Mindcraft16 ... Sølvgade Chair by Cecilie Manz

The Sølvgade Chair by Cecilie Manz - when seen alongside the other works in the Mindcraft16 exhibition - appears to be the most conventional piece because it is restrained, rather self-contained and certainly does not draw attention to itself. In contrast, many of the other pieces are deliberately flamboyant and deliberately controversial to push conventions and to challenge the visitor. 

However, the design of the chair goes in the other direction by taking the design of a chair back to basic principles it raises interesting and important questions about how designers and manufacturers should approach the production of a new chair. Why is that important? Well, a chair is perhaps the staple piece of furniture and usually has a major place or even an iconic place in the catalogues of the major Danish design companies. New chairs are launched at regular intervals and old designs are revived as a matter of pride in a well-known back catalogue. Most design buffs can reel off a list of classic chairs but would find it more difficult to name more than a couple of classic table designs or a couple of sofas.

read more

Aitio shelving from iittala by Cecilie Manz 2014

Cecilie Manz graduated from the School of Design at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1997 and, after a period of study at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, she returned to Copenhagen where she has established her own studio.

Designing furniture, lighting and household products, she has worked with many of the major Nordic design companies and manufacturers including B&O, Fredericia, Fritz Hansen, Holmegaard, Kähler Keramik and Muuto.

The Aitio shelving range was designed for the Finnish company Iittalia and has been in production since 2014.

There are three designs in metal - a square box, a double-width box and a shallow wide shelf - all with the same form with a base plate with the edges turned up and, wrapped around that, shaped metal forming, in a single piece, the back and sides folded round to the front to almost meet at the centre. The proportions; the silhouette of the stepped down sides and the quarter-round profile of the folded corners and the cut-out of the base piece are all very carefully thought through. In less-skilled hands the end result could have been clumsy or crude but actually the designs have real finesse and illustrate very clearly the difference between a design that is basic or functional and a design that is carefully refined … minimalism is not a starting point for a design but an end point, so as here, might perhaps be better described as reductionism with the designer seeing how much to take away, how much to simplify and knowing exactly when to stop. 

A robust metal bar is fixed to the wall and has notched lugs over which the shelf drops … the shelf having simple holes drilled in the back … and two dimples, towards the bottom edge of the back, keep the unit vertical over the back plate.

These boxes can also be used on a work top or on a desk without being suspended from the wall.

There are three colours - a white that is not brilliant white but almost stone or cement, a gun-metal grey and a mustard - and all in a matt finish.

There is a fourth option with a wooden shelf that is supported on metal end brackets that echo the form and the profile of the other shelves.

Careful attention has been given by Iittala to the design of the packaging - both for the way the cardboard box protects the item during shipping and storage while in stock but also for distinct graphics and typography.

the shell chair

A traditional chair is made from separate elements - legs, a square frame or hoop for the seat and uprights to form a back - joined together and then with some form of cord, webbing or upholstery across the frame to sit on and lean back against. As a general type or form of chair, shell chairs have a solid seat and back … that is not with any obvious frame to the seat and back.

Collection of shell chairs in the design museum in Oslo

Plywood chair with arms. designed by Alvar Aalto. in the collection of Artek 2nd Cycle in Helsinki

In the 1930s Alvar Aalto experimented designing a number of chairs that had a sheet of plywood that was steamed and shaped to form a scroll, in some chairs of quite complex forms, that was then supported on a bent-wood frame but these are not strictly shell chairs as the term normally implies a complex shape moulded in all directions and forming a hollow to sit in.

Later chairs in either plywood or a sophisticated veneer given a more complicated shape such as the Ant Chair from 1952 or the Series 7 from 1955 - both designed by Arne Jacobsen and manufactured by Fritz Hansen - are certainly shell chairs.

The seat and back of a shell chair can be in shaped plywood, a more complex veneer, shaped metal or moulded in a man-made material such as glass fibre or plastic. Generally the shell is supported on a separate frame of legs that can be in wood, metal or plastic. In some chairs the whole form of seat and legs or even a plinth or pedestal can be moulded either as a single piece or more usually is made in separate sections that are then fixed together to give the appearance of a single moulded piece.

One quirky and occasionally fashionable form of shell chair - a sort of sub genre - is an inflatable chair and presumably, at a stretch, bean bags or very large floor cushions ape the form of a moulded chair if not the complex construction.

Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen 1958

The arm of a Swan Chair by Arne Jacobsen

Probably the archetypal shell chairs are The Egg and The Swan Chair, designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1958 for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen and still produced by Fritz Hansen. The shell can be covered in fabric or leather and is supported on an aluminium base. The curved, pronounced outward angle of the arms on the Swan chair seems like an affectation until you sit in one. Then you realise that not only does the shape give an unusual sense of openness but here you really can use the arms as a support as you push to rise from the chair and stand up.

One particular problem, tackled in different ways by different designers, is the way that the base or legs are fixed to the shell. For comfort, most shell chairs are made to be slightly flexible, rather than stiff, and many chairs have complex buffers or dampeners that have to achieve a balance between making the whole chair too rigid, and therefore rapidly becoming uncomfortable to sit in for any length of time, and too much movement between the shell and the legs that makes it feel unstable.

A recent version from Fritz Hansen of the Series 7 chair by Jacobsen. The underside shows the spacers to hold the position of the chrome steel legs and the plastic cover over the plate that fixes the legs to the shell

The shell can be fully upholstered, like the Swan Chair, upholstered just on the inner face of the seat and back or have separate squab cushions. Both the Egg and the Swan chairs have remarkably complex upholstery that requires hand stitching or hand finishing.

Minuscule by Cecilie Manz (Photograph from Fritz Hansen)

At regular intervals, since the 1950s, furniture manufacturers have introduced new designs of shell … in 2012 Fritz Hansen produced the Minuscule designed by Cecilie Manz; in 2013 they introduced the Ro by Jaime Hayon, as a modern reinterpretation of the winged-back arm chair, and they have just announced the reintroduction of the Grand Prix or Model 3130 designed by Arne Jacobsen in 1957 but now produced with a wooden leg frame rather than chromed metal.

These three chairs illustrate the complex variety of shell chairs that are now made and shows how sophisticated and complicated the technology can be. The Minuscule has a shell made of polypropylene upholstered in foam and the leg frame is actually plastic, forming a distinct cradle for the shell. The shell of the Ro is formed in a hard polyurethane foam with glass fibre reinforcing the edges … following the technology developed for the Egg Chair. There is a choice of legs with either cast aluminium or a wood base. The Model 3130 has a shell made from a complex veneer.

The Ro designed by Jaime Hayon (Photograph from Fritz Hansen)