Chair(s) with Gregor: Introduction and Episode 1

INTRODUCTION

By: Gregor Wittrick

The Series 7 (or model 3107) chair was designed in 1955 and has remained in constant production ever since. Fritz Hansen, who make the chair, claim it is the most sold chair in their history. Therefore positing that it might be the most sold chair in history of furniture… Bold. An unreferenced Wikipedia article even goes as far as suggesting that the Series 7 is the most copied chair in the history of chairs! But to be honest, I have found no concrete proof of that.

In this series I’ll try to tease as many stories as possible from the Series 7 design and the many many Series 7 chairs in existence – whether they are ‘real’ or not. In doing so, I intend to look beyond the chair’s ‘iconic’ status and look at it as a designed object created for a particular purpose: sitting down. Looking past the chair’s symbolism will allow me to ask more pertinent questions about its physical properties – materials, methods of construction, form and other features – and its immaterial qualities – its place within the furniture of the 1950s, its context of Danish furniture, relationship with the body, and its comfort level (which I think is undervalued in the study of seating furniture) etc. – and their origins and histories where possible.

The project  is a response to a couple of things. First, it’s a response to so-called iconic designs losing their function and becoming systems of representation. Removing the aura around certain objects, and ignoring the mythologies which surround them and their designers, elucidates our view of the object and helps us consider it without the weight of their anecdotes and myths. This, in turn, can clear the way for new ways of thinking about these objects, new stories to tell from them, and connections to different, perhaps overlooked, objects and their stories. Second, it’s a response to the narrow range of histories that iconic objects are made to tell. Usually, these histories refer to the designer and the style and how groundbreaking or representative these objects were of the period. By using the Series 7 chair as a starting point I want to demonstrate how varied the outcomes of object-based research can be, and how much there is to discover and learn by focusing solely on one object and its relation to the world.

I’ve chosen the Series 7 Chair specifically for its status as an iconic designed object and for the vast number of stories it might tell (and because I like chairs). As with any project of this nature, I am liable to make mistakes, I may fail to overlook a certain element of myth, I might even discuss something seemingly irrelevant… As such, rebuttals, criticisms and comments are always welcome, so please be in touch (but be nice).

 

Episode 1:

MATERIAL AND METHOD

First things first: what is the Series 7 made of?

According to the manufacturer’s graphs, the chair is made of plastic (for the brackets – 2%), steel (for the legs – 42%) and laminated beech wood (for the seat – 56%). Given the predominance of the laminated beech wood, that is what I will be looking at this month. What follows is a brief introduction to plywood, its methods of manufacture and uses throughout history. If that doesn’t float your boat, turn away now.

The manufacturer’s product description is as follows: “The shell of the Series 7 chair is made in pressure moulded veneer – seven layers of inner veneer and two outer veneers, in the front and in the back of the shell. The inner veneer is always beech and the outer veneer is available in ten different natural veneers.” This is a long-winded way of saying plywood. The chair is made of plywood. Beech plywood to be specific. Interestingly, the word ‘plywood’ does not feature at all in the manufacturer’s product fact sheet. This probably says more about the public perception of the material than anything else, but we aren’t going to get into that now. (The semiotics surrounding the chair and its component parts might feature in another essay… Keep your eyes peeled!).

What is plywood?

Plywood is a composite wood made up of very thin sheets of wood called veneers. The veneers are glued together with the grain of each sheet running in the opposite directions to the previous one. This cross-graining, as it is called, gives plywood its stiffness and stability by spreading any defects across several layers, which allows it to be moulded without splitting. The cross-graining also decreases the wood’s tendency to expand and shrink in response to humidity and prevents warping. All of this, and the material’s high strength-to-weight ratio, makes plywood a really versatile material, and encourages its use in many different fields, as we will see later. Plywood is made in boards of standard dimensions which are only limited by the methods of manufacture, rather than the size of trees. The standardisation facilitates its uses in design and manufacture as makers and manufacturers know exactly what to expect each time they order the product.

Why does this matter, you might ask?

What’s the point in an introduction to plywood? Personally, I think that any knowledge of materials is useful and kind of important. Maybe even more so than usual in the case of plywood. Plywood is used in the manufacture of so many everyday objects and in the construction of longer lasting structures that it is difficult to ignore. Knowledge, however introductory, of how things are made and what they are made of allows us a better understanding of our built environment. This, in turn, helps us understand where these things come from, where they have been manufactured, by whom, under what conditions, how we can get rid of them, and what longer-lasting effect they might have. Considering these factors brings us closer to the object we use on a daily basis. This can help us consider how we interact with our environment, other people, and the available resources on the planet. This introduction isn’t necessarily environmental (maybe it is…?) but I suppose that I’m trying to suggest that you should think about everything as being a small part of a larger ecology, a group of interconnected things and beings which all deserve some (not necessarily equal) consideration before creation, use and disposal.

How is it used?

Plywood has a long history of use in furniture manufacture. Examples of mid-eighteenth century furniture survive where a few thick veneers are used in the place of solid hardwood. Most notably in this period it was used to create the pierced decorative elements on certain styles of furniture (Fig.1). In these cases, replacing solid wood with plywood avoided wasting expensive materials in delicate work and prevented the wood from expanding and contracting where large areas were pierced. Additionally, plywood made from thick veneers was used for large, flat surfaces such as table tops. From the second half of the nineteenth century new manufacturing methods allowed for plywood to be moulded in two dimensions. Veneers, which could now be cut much thinner, were pressed into heated moulds one by one with adhesive between each layer. This allowed plywood boards to be shaped along one axis while retaining one straight edge. Think of it as bending a long sheet of paper in only one direction. Shapes like this would previously have needed large required large pieces of wood and hours of carving to create. This technique meant that the same shapes could be made by forming and gluing thin sheets together, making it much  cheaper and less time consuming while also significantly decreasing the weight of the finished product. Manufacturers using this technique continued to employ older ideas of luxury and value by using veneers form highly-prized woods on the visible veneers, while using cheaper woods for the inner structural veneers. As we saw from the Series 7 information sheet, this still happens today.

From the mid-nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century, plywood formed in two dimensions was put to an ever-increasing range of uses. In the years preceding WWI, the growing aviation industry took advantage of plywood’s strength and lightness to build different aeroplane parts. The rise in the number of planes designed and built during and after the war lead to improvements in the manufacture of plywood and its use in aviation. Aircraft could be designed and built with greater wing-span or narrower wings, depending on the intended use of the plane (Fig.2) In architecture, building and construction plywood was used from the 1920s for structural and aesthetic purposes. Because it’s produced in large sheets, plywood is ideal for covering large flat surfaces such as walls. The sheets can have similar grain patterns and colour, which, when used to cover a large area, creates a particular aesthetic that is now associated with certain architectural styles of the 20s and 30s. In boat making, plywood was used for it ease of manufacture and lightness. It’s cost and stability was also put to use by the shipping industry who used it for flat-packable chests to import tea into Britain until the 1930s. This use is still obvious today, most notably in the flat-packed furniture of the famous Swedish manufacturer.

Unlike the furniture I have discussed so far, the Series 7 chair is created from a single moulded in three dimensions. Rather than being formed on one axis, it is curved along both, creating a structure with no straight elevation. This process puts the wood under great stress and can lead to it splitting when it is pushed too far. Thinking back to the sheet of paper, this would be like bending it along both sides at once (it’s much easier if you can cut a small section out of the paper and allow sections to overlap). Although there had been attempts to do so a century earlier, the method of 3D moulding plywood wasn’t achieved until the 1940s. The process was developed by a small group of American designers attempting to create three dimensionally moulded plywood furniture. However, their techniques were put to a different use during WWII as they perfected their methods while creating splints for injured soldiers (Fig.3)

Using plywood in furniture clearly wasn’t new by the time the Series 7 was created, nor was 3D forming plywood. But despite the age of its material and production methods, the Series 7 is a really good example of an object which uses the all of the material’s qualities to its advantage. The use of plywood makes the chair lighter than a similarly comfortable hardwood chair. The hourglass-esque shape of the seat and back allows a good balance of flexibility and rigidity for comfort and support. One of the chairs from the same series as the Series 7 was designed in collaboration with a medical professional to improve the lumbar support offered by the chair. Another of the earlier chairs in the same series, the Ant Chair, was the first chair of Danish design to be made from three dimensionally moulded plywood. Prior to the Ant Chair, much Danish furniture was made from solid wood, especially teak. It’s often said that introduction of 3D moulded plywood to the repertoire of Danish design helped imbue a certain ‘material sensitivity’ into the modern movement and brought about many objects which are now seen as ‘classics’ of industrial and product design.

Today plywood is used extensively in digital manufacturing processes. It’s standardised manufacture, cost, availability and sustainability (when appropriately sourced) make it an ideal wood for DIY maker projects. These projects combine innovative methods of manufacture and distribution and more traditional design skills to make remotely designed objects available for local manufacture across the globe (or wherever there is an internet connection, plywood and a laser cutter…) (Fig.4). Projects like these are reinvigorating plywood, giving it modern, even technological connotations despite its age.

See – all this from a chair! … and it’s only the first edition… Returning to my original concerns about the abundance of biographical histories of things through their designers, looking at material and methods of constructions helps us view all (or at least most) objects in a more objective (hehe) light. Anything made was made from something and in a certain way, and understanding these materials and processes helps us compare the object’s properties (flaws and benefits) to other objects and make choices for use based on properties, rather than myth and hype.

This short introduction to the history of plywood is really just the beginning. A few of the topics I have touched upon in here could be interesting to explore in more detail. For example, the amount of plywood waste created in the manufacture of the Series 7 (or any single mass-produced item for that matter), how the sheets are cut in its creation and how much of a single tree that amounts to, etc.; the geographies of manufacture from the origins of the beech, to the location of its manufacture into plywood, and the moulding and finishing of the seat; a more extensive history of plywood in furniture manufacture… Loads of things.

 

References and some further reading:

Christopher Wilk and Elizabeth Bisley, Plywood: A Material Story (London: Thames and Hudson, Victoria & Albert Museum, 2017)

Glenn Adamson, Fewer Better Things (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)

Marilyn and John Neuhart, The story of Eames furniture by Marilyn Neuhart; with John Neuhart (Berlin: Gestalten, 2010)

Rob Thompson, The Materials Sourcebook for Design Professionals (London: Thames & Hudson, 2017)

Sandra Dachs, Patricia de Muga and Laura Garcia Hintze, eds, Arne Jacobsen (Madrid: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2010)

Seetal Solanki, Why Materials Matter (London: Prestel, 2018)

Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (London: Pelican, 2018)

Model 3107 chair – Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Model_3107_chair>

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