Monday, January 21, 2019

"ARCHITECT-DESIGNED" STUFF: Maybe We Should Stick to Buildings

Architect Gerrit Rietveld designed his iconic chairs—
this one dates from the early 1920s—as sculptural
statements. He didn't consult his butt regarding the design.
Architects, it seems, feel compelled to put their stamp on many things besides buildings. There are architect-designed lamps, architect-designed teapots, toilets, and lighting fixtures, and (heaven help us) architect-designed furniture. Few of these designs are particularly distinguished, despite the enormous publicity they often engender.  

What makes people think an architect is qualified to design everyday, utilitarian objects? You wouldn’t hire a surgeon to rebuild your motor; why expect an architect to excel at designing kitchenware? We architects are trained to design buildings. While many of us would like to think we’re just as dandy at designing other things, the facts don’t seem to bear this out.  

Frank Loyd Wright frequently designed furniture for his
houses; this dining set was for Chicago's famed Robie House
of 1909.  Wright was probably not the only one to be
black and blue from sitting in his furniture.
The architect’s compulsion to design more than just buildings dates way back. Stanford White, the darling of the late-nineteenth-century Vanderbilt crowd, was known to design not only the villas of the rich, but to choose their interior furnishings and decorate their parties as well. The “I-do-it-all” schtick didn’t really get rolling until the Modernists arrived, however. Because of the close alliance between Modernist architects and painters, sculptors, and other artists, early Modernists were early on bitten by the need to create some art and sculpture of their own.  

Wright's original chair design for the
S.C. Johnson Administration Building (1939):
It was redesigned with four legs.
Unfortunately, these works usually took the form of bizarre and unusable furniture that wasn’t much good for anything besides looking at. Architect Gerrit Rietveld's famed chair, designed in 1917 and built in various forms for a number of years afterward, was a stunning piece of sculpture, but a dubious place to park your hiney. More famous yet is Mies van der Rohe's so-called Barcelona Chair, a work of incomparable elegance, but once again an ergonomically unkind object in which to sit.

American Standard's Platner
toilet: Not a moneymaker,
but certainly a conversation piece.
Frank Lloyd Wright was perhaps the king of veering from his lane of expertise. Wright himself is quoted as saying, "I have been black and blue in some spot, somewhere, almost all my life from too intimate contacts with my own furniture." Early in his career, Wright designed the dining table and chairs in his own Oak Park studio, where they engender grimaces from tourists to this day. This experience didn't seem to dissuade him, however, as even in the twilight years of his career, he provided office furniture designs for the S.C. Johnson Administration Building. These included a three-legged chair whose disturbing—if predictable—tendency to tip over required it to be revised into a four-legged version.

One of Katerina Kamprani's "Uncomfortable" items:
Finally, an architect who gets it.
(Image courtesy of Katerina Kamprani)
Despite the less-than stellar history of architect-designed household objects, attaching the names of architects to products continued to hold cachet. Hence, in the late 1980s, American Standard featured a line of plumbing fixtures designed by architect Warren Platner. The rather amorphous toilet and sink designs didn't sell especially well, but are surely collector's items by now.

One clever architect, Athens-based Katerina Kamprani, has turned the whole architect-designed-object fiasco on its head by creating what she calls "The Uncomforable"—a series of everyday objects that are deliberately unusable right from the outset. Apparently, Kamprani knows something that most of us haven't figured out yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment