Exactly why modern architects—from Mies to Gehry—have found furniture design appealing is anyone’s guess, but one has to assume that experimentation with form and materials is more painlessly accomplished with a piece of furniture than with a building.
No matter; the furniture forays of architects have always been good news for those of us living in a world in which a Gehry-designed house may be a pipe dream, but owning a set of his chairs is not.
And for those seeking outdoor furniture with modern panache, architects continue to come through, well, swimmingly. While Eames and Bertoia wire chairs have long been exalted indoor/outdoor icons, these four classics, and classics-in-the-making are high-quality, lasting, affordable alternatives for al fresco dining.
For a chair to have ‘classic’ potential, it has to be distinctive. The Piana folding chair, designed in 2011 by the British architect and designer David Chipperfield, has a bucketful of distinctions. It can be folded flatly enough to be either stacked horizontally or hung vertically. Its lightweight polypropylene parts are ingeniously engineered to move on a single axis. There’s no visible hardware holding it all together. And it’s recyclable. All that, and an impossibly beautiful profile, too? Classic.
More than 50 years after it was designed, Verner Panton’s cantilevered S-shaped chair has been an indoor favorite for half a century, but it may actually be more impressive outdoors. Constructed from a single piece of molded polypropylene, the Panton is stackable, durable, surprisingly comfortable, and virtually impervious to weather. And, not incidentally, provides the kind of visual flourish rarely seen on back decks.
The Italian architect Mario Bellini’s 1998 reinforced plastic, stackable chair is a ubiquitous presence in museum cafes, and why not? Its slender profile belies a toughness suited for commercial use; and its timeless beauty has already made it a museum piece. If looks, price and functionality (it’s also light and stackable) count for anything, there’s no reason to pass up the Bellini.
The Butterfly chair (or BFK chair, named for its architect designers, Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy, Antonia Bonet, and Juan Kurchanmay) may be a symbol of 1960’s informality, but was designed as early as 1938. The Butterfly was inexpensive, foldable and lightweight, with a relaxed, organic profile that happened to looked terrific paired with the flat-roofed, glass clad geometry that defined west coast modernism. No wonder, then, that the Butterfly—not too precious, with replaceable sling covers, and a small (folded) footprint—remains a favorite of the modern set. On any coast.