M.C. Escher, Dutch graphic artist, birthday 17 June 1898
Charles Eames, Jr., American designer, birthday 17 June 1907
In connection with the opening of NeoCon World’s Trade Fair opening this week in Chicago it seems almost fitting that Thomas Chippendale is highlighted. Today it is seemingly child’s play to get one’s goods to market compared to two hundred or even one hundred years ago. In this day and age a simple internet connection can have one distributing one’s designs worldwide. And yet, events like NeoCon are still essential to the design market by not just bringing all these innovative items together into one space for comparison and collaboration but also for offering an opportunity to figuratively take the temperature of the design waters to gain a perspective of where the industry is going as only seeing these items all together in person could offer. In the time of Thomas Chippendale, things were a bit more complicated. It could be said that Chippendale is the inventor of the design book with the publication of The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director.
When one sees what would be described as a “Chippendale” chair, it does not mean that he actually built it, was built in his factory or even really designed it. It just means that the furniture maker used his catalogue of design as a guide with the customer to create the piece; it is “in the style of” Chippendale. It was a brilliant communication method between craftsman and customer. That’s right, hard to believe but most furniture pieces before the Industrial Revolution were made to order and the genius of Chippendale was that he didn't even need to be present when it happened for his influence to be. This lead to other designers like Hepplewhite and Sheraton to publish their own books. Today the concept that you could have an item designed by someone in Italy, manufactured in China and then delivered to the US within a matter of weeks is commonplace. For Thomas Chippendale, it was more lucrative to sell his book which was easier to ship and established himself as the style of the era.
It would make sense when looking at his work that Maurits Cornelis Escher started out studying architecture. Soon, due to poor grades and an inclination for drawing rather than building he switched his study to the decorative arts. After marveling at the intricate tessellation patterns that adorned the Alhambra he settled in Italy for a time and eventually the back in the Netherlands. The fascination of the impossibility of Escher’s images is what attracts most to his work. Staircases go in circles, inhabitants defy gravity, inanimate drawings become alive and then back again. His engineer father may have been disappointed he was not successful in architecture but today his work does more to influence not just architecture but mathematics and science than if he had.
Another famous furniture maker was Charles Eames. Along with his wife Ray and their highly influential studio they essentially defined what mid-century modern design is. It must be said, with all the wonderful designs produced by this team, and most of which I would like to own, there is just one that I never want to see in my house. That is the infamous lounge. I know most people disagree with me on this but I just can’t stand the sight of the thing. What is strange is that I don’t have this reaction to any other piece of furniture. I marvel at the complexity of their plywood manipulation. I adore the Eiffel tower base. Who doesn’t want a chair from the aluminum group in their office? And the walnut stools…yes, I’ll take three. Not to mention, as a couple, they look like they would be a hoot to hang with, just don’t ever ask me to sit in that awful chair.
Charles was smart enough to employ a great team of designers whose mark on design is far reaching, not just in furniture design. They conceptualized the pre-fab house and examined scale on a universal and microscopic level in film. The manner in which the office operated was groundbreaking as well. Unlike most design firms of the time, gone were the straight rows of drafting tables. It looked more like controlled chaos with large worktables which encouraged collaboration among the team. The clear genius of Charles is evident to this day. So, I guess I can forgive one small chair.