June 16, 2023

Unpacking the MoMA Furniture Collection: A Brief History of Chairs

Author: Radmila Durasinovic
Tags: Design Category: magazine

Unpacking the MoMA Furniture Collection: A Brief History of Chairs

Over lunch in 1928, three women launched the radical idea of founding a museum in New York just to exhibit modern art, giving birth to the MoMA less than a year later. Over the decades, its collection has evolved to include almost 200,000 works across various art forms like paintings, sculptures, film, tv commercials, photography, books, exhibition catalogs, and video games. MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design was founded in 1932, as the first curatorial department of its kind. Today, no museum has as much power to bring furniture design into the mainstream spotlight and present iconic designs to the general public as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The design department covers major movements of the 20th century with an extensive collection of noteworthy objects that only continues to expand, now encompassing major works of the 21st century. And arguably, the most prevalent furniture type in the collection is the chair. As signifiers of social status, reflections of changing cultural norms and technological advancements and the most fertile ground for creativity and ingenuity, the history of the furniture industry is best analysed through its chairs. We explore the depths of the MoMA archives, taking a journey through modern design history to present a bite-sized account of some of the key developments of the previous and current century, as exemplified by five iconic chairs.

Vienna Café, London in 1897, Thonet No.14 in the foreground

Thonet’s No. 14: Embracing Industrialisation and the Emergence of Modern Design


Gebrüder Thonet revolutionised furniture manufacturing - their first iconic design, the 1859 chair No. 14 is still called the "chair of chairs". It cleared the way for Thonet to become a global pioneer of modern furniture design. An innovative bending technique was created, enabling the industrial serial production of a chair for the first time in history. Equally revolutionary was its distribution model – the chair could be disassembled into a few components and 36 disassembled chairs could fit into a one cubic meter box which made it easy to export to customers around the globe. With its clear, reduced and timeless aesthetics, this classic has been used in a wide variety of settings for more than 150 years. The No. 14 chair is a truly iconic design that is familiar to everyone today, with a remarkable history worthy of the MoMA archives.

Armchair 400 "Tank" © Artek

Armchair 400 “Tank”: An Iconic Symbol of Modernism

Emerging in the early 20th century as a response to the social, cultural, and technological changes of the time, modernism was a movement that sought to break away from the ornate and decorative styles of the past and embrace simplicity, functionality, and the use of new materials and manufacturing techniques. The movement spawned some of the greatest names in design such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto.

During his spectacular career, Aalto designed more than 200 buildings, but was equally successful as furniture and interior objects designer. Numerous objects he designed have become symbols of Scandinavian modernism and are still in production. The New York Museum of Modern Art has organised several exhibitions in his honor and features several of his designs in their collection. One of Aalto’s most successful designs is the Tank chair, produced to this day by Artek. The chair owes its nickname “Tank” to its distinctive wide and sturdy armrests. A favourite since the 1930s, the Armchair 400 remains effortlessly modern even today.

Tube chair © Cappellini

Tube Chair: Avant-Garde Icon of Radical Design

Postmodernism emerged as a reaction against the perceived limitations of modernism. It challenged the strict functionalism and minimalism of modernist design - with postmodern furniture, designers explored a more expressive and diverse range of styles. During the 1960s, Italy witnessed the emergence of a series of radical design movements and collectives like Anti-design, Archigram and Superstudio, that challenged traditional notions of design and aimed to bring about social and political change. In this spirit, Cesare "Joe" Colombo emerged from the world of expressionist painting and sculpture and gained significant recognition for his work during the 1960s. Within a short span of time, he developed numerous designs reflective of an era geared towards individualism, experimentation and progress, and collaborated with some of the most influential design companies. A notable example of his work is the Tube chair, which exemplifies his futuristic vision and desire to reshape living spaces through mutability and multifunctionality. Today, the Tube chair, produced by Cappellini, stands as an icon in MoMA's furniture collection due to its innovative modular and flexible design made from interchangeable elements that can be assembled at will.

Wiggle Side Chair © Vitra

The Wiggle Side Chair: Bending Boundaries

Emerging in the 1970s, deconstructivism in furniture design was inspired by the architectural movement of the same name. It sought to challenge conventional ideas of form, structure, and functionality. With the aim of disrupting and fragmenting traditional design principles, deconstructivist furniture was both visually provocative and conceptually complex.

Along with names like Ron Arad and Shiro Kuramata, Frank Gehry has made significant contributions to the development of deconstructivism, with striking and unique forms that often straddle the border between reality and fantasy. And while today he is renowned as an architect, 1972 was the year Gehry’s career gained traction – not for his architecture, but for his furniture instead. The Easy Edges line was released and the standout was the Wiggle Side Chair. Experimenting with the cardboard, a material he kept around for making models, he found it extremely strong, yet easily sculpted into the unusual shapes. With the series, Gehry succeeded in bringing a new aesthetic dimension to such an everyday material as cardboard. The iconic chair is simple in design and very comfortable, but also robust.  Though deservedly featured in the MoMA collection, Gehry worried its popularity would eclipse his architecture, but fortunately sold the rights to Vitra where it is still produced to this day.

Fjord chair © Patricia Urquiola

Fjord Chair: An Example of Contemporary Design Excellence

Today, furniture design is characterised by a wide range of styles and influences, reflecting the dynamic nature of the field. It incorporates technological advancements, sustainability practices, and customization options, while blurring the boundaries between design disciplines. One of the stand-out designs of the 21st century part of the MOMA collection is Patricia Urquiola’s Fjord chair. Drawing inspiration from seashells, the chair's fluid curves and gentle lines create a visually dynamic and sculptural appearance. The Fjord Chair, produced by Moroso, embodies Urquiola's design philosophy, combining functionality, aesthetics, and a profound appreciation for organic forms inspired by nature. Like its predecessors, it pushes the boundaries of design through innovation in form, materials and ergonomics, earning its spot in the MoMA archives, where it can inspire future generations and contribute to the ongoing dialogue on design evolution.

June 16, 2023 Author: Radmila Durasinovic
Tags: Design Category: magazine

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