K, Thonet design, with its recognizable bow!

In 2009, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its Chair 14, Thonet teamed up with Japanese retailer Muji to offer a more streamlined version of its iconic seat. This collaboration saw English designer James Irvine, creative director at Thonet, come up with an all-wood version. Another collaboration around the 14 chair: with The Conran Shop, Thonet let the Italian designer Martino Gamper (1971) create several models derived from the original Thonet n°14.

Muji chair for Thonet, design James Irvine, 2009, Muji manufactured by Thonet collection.
Postmundus chair, design Martino Gamper for Thonet/The Conran Shop. A stylized bistro chair loosely based on the Thonet No. 14 chair.

Among contemporary designers, the German Konstantin Grcic (1965), known for his non-conformism and creativity, revisits a great classic of the living room: the famous Club chair. For the publisher Plank, he designed Avus, a seat with a refined elegance that borrows from modern processed materials and innovative technologies from the automotive and sports industries.

Avus armchair, design Konstantin Grcic for Plank, 2011. The armoured base of the ABS chair is made of a thermoformed shell, laced with polyurethane foam. An intense contrast between the rigidity of the lower seat and the flexibility of the upper shell..
Avus armchair, another view of the model, design Konstantin Grcic for Plank, 2011. The upholstery is made of polyurethane foam (fire retardant), and the cover is made of natural leather: imposing but classy.

Finally, I couldn’t end this post without mentioning 2 icons of modern design that have their inspiration in the art world. The first one originates from the bronze sculpture Floating Figure, by the French sculptor Gaston Lachaise, created in 1927. The designer couple Charles & Ray Eames transformed their vision of the work into a seat with a terribly poetic organic design! Thus was born La Chaise in 1948..

Floating Figure, sculpture by Gaston Lachaise (1927)
Photo credit: Wikipedia
The Chair, Charles & Ray Eames design, 1948. At the time of its presentation, La Chaise was a UFO: you could not only sit down, but also lie down on the seat. With its delicate, sinuous forms that evoke the female body of the original sculpture, the Chair is more than a seat, it is an art object.

The second is the interest of its Italian creators, Achille Castiglioni and his brother Pier Giacomo, in the concept of the “ready-made” theorised by the artist Marcel Duchamp. This is how they used and diverted everyday objects from their original purpose. With the famous Arco floor lamp, inspired by a fishing rod and a car headlight, the Castiglioni brothers revived this concept. The same is true when they turned a tractor seat into a stool, or when they used a bicycle seat to make a high adjustable stool!

Arco floor lamps, designed by Pier Giacomo & Achille Castiglioni for Flos, 1962. The famous floor lamp using a telescopic stainless steel rod of more than 2m, installed on a white or black Carrara marble base, is no longer in the news..
Lightheadof the Arco floor lamp, design by Pier Giacomo & Achille Castiglioni for Flos, 1962. The reflector can be adjusted in 3 positions and its height is adjustable.
Mezzadro stool, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for Zanotta, 1957. A tractor saddle used to make a stool!
Sella height adjustable stool, design by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for Zanotta, 1957. Black racing bicycle saddle, pink varnished steel stem and cast iron base.

François Boutard