‘Fifty Chairs That Changed The World’ tracks 200 years of design

You may ask, why would the average American antiques buff care what the British think of their rockers? “Fifty Chairs that Changed the World” shows you that it is possible to trace the history of design in the past 150 years simply through a sequence of chairs.

“Fifty Chairs that Changed the World,” published by Conran, in partnership with England’s Design Museum, highlights items that have made a substantial impact in the world of British design. The book could be considered a “field guide” version of Judith Miller’s 336-page, five-pound treatise titled “Chairs” (2009, Conran). Note I said, “could be” considered.

“Fifty Chairs that Changed the World” is less about documenting all styles than it is about highlighting the important styles endorsed by pop culture, spanning the years 1859 to 2003. This is a book of the masses, printed for the masses.

The first chair singled out as a world changer is Thonet’s over-familiar side chair No. 14. This little, bentwood hero is an overlooked icon of modern design and mass production. In 1859 the Austrian-based Thonet broke craftsman tradition of handmade chairs by churning out a chair produced of just six pieces of steam-bent wood, ten screws and two washers. The chair’s elegant design and simple production propelled it into homes across Europe and North America.

“Fifty Chairs that Changed the World” continues, design by design, highlighting why some chairs succeeded in the marketplace while others never left the exhibition space. Joe Colombo’s Birillo is one of those chairs that never saw mass production, but made the Design Museum’s top 50 list. With Birillo (Italian for “bar stool”) Colombo tried to invent the future in the late 1960s — a time when NASA astronauts touched down on the moon. The chair looks like a sci-fi rocket or something you’d find on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The last chair highlighted is Chair_One, designed by Konstantin Grcic in 2003. Like Colombo, Grcic’s awkward-looking angles of die-cast aluminum attempts to define the future in an era (two years after 9-11) when the future also looked questionable and unfamiliar.

“Fifty Chairs That Changed The World” is the latest in the “Fifty” book series highlighting world-changing design. Other topics include dresses, cars and shoes.

This book is perfect for the furniture aficionado or those whose worldview is steeped in graphic design. Its rather contemporary window (1859-2003) makes a strong connection to those out and about at fairs and shops as well as the world’s art and design museums. ?

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