HH Richardson & the Power of Place

Henry Hobson Richardson uses strength and materiality to convey a sense of place.  His architecture is full of meaning.  A particular favorite of mine is the Ames Gate Lodge in North Easton, Massachusetts, built around 1880.  It is the entry structure for an estate belonging to the son of the president of the Transcontinental Railway.  The Gate Lodge uses form and materials to conjure images of Massachusetts, the railroad and America.

The massive rubble stones evoke the image of the walls that divide New England farm fields, but in a more primordial way.  It has permanence, almost as though it had been deposited there eons ago.

The arch, reminiscent of the many Roman arches he studied in France is simply a railroad tunnel.  But it’s not just a railroad tunnel.  The way that it pushes back against the immense walls gives it muscularity. The arch, as powerful as it is, would not create such emotional impact without one thoughtful detail; the eyelid dormer.  It gives us the impression that the arch is not only pushing up on the mass of the building, but pressing through it.  It breathes life into the building.  The arch and dormer rise up as though the building is shouldering the weight of time.  Richardson brings life to buildings through materials like no other architect.

It is the combination of mass, rugged texture and muscularity that bring us the image of America.  The building symbolizes America’s view of itself at the time; a wealth of raw, natural resources and potential energy.


Thonet’s Chair No. 14

Michael Thonet was an innovative furniture maker. He spent the early 1840s perfecting a technique to steam bend solid beech. Once soften by steam, the wood could be molded by using a press. He combined this technique with other time and money saving methods. He began using standard components; the same bentwood piece could be used for a variety of applications. More importantly, the furniture could be constructed from fewer pieces and did not need any complex joints. Michael Thonet, Chair No. 14, 1859 In 1853, he opened a factory, Gebruder Thonet, in Vienna.

Thonet, Chair No. 14

There he focused on designing flat-pack furniture that was assembled after arriving at its final destination. In 1859, these ideas combined with the needs of Viennese café culture to culminate in his most significant design, Chair No. 14. This light, durable chair is made out of six components. It was affordable and attractive, so much so that it is still in production.

It has inspired many other chairs. Alessandro Mendini created Re-Thonet in 1978. Alessandro

A. Mendini, Re-Thonet

Mendini, Re-Thonet, 1978 With this chair, he is celebrating Michael Thonet as the last great innovator in chair design. He honors the chemistry and science behind the bentwood process with the amoeba/atom form adorning the back.

Wulf Schneider, Model 290F, 1998In 1998, In 1998, Wulf Schneider designed Model 290F for Gebruder Thonet. It is composed of three pieces, one of bentwood and two of plywood. The seat is even the off-cut from the back/back legs. It was heralded as a green innovation, but is it even as green as the original? The form of the front legs/arms prevents it from being flat pack and the connections are far more substantial than No. 14.

W. Schneider, Model 290F

I recently ran across this piece, 002 by Jaroslav Jurica. He designed it as a competition entry to celebrate the 150th anniversary of TON (the current name of Jaroslav Jurica, 002, 2011Gebruder Thonet) and the manufacture of bentwood furniture. His concept is meant interconnect old bentwood technology with a new approach to design. This chair is only 2 bentwood pieces (which are based on the same mold) and a plywood seat. Chair No. 14 is inspirational in many ways. Its form, its technology, and its early green aspirations come to mind. We can learn a lot from a chair that is as relevant today as it was when it was introduced in 1859.

J. Juroslav, 002

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King Tut’s Resting Place(s)

This post is inspired by my visit to the King Tut Exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.  The furniture was in exceptional condition, and well displayed in glass cases so I could get a good look at it.  The desert climate of Egypt and obscurity of Tut’s tomb even preserved the woven rush webbing of the bed.


The furniture of Tut’s tomb is representative of furniture owned by Egyptian elite, only much more elaborate.  It’s not more elaborate only because it belonged to a king, but because it was made for use in the afterlife.  Ancient Egyptians were pretty much obsessed with the idea of life after death.  After the physical body died, the “ba” (a combination of the spirit, soul and personality) lived on for eternity and required all the trappings of life.  Because these items were to be used for the rest of time, they had to be of a quality that would last – both as an object and in aesthetic appreciation.

This chair is an interesting example because its design is similar to a fixed stool, but was obviously designed to have a back attached.  It is most likely acacia wood – a very resilient species found in North Africa and the Middle East.  After carving, it was painted with gesso and then gilded.

The seat is double coved in form, which is common for fixed stools.  The form harkens back to folding stools with x shaped legs that would have been covered with a leather seat.  The seat retains this form because of the royal associations of the stool.

The legs are those of lions.  This transfers the symbolic power of the animal to the sitter.  Notice that not only are the feet facing forward, but they are anatomically correct.  The front paws still have dew claws and the rear legs bend appropriately at the knee and ankle.  They are raised off the floor by a drum so the symbolic chair would not rest upon the dirt.

The legs are joined by perimeter stretchers which bind decorative panels.  The openwork is of intertwined papyrus and lotus, which represents the unification of northern and southern Egypt.

The inclined back is characteristic of later chairs.  The profile of an open triangle is formed by the decorative back and three struts that attach the seat rail to the crest of the chair.

The bed displays features common to ancient Egyptian beds. Notice that it has the lion paw on drum foot design of the chair.  The direction these feet point indicate the front of the bed.  As with most Egyptian beds, the head is open and the decorative piece is the footboard.  It also dips in the middle and the head end is raised higher than the foot.  The bed surface is woven through slots punched in the rails.

A series of Chairs

I fretted and stewed over what to write about first, as though the first move I make defines the entire project.  I soon realized that writing for me is sort of like design, it will evolve and revolve, come around to full circle and then eventually pass it.  So it doesn’t matter where I start, it will go where it goes.  So I will write about what I’ve been discussing with my students in class.

I want to show you a series of chairs from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, by different designers.  They may not seem to have much in common, but that is what will come to define the deeper question of this post.

credit: Verner Panton, Basle

Verner Panton, Living Environment, 1968

How does one sit on this thing?  One of the points of this chair is to get the observer to question what furniture is.  How does

one sit?  Does it need to look like a chair to sit on it?

We consider how to use this piece of furniture.  Panton is begging us to interact with it, to allow us to free our inner child and see what we

can do with this thing that confronts us.  Imagine that this is what any old sofa looks like to a toddler.

Gaetano Pesce, Up 5 and Up 6, 1969

credit: B&B Italia, Novedrate

This chair is interesting to this discussion for two reasons.  First, when shipped it is vacuum packed in a box to 10% of its final size.  The chair doesn’t just arrive, it happens before your eyes.

Second, it is furniture as social commentary.  Its form is obviously that of a woman.  It is connected to the ottoman.  We can read this in many different ways.  Are we to curl up in her womb with our head between her breasts to receive comfort?  Is she just a receptacle for us for a moment?  Has she just given birth and created new life?  Or is she shackled to her responsibilities?  Pesce wants us to decide who this chair is.

Credit: Hiroyuki Hirai, Toyko

Shiro Kuramata, How High the Moon, 1986

Materiality and form are explored.  It is a tremendous volume without any mass.  Occupying space without blocking the view.  Kuramata made this chair as much for contemplation as for use.

Wendell Castle, Chair with Sport Coat, 1978

Wendell Castle, Inc. Scottsville, NY

The act of craft is thoroughly on display.  It makes sense that this chair is carved as one piece, it design is impractical and impossible for mass production.  Castle uses the chair as a medium.

This brings me back to my question, “What do these chairs have in common?”  For me, it is one thing – is a chair art or is a chair furniture?  We are invited to contemplate these pieces more than we are asked to sit in them.  They were conceived and exist as more than just functional objects.  Can all chairs be viewed in this way?

I look forward to your comments and continued discussion on the matter.

Intent and Purpose

I teach architecture and interior design history at a small college and I am passionate about the subject.  My goals here are many, and for some reason I feel like I have to list them.

  • I love the development of architecture, interior design and furniture across time and culture.
  • I want to share my passion with a wider audience.
  • It will give me the motivation to continue research and analysis.
  • It forces me to learn something new – technology.
  • I want to write.  Maybe even get published someday.
  • Hopefully a textbook.  Did you know there isn’t a good one on design from 18oo to the present?

Eventually, this will be buried under hundreds of more interesting posts, but for now, it is a place to start.