is an iconic design always a good design?



Nearly twenty years ago I bought an Eames desk chair … the soft pad executive if you must know … and yes … it is a Vitra chair made under licence from Herman Miller in the States. Not a fake.

When I bought the chair, it was a serious investment, but from 1997 I worked from home and most of my day was and is spent at the desk. It is still an extremely comfortable chair and I’ve never ever suffered from back ache so on those grounds alone it is a good design. It was certainly a good investment. Right now working out at about 13p a day and getting cheaper by the day and looking to last me out.

On the other hand, in the 1960s, when I was in my early teens, my father bought a couple of the side chairs in wire from Knoll that were designed by Harry Bertoia. I genuinely hated those chairs. 

At that stage, at grammar school, I had to wear short trousers, the compulsory uniform, and when I stood up after sitting on one of those chairs, there was always an angry red grid of lines across the back of my legs. Earlier wire chairs designed by Eames had used a double wire around the seat to hold in the cross wires of the seat and back but he took out a patent on that idea so Bertoia angled off the ends of the wires on his chair and welded them to the single wire of the rim leaving them sharp and exposed and capable of snagging and cutting into legs and clothes. If it’s possible to feel that a chair is out to get you then those chairs were a vicious trap to the unwary.

The odd form of the sledge-style base and the light weight of the chair meant that as you stood it tipped forward with you, so it felt pretty unstable, and there were small rubber pads on the underside of those runners which actually meant the chair skidded around as you sat down or stood up when it was on a smooth floor like wood or tiles. On carpet it felt more stable but left a weird groove of heavily compressed tufts to mark where it had been. 

They had a strap that went under the leather squab cushion, from front to back with a press stud to link the ends and hold the cushion in place, but over the years that stretched so as you sat down the cushion slid sideways and you found yourself part on the cushion and part on the wire basket and squirming around to get the cushion back under your backside. 

Finally the bucket shape of the seat was fixed to the base with small strips of metal that hooked over the base frame and were tightened down by a screw into the underside of the seat. In our chairs, over the years, most of those metal strips rusted and some snapped so the chair and the base began to separate and wobble making it feel even more unstable. 

An iconic design? Maybe! To a teenager in short trousers a good design? Very definitely not.