Seating and Functionalism

Functionalism is a movement that developed in the 20th century, which focused on the product’s function and style/aesthetics derived from the function. There are several key factors to functionalism: simplicity, honesty of material, manufacturability, directness, etc. Among these factors, I chose to follow the history of functionalism through materials, as I believe materials had one of the most significant roles in driving the functionalist movement in the way it did.

What does material mean to an object, and how does it affect the object’s function and its form? How does one derive a “style” from materials?

In this project, I examined the relationship between materials and functionalism and its style through five chairs that were produced during the 19th and the 20th centuries.

The Thonet No. 14 was designed by Michael Thonet in 1859. This chair marks the big jump in the bentwood technology during the 19th century. The Thonet brothers developed a method of steaming wood to make it pliable, and this method was later patented in Vienna. This chair is focused on its function as a seating unit and its economy, so it is designed to require only a few similar or identical components. Its design is very standardized, without any excessive ornaments, and is thus suited for mass production, reducing the price as a result. The Thonet No. 14 is still being manufactured today, and is probably one of the world’s most successful commercial products. It is estimated that fifty million units of this chair had been made by 1930. Wood had been used to make chairs for a long time prior to this creation, but the different use of wood in the Thonet No. 14 makes the chair special. The beauty of this chair comes from the wood’s pattern and its elegant curvilinear form, as well as its economy and efficiency.

The next important stage in the development of functionalism is noted by Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair, built in 1925. Along with the rise of functionalism in the 20th century, unconventional materials started being used to make products, including chairs. The Wassily Chair consists of tubular steel bars and black canvas pieces – materials that hadn’t been used to build chairs before. The steel bars create the overall rectilinear, architectural style. The chair has a very simplistic design language, and is without any ornaments. The chair is constructed as if it were a piece of architecture, giving itself the overall industrial look. The materials – the harmony between the shiny steel bars and black canvas pieces helps the chair define its simple and honest “functionalistic” style.

The Chair Universale was the first all-plastic, injection molded chair in history. It was designed by Joe Colombo in 1965, and it is significant in fact that it is made out of plastic – another unconventional material. In the early 1900s, plastic became an increasingly popular material used in consumer goods. Joe Colombo decided to explore plastic as a chair material, and he ended up with a simple, modular, modern, and practical plastic chair. These plastic chairs were minimal, light, stackable, and cheap; they were perfect for mass production; these characteristics were made possible because they were made out of plastic. Nowadays, plastic chairs with different forms, colors, textures, weight, etc. are produced – plastic chairs are everywhere. Joe Colombo’s choice to use plastic for his chair opened up a new world of manufacturing.

Bean bag chairs became popular during the 1960s and they are still popular. A bean bag chair is basically fabric bag filled with small chunks of Styrofoam, PVC pellets, or shredded polyurethane foam. The interaction between the materials (the fillings) and the human body (the user) results in a unique form of the chair each time. I find this particular type of chair very interesting, because it highlights how material exploration can influence the form of an object. It may not seem to fit into the category of functionalism in a strict sense. However, I believe it does as bean bag chairs do provide a rather comfortable seating experience. Also, they are simple, modular, and easy to manufacture.

The Herman Miller Aeron Chair, designed by Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf in 1994, is one of the most iconic chairs in terms of ergonomic design. The concept of ergonomics became popular in the 1970s. Various materials and forms were explored to seek ergonomics, and this exploration had an impact on the style of chairs. Like the Wassily Chair, produced during the active functionalist era, the materials used in this chair are left bare to add to the overall aesthetics. These Aeron Chairs are designed so that they could be manufactured efficiently, but without compromising quality and the seating experience. These chairs are actually quite expensive (costing around $1,000), and they may seem to go against the concept of functionalism that the object has to be reasonably priced. Nonetheless, the fact that they are such high quality, well-fabricated chairs let them last longer than buying a cheaper chair that will fall quickly, and in turn, they help you save money and resources.
Chairs – they have been around in our history for a long time. Their main goal has always been the same, and will probably remain the same, which is to provide us with convenient and comfortable seating experience. However, they seem to have evolved slightly, and now they embrace a completely new important aspect, which is the ergonomics.

How do we find the balance between functionalism and ergonomics? Ideally, neither one should be sacrificed, but in reality, the two aspects need to come to a compromise. Finding the right balance is an extremely difficult task, and I believe it is the job of us, the designers. Through design, we should find the ideal balance between economy and quality (including ergonomics,) and enhance the experience of the users.


Bürdek, Bernhard E. - Design: History, Theory and Practice of Product Design
Birkhäuser, 2005






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