In the hot seat: The chairs designed to make an interiors statement
PUBLISHED: 07:00 25 September 2018 | UPDATED: 14:54 27 September 2018
Big screen-inspired statement chairs aren't just for the rich and famous, as Richard Burton discovered
Chairs are not just for sitting on. They make statements. And not just in the home. Some have even had their own starring roles on screen. Remember the one Donald Pleasance’s Bond villain, Blofeld, sat in, stroking a cat and disposing of his henchmen?
Or the one a naked Christine Keeler straddled for photographer Lewis Morley’s legendary 1963 image or those clubby Wingback Chesterfields Neo and Morpheus reclined in while playing out the red and blue pill scene in The Matrix.
Then there’s the mastermind chair and the various incarnations of the one all those Big Brother contestants have confessed, sniped or even wept in.
In the real world, they’re personal. As a teen I remember going to a friend’s house to be told “that’s dad’s seat”. A special place. Out of bounds. Let’s face it, we hot desk but we don’t hot chair.
Until the 20th century, with notable exceptions, they were furniture. All that changed when serious architects got involved. And, of course, manufacturing - and the rise of the middle class with the money to buy what a combination of sharp minds and technology could turn out.
They don’t even have to be all that comfortable. Take the Barcelona, a veritable work of art designed in 1929 by the German modernist pioneer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as an exhibit for a major exhibition in Barcelona, only to become a doyenne of upscale plazas everywhere.
Then there was Danish designer Arne Jacobsen’s Egg, intended as a statement piece for a posh hotel in Copenhagen in 1958, but going on to spawn hundreds of versions. And that was long before it made an appearance in Men in Black.
It was Jacobsen who was behind the Keeler chair, part of his Series 7 range and, perhaps aided by the scandalous association, went on to become one of the most successful of all time, selling more than five million.
Actually, the one Keeler sat on was a copy the photographer bought for a few shillings. Google the picture. The clue’s in the cut-out handle in the back – around belly-button height - deliberately added to get over any copyright snags.
It is likely that both were made using a technique invented by Charles Eames and his wife which allows plywood to be bent in different ways. And if you want to see their work, check out a Frasier DVD or Gossip Girl. Or Iron Man for that matter. One of their reclining lounge chairs featured in all of them.
The Eames designs have inspired many, such as those at Cult Furniture, the firm behind the Moda Rocking Chair with its deep seat with high arm sides built into curved solid wood rockers.
Interiors expert Sarah Pritchard, who runs the St Albans-based House Clinic sees an armchair as more than just furniture; something that can add a statement to a room, or “punctuating” a scheme to inject personality.
“Clients often feel more confident bringing more shape, style and colour into the room with an armchair, than say on a larger, more dominating piece such as a sofa. I encourage clients to have fun when choosing this piece,” she said.
“It should still be practical and comfortable but go for something more unexpected that creates a talking point. Avoid matching the style of the sofa - definitely no three piece suites!
“The classics such as Jacobsen’s Egg chair or Corbusier’s Grand Confort create instant impact, But if the budget doesn’t stretch to a supermodel design, you can easily reupholster an existing piece with a bold fabric to bring new life to your scheme.”
And they can be indulgent too.
The gadget retailer MenKind, which has stores in Watford and Hemel Hempsted, stocks a licensed PlayStation chair which boasts of having a 2.1 audio system in the headrest and a sub-woofer
in the seat - next to the vibration motors.
A lot simpler is the Queeboo Rabbit shaped chair from Hurn and Hurn. Made from plastic and from the drawing board of Italian designer Stefano Giovannoni, it may look a challenge but I’m told you sit on it backwards, using the ears as a backrest.
Talking of Italian style, real Piaggio scooter parts are incorporated into the Vespa range from Smither’s of Stamford. Apart from the genuine materials, the footrests are made from reclaimed boat wood.
The same supplier stocks a vintage 1920s barber chair made from recycled steel with a distressed leather headrest. Very urban, according to the marketers; very useful if you’ve got one those mobile hairdressers who pops in to give the kids a trim.
It’s been a year of innovation. At the Milanese Furniture Fair in April, where firms showcase thousands of new designs, Philippe Starck’s collection for Kartell, for example, included a range of extraordinarily curvy seating developed with a moulding technique that shapes wood veneer in ways normally reserved for plastic.
Metal features in a lot of modern designs. Brands such as the Tolix have mastered the industrial look; you’ll find something similar in the courtyard of the River Cottage restaurant at Hatfield House.
And it’s not just the specialists who are in on the act. The Sue Ryder online shop (https://shop.sueryder.org) has begun stocking a collection of new chairs “taking inspiration from younger generations and their penchant for trendy statement pieces”.
Ecommerce marketing executive Clare Farthing said: “We’ve noticed an uptick in people searching our site for higher-ticket furniture items which is why we are invested heavily in developing more interesting and trend-setting furniture, especially in the occasional and dining chair category.
“Our customers are increasingly looking for ways to create simple style statements in their homes which not only offer comfort, but which help them to stand out from the crowd.”
I asked Sarah if she has any that stand out in her crowd.
Aside from the Eames Lounger “a firm favourite” for bachelor pads, she noted: “An old faithful that delivers on comfort, form and colour every time is the Kelso by Julian Chichester – the perfect spot for curling up with a good book and coffee! I also love to use Munna Designs for a pop of fun, sitting in the Cutie is like having a hug!”
But if it is a touch of Hollywood history you’re after, there’s always Dr Evil’s Ox Chair Mike Myers used in Austin Powers to parody the James Bond Blofeld one.
That was created by the superstar Danish designer Hans Wegner in 1960. They’re available from online retailers such as Pamono but they’re not cheap.
As for the James Bond one, the original high-backed, black leather item sold at auction in California - for £12,000.
But if the design has sinister connotations, help is at hand: Hertford-based Kelly Swallow whose firm makes bespoke furniture, has her own Blofeld for sale. She describes hers as “a joyful, fun, riotous mix of colours and textures”.
A new take on an old favourite. Who says they only live twice?