Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

How do we define furniture? It might seem like a silly question, but it’s one that kept coming up in October of last year, when, in a conference room on the 15th floor of The New York Times building, six experts — the architects and interior designers Rafael de Cárdenas and Daniel Romualdez; the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of architecture and design, Paola Antonelli; the actress and avid furniture collector Julianne Moore; the artist and sculptor Katie Stout; and T’s design and interiors director, Tom Delavan — gathered for nearly three hours to make a list of the most influential chairs, sofas and tables, as well as some less obvious household objects, from the past century.

The goal was to land on a wide range of offerings, but there were parameters: To qualify, each piece was required to have been fabricated, even if just as a prototype, within the past 100 years. It also needed to be at least slightly functional. (The Japanese architect Oki Sato’s 2007 Cabbage chair, a treatise on sustainability constructed entirely from a roll of disused paper, isn’t the sturdiest place to sit; nonetheless, it was nominated.) Lighting was excluded from the debate — “which is nuts,” said de Cárdenas, a former men’s wear designer who started his firm in 2006 — unless it was attached to, say, a desk. (The Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass’s illuminated Ultrafragola mirror, which presaged selfie culture by decades, made the cut.) There were no limits placed on provenance, and a piece didn’t need to have been designed by a known name, or even attributable. The jurors were determined to avoid what Antonelli described as “the usual collectors’ items by white German, French and Italian males with a smattering of women, no Latin American or Black — and very little Asian — representation.” While the final list, presented below in roughly the order it was discussed, and not reflecting any kind of hierarchy, does include an icon or two (to omit Charles and Ray Eames or Le Corbusier, the group decided, would be a mistake), diversity of maker (and of materials, styles, processes and prices) was a consideration. In each case, the objects represented more than comfort or utility; every innovation is, in its own way, a historical artifact — a response to the prosperity or unrest into which it was born or a proposal for a more efficient world, maybe a better one.

The participants were asked to submit a list of 10 suggestions beforehand, revealing their own unique tastes and interests. Stout, who curated a show in 2020 with the Shaker Museum in Chatham, N.Y., argued that a bonnet is a slipcover for the head and should count as furniture. (She was voted down.) Moore, an avowed minimalist, petitioned to include austere creations in marble or wood by Poul Kjaerholm and Donald Judd. Romualdez’s more classical choices — among them a daybed by the mid-20th-century French designer Marc du Plantier and a patinated bronze table by the Swiss sculptor Diego Giacometti from the 1980s — were influenced by the luxurious interiors he saw in American magazines while growing up in Manila in the Philippines, long before he’d work for the architects Thierry Despont and Robert A.M. Stern and later open a firm of his own. As Delavan said, “Daniel’s were the chicest. Julianne’s were the purest. Katie’s were the wackiest. Rafael’s were the campiest. And mine were the dullest.” Antonelli’s were, perhaps, the most comprehensive: She created three separate lists to accommodate her top picks, runners-up and wild cards. “I just want us to express an idea of design that excites the world,” she said. As the members of the group settled into the room’s upholstered cantilever chairs — imitations of a Bauhaus style popularized in the 1920s by the Hungarian German Modernist Marcel Breuer — they nodded and offered words of encouragement. And then they got down to business. — Nick Haramis

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Considered the original beanbag, the Sacco chair is the rare design object to become an instant classic in both rec rooms and museum collections. It was included in MoMA’s seminal 1972 show “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” which presented furnishings that looked beyond aesthetics and function and toward sociocultural shifts, including the rejection of bourgeois propriety. “Imagine trying to be stuffy while slouching in a beanbag chair,” said the show’s curator, the architect and industrial designer Emilio Ambasz. Indeed, the vaguely pear-shaped blob of stitched vinyl filled with polystyrene beads — the transparent prototype was partially inspired by piles of snow — molded to the body of the sitter and encouraged lounging of the highest order; the hard part was getting out of it. Now that we better understand the environmental impact of polystyrene, the Italian furniture company Zanotta, which has produced the piece from the start and continues to call it the “anatomical easy-chair,” has experimented with a version stuffed with bioplastic derived from sugar cane. — Kate Guadagnino

Tom Delavan: It was revolutionary in terms of material, and it really did filter down to so many imitations that are less expensive. It also addressed how people’s lives were changing: We’re slouching lower and lower as time goes by.

Paola Antonelli: I used to say it was like the Kama Sutra: It has tons of positions. And it was a symbol of an era. I remember pictures of bearded revolutionaries smoking their joints on it. It was all about huddling together and rethinking the world, and it’s still as fresh as ever. I love the fact that you can find it in different shapes. My only big concern about that chair is sustainability. But there’re so many other fillers beside polystyrene, right? I think you can use mushroom mycelium.

Katie Stout: I wish we were all lounging on beanbags right now.

Some of the best design originates at home. A great example is the LC14 Tabouret Cabanon, which the Swiss-born French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, built for his cabin in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, a vacation shack that he designed (reportedly in 45 minutes) on the French Riviera. At roughly 160 square feet, the residence was almost monastic, with most of the furniture built in. An exercise in pure functionality, the boxes can be used as chairs, side tables and storage. Made of wood — the Cabanon is chestnut, though other iterations come in oak — they were inspired by a whiskey crate the architect found on the beach, with dovetail joints and oblong holes in the sides for lifting. Prefiguring both modular furniture and the nothing-to-hide sensibility of industrial décor, they serve as rustic altars to the right angle, about which Le Corbusier once wrote, “Simple and naked / yet knowable. … It is the answer and the guide.” — Rose Courteau

Julianne Moore: In my business, this is what we call an apple box. I stand on one if I’m shorter than the actor I’m working with. Le Corbusier created an object of desirability, but it’s something you could make yourself and use a million different ways. (The English furniture designer) Jasper Morrison did his own version. I have two in my house that were built by a grip to hold a certain kind of camera. A painter once said to me, “They’re sort of amazing. They look like a (Constantin) Brâncuși (sculpture).” It’s a simple object that reminds different people of different things. And while it’s sort of silly that the Corbusier version has become this untouchable museum piece, I like the fact that it’s just a box.

Delavan: I’m going to argue against it. You can’t say that Le Corbusier invented the box. My feeling is that he was basically reusing a thing that already existed.

Rafael de Cárdenas: I’m not defending it, but he did recontextualize it.

Antonelli: Even though I’ve never been a fan of this, I buy your argument. I had (the Italian architect and designer Achille) Castiglioni as a teacher. And he used to always say that redesign is a legitimate form of design — to take something that exists in the world and appropriate it and improve upon it.

In 1929, Le Corbusier, along with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and their colleague and fellow architect and designer Charlotte Perriand, created a Modernist interior for the Salon d’Automne art exhibition in Paris. In a sly rejection of the enameled embellishments of Art Deco, the prevailing style of the time, they presented concealed lights, glass-topped tables, mirrored cabinets and seating featuring tubular steel, including the lissome Chaise Longue à Réglage Continu, which they’d first produced and placed the previous year in a villa just outside of Paris. With an H-shaped, bicolor-steel base cradling chromed tubes that followed the form of a supine human body — dipping to accommodate the hips and cresting to support the knees — it was among the first ergonomically conscious pieces of furniture ever manufactured. The frame, which could be adjusted to change the angle of repose, held a slim, black fur mattress with a cylindrical headrest. Far too radical for its time and expensive to fabricate, the piece languished for decades but emerged as a coveted emblem of Modernism when Cassina started producing it in 1965. Le Corbusier, who held functionality in high esteem, is famous for saying that a house is a machine for living. It’s no surprise, then, that he considered this chaise longue a machine for resting. His biographer Charles Jencks had another take: “It is as if the body is being propped up on fingertips like a precious jewel.” — K.G.

Delavan: I love this chair because, even though it looks weird, it addresses how our bodies are meant to sit. It’s ergonomic in a way that chairs or sofas weren’t before. Every zero-gravity chair is a version of this.

Antonelli: Interestingly, for a piece of modern furniture, it’s also comfortable.

Moore: And it references what was going on in the world at the time: industrialism and metal suddenly entering our lives and our homes.

Delavan: Think of how crazy this must have seemed in 1928.

Moore: When so many people were still living with traditional furniture.

Antonelli: If we’re to include a tubular steel chair, this is the one.

These days, live-edge furniture — fashioned from a slice of a log with at least one side left ruggedly intact — seems to be everywhere. Each piece owes a debt to the raw splendor of George Nakashima’s original slab coffee tables. Nakashima, who was born in Spokane, Wash., to Japanese immigrant parents, established himself as a furniture designer before being imprisoned with his family at the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho during World War II. While there, he further refined his woodworking skills under the tutelage of a fellow internee, the master carpenter Gentaro Kenneth Hikogawa. After Nakashima’s release in 1943, he settled in New Hope, Pa., where he established his own studio and made furniture for Knoll. Believing that his work gave trees a second life, he fused the austere solidity of Shaker furniture with the Japanese concepts of wabi, sabi and shibui — emphasizing age and simplicity. This bundle of ideals was best expressed in the Slab table, with a top made from a single slice of American black walnut or cherry, occasionally accented with functional elements like a stabilizing butterfly joint. Instead of excising the irregularities and imperfections, Nakashima chose to highlight them, a radical approach at the time. Each table was unique to the tree and the woodworker who handled it. The furniture designer enshrined sensitivity, not domination, as the key to sublime design, in contrast to the ornate embellishments of Art Deco and the factory aesthetics of the postwar era, which embraced machinery as a human triumph. — R.C.

Moore: I’m obsessed with craft, and I think that Nakashima was the first person who brought it into mainstream conversation. I think about what he went through, how he emerged from the internment camp and returned to making his furniture. You could go to New Hope and say, “I want a table, some chairs and a bed,” and he would do it. He was expressing himself as an artist and introducing this idea of organic Modernism.

Delavan: This table inspired a lot of craftspeople to be like, “I can make one, too.”

De Cárdenas: There’re also kitsch versions of it. So much defining furniture is high culture, but this had mass appeal.

Antonelli: I like that it inspired people to make their own little monsters.

The ancient Greeks made chairs with curved backrests, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that ergonomics, the study of people in their workplace undertaken to improve efficiency and welfare, was heartily embraced by industrial designers. That’s when Herman Miller brought on the American designer Bill Stumpf, who’d worked with medical experts while doing postgraduate research at the University of Wisconsin to conduct studies on ideal sitting posture that incorporated X-rays and time-lapse photography. In 1976, the year that word processing became available on microcomputers, Stumpf came up with the swiveling Ergon office chair, constructed with pillowy pieces of fabric-covered foam (one for the back and another for the bottom), which could be wheeled in any direction. The chair also had gas-lift levers that controlled height and tilt — good news for women, who were joining the work force in record numbers, and whose comfort had been ignored by earlier designers. But Stumpf didn’t stop there; in collaboration with the Los Angeles-born Don Chadwick, he went on to debut 1994’s Aeron chair, which featured a higher backrest covered in a flexible textile called pellicle. It remains, with a tweak or two, one of those pieces that’s so ubiquitous you’re not likely to notice or think about it. That is, until a co-worker nabs yours. — K.G.

Delavan: It’s one of the earliest examples of an adjustable office chair. Part of it was that women were now in the workplace, so they needed the chair to be a different size. Paola, you’d nominated the Aeron chair, which is great, but I feel like Stumpf’s idea started here. The Aeron is a refinement of the Ergon.

Antonelli: I saw the Aeron chair being made when I was living in Los Angeles, and I remember it in the World Trade Center lobbies. It’s the first thing I acquired for the Museum of Modern Art when I started working there. But I prefer this one because it’s earlier. There was the Ettore Sottsass chair for Olivetti — the yellow one (from 1972) — but I don’t care, because this one was probably more affordable, and it went everywhere.

The “High Tech” moment in design started in the early 1970s, as more and more New York City artists were moving into lofts in SoHo’s abandoned cast-iron buildings and furnishing them with functional pieces picked up at hospitals, offices, warehouses and restaurant supply stores. In these open-plan homes and those that aspired to be like them, you were likely to find white walls, exposed pipes, track lighting, Metro Super Erecta wire shelving and stainless-steel commercial refrigerators. In 1980, at the tail-end of that era, the Italian architect and designer Gae Aulenti introduced Table With Wheels, a thick pane of beveled glass mounted on large rubber casters that she intended to resemble the wooden trolleys used to cart heavy pieces around the factory of Milan’s FontanaArte design studio, where she served as art director. The table had the playfulness and poeticism of a Marcel Duchamp readymade, and it presaged glass as one of the decade’s trendy materials for interiors — one seen increasingly throughout the 1980s in the form of smooth reflective surfaces and chunky, semitransparent blocks. In 1993, Aulenti riffed on her design, releasing Tour, an updated model with bicycle wheels. — K.G.

De Cárdenas: I know it’s just a piece of glass on casters, but I think it transcends class, style and era.

Moore: You know what else it speaks to? High-tech design.

Daniel Romualdez: If we’re doing high tech, I think we should include the Metro shelves.

Moore: No! That then knocks out Dieter Rams.

The German functionalist Dieter Rams didn’t invent modular design, but as the creator of the 606 Universal Shelving System for Vitsoe, he can be credited as one of its early perfecters. The system’s construction is strikingly simple, with aluminum E-Tracks mounted to walls from which shelves, cabinets and even tables can be hung using no-equipment-required pins. Adjustable and customizable, it can be adapted to a wide range of spaces, needs and aesthetics. (When they’re full, the wafer-thin but deceptively strong shelves, made of powder-coated, laser-cut steel, nearly disappear.) The unit embodies all 10 of the design principles that Rams, an early advocate of environmental sustainability, formulated in the 1970s (No. 1: “Good design is innovative”; No. 5: “Good design is unobtrusive”), but the real reason it’s been revered for decades may be its incomparable durability (No. 7: “Good design is long-lasting”). Parts purchased today can be used interchangeably with those from 1960, when the shelving first went into production. — R.C.

Moore: I’m going to go to bat for Dieter Rams. I’m a big fan of the idea of a system, particularly in terms of the 20th century and how we started to live (in a more transient way), which led to things that collapse or stack and are lightweight. The idea is that you can buy this piece and change it — use it for books, records or clothing. I’m really interested in industrial design, a lot of which we don’t even think of as being designed. It often seems to have come out of nowhere, and I feel that way about this shelving.

Antonelli: If we’re going to include a shelving system, much as I love Metro’s (steel storage) shelves, Dieter Rams should be on here.

Moore: He’s a rock star.

Stout: Even just this image (from the Vitsoe catalog), with a game of Twister stored on a shelf, feels so democratic to me. All these different tiers of design.

Moore: I love the Vitsoe catalog, frankly. It’s very soothing.

Faye Toogood’s Roly-Poly chair, which debuted in 2014 as part of a collection of similarly rotund fiberglass furniture titled Assemblage 4, isn’t just a seminal piece of design — it’s also got a sense of humor. The key lies in the contrast between its jolly, potbellied seat, evocative of a cartoon animal, with four squat, cylindrical legs, and the confident way it occupies space. The chair is a corporeal symbol of maternal strength; Toogood, a multi-hyphenate British clothing and interior designer, has said that the roundness was inspired by her pregnancy. (“I’ve got fat,” she told an architecture magazine upon the chair’s release.) Indeed, it’s the kind of perch that makes you never want to get up, to relinquish your vanity and drop into a state of permanent comfort. With no hard edges, it’s both cleverly child-safe and endlessly imaginative, conjuring bubble letters, elephants and balloons. But although the Roly-Poly grew out of the designer’s experience with her changing body, it offers something more universal: a softer, more whimsical take on minimalism, which in recent years has turned away from sharp-cornered austerity toward the more organic silhouettes of the circle and the arch. — R.C.

Moore: Faye was at the forefront of a movement where things suddenly got soft.

Antonelli: And big.

Delavan: She changed the silhouette.

De Cárdenas: I remember her presentation in Milan in 2011. There were these black hard-boiled eggs, and cheese served on pieces of charcoal. I mean, it sucked scraping your teeth on stuff, but it was also cool. And then there was furniture, but the whole thing was the presentation. Whatever that is, some people do it well and most people don’t. But I think she started it. Everything in design at the time was slick and boxy, highlighting craftsmanship, but this work wasn’t.

Delavan: It felt like something she could have sculpted.

Moore: And it was new. It’s always exciting to be woken up like that.

Some pieces of furniture are so unobtrusive and chameleon-like that they hardly feel designed. Such is the case with the Parsons table, whose defining feature is its ratio: No matter the table’s size, its legs — which stand flush with the corners of its surface — must always be equal in width to the thickness of its top. It’s thought to have emerged from a design project completed in the early 1930s at the Paris satellite of New York’s Parsons School of Design, the result of an assignment often attributed to the aristocratic French decorator Jean-Michel Frank, who was a lecturer there at the time. (The American designer Joseph B. Platt is also often cited as having a hand in the piece.) Known for creating magisterial spaces for the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and the composer Cole Porter, Frank put aside his usual interest in such sumptuous materials as shagreen and obsidian, challenging the students to design a table so elemental that it would retain its basic character and integrity regardless of finish. — R.C.

Romualdez: Leading up to this debate, I asked ChatGPT for a list of influential furniture and nothing surprised me. (But) I wanted to (choose items) that influenced me personally. Growing up in the Philippines, I only saw things in magazines — like (1960s François-Xavier) Lalanne sheep (sculptures). They were in Valentino (Garavani)’s chalet, (Yves) Saint Laurent’s library, the Agnellis’ Milanese apartment.

Moore: Unfortunately, Lalanne sheep are just signifiers of enormous wealth.

Romualdez: Yes, but for me, nose pressed to the glass, it made me question, “What makes something fancy?” People had flocks of them. When Julianne (and I were talking about our lists), she asked, “What’s your favorite dining table?” Although simple and plain, this is the first thing that came to mind.

De Cárdenas: We can’t not include the Parsons table.

Romualdez: A friend of mine, (the American philanthropist) Deeda Blair, used to tell me, “You can’t get an 18th-century coffee table. It’s a conceit of the modern world.” I was attracted to this as a foil to (what’s in) most people’s fancy living rooms.

Although the Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass’s undulating electrified mirror, which emits a dusky pink glow, predates social media by four decades, it somehow anticipated the age of the selfie. Sottsass, who would in the 1980s spearhead the madcap Milan-based collective known as the Memphis Group, crafted it as an apparent tribute to womanhood — its ripples supposedly reference flowing hair and body curves. Such an idea may now seem a study in objectification; nonetheless, the mirror’s enchantments are undeniable, as proven by its vibrant second life on social media. The musician Frank Ocean and the model Bella Hadid are among those who’ve captured themselves, like modern-day Narcissuses, in its reflection. The appeal is obvious: It’s seductive, flirtatious and lighthearted — décor as an antidepressant in troubling times. Perhaps Sottsass himself best explained why the glowing, flowing mirror is universally beloved. “When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism,” he once said. “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting.” — Max Berlinger

Stout: Sottsass isn’t my favorite, but this has been so influential, especially in terms of marketing and the rise of Corporate Memphis. Even though it’s from the 1970s, it seems to have been made for the Instagram era. He and (the Italian architect and designer) Gaetano Pesce have been so significant to an entire generation of designers, especially right now.

Antonelli: I don’t think we need to include Pesce.

De Cárdenas: Pesce was always niche and was left out of the design conversation for a long time. Now his work feels very relevant again.

Until the 20th century, what we now call the slipper chair was a private affair, a boudoir staple of Victorian-era excess with an armless seat to accommodate the wide petticoats and corset-bound women unable to bend over. But in the 1950s, the American decorator Billy Baldwin yanked the chair with an overstuffed profile out of the dressing room and got it ready for cocktail hour. He threw out the brocade jacquard and flouncy trim for something more clean-cut and modern; the low-to-the ground, high-backed seat became sheathed in a pleated skirt or tight slipcover tailored straight to the floor. (Baldwin believed that too many naked chair legs made a room “restless.”) Still, it didn’t completely escape its beau monde past. Baldwin’s clientele included the likes of socialites Jacqueline Onassis and Nan Kempner. For Diana Vreeland, he designed a slipper chair in a clashing print to complement the fashion editor’s scarlet chintz “garden in hell” room in her Park Avenue apartment. About his stump-legged rejoinders to Continental refinement, Baldwin once said, “We can recognize and give credit where credit is due, to the debt of taste we owe Europe, but we have taste, too.” — Max Lakin

Romualdez: I’m probably the most traditional decorator in this room. But I think we need to talk about banal furniture that you don’t realize is everywhere — that you don’t even think of as being designed. I was obsessed with this Billy Baldwin chair when I was in school. It’s tiny, but extremely comfortable. And I love that it’s dumb. It doesn’t do anything, which makes it so versatile.

Moore: Every furniture store in America has this chair.

De Cárdenas: I used it one time (for a decorating project). There was a fabric that the client loved, and we didn’t know how to work it into the room. I was like, “Let’s just make a slipper chair.” It changes its identity every time you upholster it.

Nick Haramis: I grew up quite modestly, and every family in my neighborhood had a version of a slipper chair in the nice room.

Delavan: Originally, the slipper chair was supposed to be in the boudoir. He brought it into the living room.

Romualdez: I also love that he had extremely American taste when most people in that social class were Francophiles.

Modern design in Europe and the United States was largely a reaction to the ostentation that came before it, particularly among royalty and other privileged households. One hallmark of the frilly old style is the Louis XV/XVI Medallion armchair, named for the 18th-century French monarchs with whom it found favor. Considered a cabriolet due to its rounded concave backrest and open armrests, it was much lighter than the close-sided bergère. More than 200 years later, the French industrial and interior designer Philippe Starck developed his version from a single mold injection of liquid polycarbonate, which hardens to a clear, lightweight and durable Plasticine material also used in cars and fighter jets. Although he eliminated the Medallion’s decorative elements, Starck retained its voluptuous profile, neither conforming to nor fully departing from the expectations of contemporary design. — Evan Moffitt

Moore: I hate this chair so much.

Romualdez: Everyone loved this chair in the beginning.

De Cárdenas: Do we hate it because it’s so ubiquitous?

Antonelli: No, we hate it because it’s so ’80s. But even though I find it terrible, it was so influential.

De Cárdenas: I love Philippe Starck and his total disregard for the history of furniture. Did you see that episode of (the comedy series) “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (2015-19)? Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski’s character) doesn’t have any furniture because she can’t afford it. Kimmy comes over, and she’s like, “You don’t have any furniture.” (Voorhees) gestures to a completely empty space and says she has Philippe Starck Ghost chairs.

In the aftermath of World War I, Frankfurt, Germany, responded to a growing housing crisis with a sweeping civic effort centered on affordable and modern public residences. The Austrian architect Margarete “Grete” Schütte-Lihotzky, a radical-minded proponent of Red Vienna’s social-democratic reforms who designed apartments for single working women, and, with the architects Adolf Loos and Josef Frank, complexes for veterans and the disabled, was tasked with developing kitchens for these New Frankfurt apartments. In planning her fitted kitchens, Schütte-Lihotzky, who lived until the age of 102, aimed to create something hygienic and dignified for the urban working class. She consulted labor-efficiency studies, interviewed housewives and women’s groups and took inspiration from the rigorously efficient galley kitchens of railway dining cars. The result was a space equipped with innovations such as a gas stove, built-in cabinetry and a tiled backsplash. The room was small by today’s suburban standards — 13 feet long by 7 feet wide — but Schütte-Lihotzky’s vision helped pioneer the notion of today’s kitchen as the center of domestic life. — M.L.

Delavan: I don’t consider a room to be furniture.

Antonelli: Well, we do at MoMA. Maybe this is a system or assemblage of furniture, but it really determined, at least until the arrival of the American kitchen, how we designed kitchens almost like boats: keeping everything together in one place.

De Cárdenas: Before this, were kitchens just a fire and a table?

Antonelli: They had several pieces, but they were all disparate and loose. This was in tune with Existenzminimum (a concept that was developed in response to the German housing crisis of the 1920s). The rationalist architects of the New Objectivity were trying to fit as much as possible into an apartment and then orient it so that the sun would also help them live healthier lives and heat it up. It was almost like going back to (the first century B.C. Roman architect and engineer) Vitruvius, the idea that Nature can help cities and homes be cleaner, healthier and more efficient.

De Cárdenas: From Ikea to fancy custom kitchens, they’re all basically versions of this.

When Patrizia Moroso, the creative director of the Northern Italy-based family furniture company that bears her last name, commissioned a show dedicated to the creative prowess and craftsmanship of Africa, a continent that had been historically overlooked by the Western design world, among the works that seized the imagination was the Madame Dakar sofa. Boldly graphic and rendered with both an eye to the future and reverence for the past by the designers Ayse Birsel and Bibi Seck, who split their time between New York, Paris and Dakar, it contributed to the current interest in African design and technique as well as a mania for Afrofuturism. Made in Moroso’s facility in the West African nation, the hand-woven indoor-outdoor piece is constructed by stringing the plastic threads used in fishing nets — in reference to Senegalese traditions — into a herringbone pattern, which is then slung like a hammock over thick, splayed steel legs. — M.B.

Antonelli: This is gorgeous, but is it influential?

Moore: It had an impactful moment, but it was over quickly.

Stout: I think we should include it.

Antonelli: I agree. Bibi, who spent his youth in Dakar, worked with African weavers to produce a couch that is free from any nostalgia, just celebrating the tremendous potential that can come from a true mind- and hand-meld with expert local artisans.

Design history is lousy with icons — this iconic sideboard, that iconic zoomorphic torchier — and many of them live on as “authorized” reproductions, costing thousands of dollars, while the rest of us make do with mass-market dupes. The monobloc chair is the antidote to such design idolatry: a single piece of extruded white plastic, immune to trend and cultish adoration. With a barely verifiable history, it’s both the original and the imitation, and costs very little to produce. To make a chair out of just one piece of material is something of a design Holy Grail, one that became more attainable around midcentury with advancements in plastics technology. Early mass-produced chairs — including Verner Panton’s Panton chair and Vico Magistretti’s Selene — were all a bit too polished or Space Age-y to achieve ubiquity. The French engineer Henry Massonnet’s Fauteuil 300, from 1972, is often credited as the closest source for what we now call the monobloc, though it, too, is more refined than the standard issue. (There’s also a credible claim that Canadian designer D.C. Simpson created an even earlier version in 1946.) Depending on where you land on the affordability sustainability axis, monoblocs are either a triumph of democratic design or a mess of disposable mass consumption — the red to-go cup of chairs. Either way, it’s often spoken of as the most widely used piece of furniture in the world; the Zelig of plastic chairs, it shows up at both Biloxi cookouts and roadside bars on the outskirts of Jakarta. With zero adornments except for its flared legs and fanned seashell back, it cannot be called beautiful, though it is familiar, and for some people, that can have the same pleasing effect. — M.L.

Antonelli: The monobloc is important. It allows us to talk about history. It allows us to talk about copies. It allows us to talk about footprint. It allows us to talk about the history of plastics.

Moore: Who designed it?

Antonelli: We don’t really know. In every part of the world, you’ll find these chairs.

Romualdez: I had them when we first moved into our house in Montauk, N.Y., and some snotty person said, “I can’t believe you have these ugly chairs.” But they’re so practical and comfortable.

Delavan: Are they ugly or just ugly by association?

Antonelli: They’re ugly. But I do believe that the opposite of beautiful isn’t ugly, it’s lazy.

Romualdez: I’d nominated a Philippe Hiquily armchair from 1971 because it was one of the ugliest chairs I’ve seen. He literally just did furniture for the Rothschilds and people like that. But like with Miuccia Prada’s clothes, when you see something ugly, it’ll often affect you later.

The term “flat-packed” might trigger traumatic memories of trying to assemble furniture with puzzling instructions and a flimsy Allen wrench; one thing it doesn’t conjure is cutting-edge interiors. But by the 1990s, Ikea had partnered with a number of top designers, including the Danish master Verner Panton, who created this gravity-defying confection. Made from medium-density fiberboard (MDF) with a melamine coating, a material often used by the Swedish company, Panton’s chair has obliquely angled back and leg panels, held together with screws, that hardly seem strong enough to stand up on their own, much less accommodate a human body. Here, Panton, best known for his space-age designs, including the S-shaped Panton chair — fabricated in 1967 using a tongue-like piece of molded plastic — and his hallucinogenic interiors for hotels, restaurants and private homes, did the unexpected: He embraced hard edges, even if only as a matter of practicality. (Imagine, for instance, flat-packing his amorphous Living Tower, a more than six-foot-high upholstered seating apparatus from 1969.) The Vilbert stands as a homage to the Zig-Zag and Red Blue chairs by the early 20th-century Dutch de Stijl movement designer Gerrit Rietveld, as well as to the tinker toy aesthetic of the 1980s Memphis Group, its influences spanning about 50 years of candy-colored geometric dreams. — E.M.

De Cárdenas: I’ve owned these chairs.

Moore: Why’d you get rid of them?

De Cárdenas: There was a time when I had a very Memphis-y place. Then I sold it all at auction, at the only moment when this kind of fiberboard laminate furniture might have been valuable. This was Ikea doing high design and it was too ahead of its time to be commercial.

Delavan: That it came flat-packed is cool.

De Cárdenas: That was the whole point.

Delavan: That’s why it was relatively cheap, too.

“Butaque,” the Mexican name for the low, inclined J-shaped wooden lounger prevalent in parts of Latin America, refers to a shape originating in the 16th century, a colonial-era cross between traditional Spanish hip-joint armchairs and pre-Columbian duhos — often hardwood ritual seats used within Indigenous Taino Caribbean culture to commune with deities. In the early 19th century, the Mexican port city of Campeche was a locus of butaque production and the chair’s main exporter to the United States. (Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with them, conscripting enslaved carpenter John Hemmings to produce reproductions for his plantation.) The interior and furniture designer Clara Porset, born into a wealthy family in Cuba and educated in New York and Paris, may have begun making her butaques after emigrating to Mexico in the mid-1930s as a political exile for her participation in the Cuban resistance. Porset reinterpreted the butaque through a Bauhaus lens (she studied under Josef and Anni Albers, practitioners of the movement, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina), designing numerous iterations in local materials, including mahogany, wicker and leather, and reducing the structure to its essential form. Porset’s circa 1957 Modernist reinterpretation of the butaque is her most enduring design, a sinuous shape in laminated wood and woven wicker, with a high-backed seat balanced on half-moon legs. The Mexican architect Luis Barragán commissioned several versions; Albers, also enchanted with Mexican aesthetics, produced an interpretation of his own.— M.L.

Antonelli: Clara Porset, a Cuban designer working in Mexico, took a vernacular chair and made it into an object, which isn’t dissimilar from what (the Italian architect) Gio Ponti did with the Superleggera (chair, from 1957). This is the Latin American chair. And it’s supercomfortable.

De Cárdenas: Although she was from a wealthy family, she was opposed to the class inequality in Cuba. I believe she went to Mexico because of its strong early socialist movement, and that’s how she became part of the Diego Rivera scene. I think this chair was meant to be sort of invisible — graceful, but not foregrounded.

In an industry that prizes sober sophistication, the Dutch designer Hella Jongerius’s Polder sofa is a clever rebuttal: a monumental piece that’s proudly imperfect, flaunting its faults as virtues. Or, as this publication noted in 2009 — while acknowledging the paradox of the couch’s exquisite construction with its funky aesthetic — “(We) feel as fondly toward it as we would a shabby old sofa.” Its squared-off cushions in varying sizes and uneven backrests upholstered in gradations of earthy colors (clay-like reds, mossy greens, oceanic blues) are interesting from every angle, tufted with kooky, often subtly mismatched buttons of mother-of-pearl, horn or wood. Named for a low-lying system of fields in the Netherlands that have been reclaimed from the sea by dikes and drainage canals, the Polder is a love letter to Jongerius’s verdant homeland and its ingenious natural engineering, but it’s also a paean to the comforts of domesticity and the beauty of everyday life. — M.B.

Antonelli: I think we should include Hella Jongerius. We don’t have Dutch designers, and she’s truly one of the most important.

Delavan: But what is it about this sofa?

Antonelli: There’s something very informal about it. She uses buttons at random. It was from just before the time when she became art director for colors (and materials) at Vitra. And it’s a gorgeous, more contemporary precursor to Piero Lissoni’s Extrasoft.

Conceived in 2008 for Living Divani by the brand’s creative director, Piero Lissoni — who has also designed for Kartell, Cappellini and the kitchen maker Boffi, among others — the Extrasoft embodies several of the design trends of the last half-century in a single object: the move toward simple geometry; furniture that sits ever closer to the ground; and the profusion of squishy, somewhat overstuffed forms. But the sofa’s defining feature is its modularity, a distillation of earlier experiments in sectional design, including Mario Bellini’s bulbous Camaleonda (1970) for what was then known as C & B Italia (now B & B Italia) and Hans Hopfer’s vibrantly patterned Mah Jong (1971) for Roche Bobois. With irregularly sized orthogonal sections that connect via hidden hooks, it can be configured into a multitude of shapes; it’s as much interactive art as it is furniture. And because its orientation is largely horizontal, the Extrasoft can spread through almost any space, providing places to recline, socialize or sleep, recalling a giant platform bed or those sexy conversation pits of the 1970s. — K.G.

Antonelli: One of the interesting things about Piero’s couch, as with Faye’s chair and the Madame Dakar sofa, is that we don’t have other extremely recent pieces.

Delavan: I was also trying to figure out a more recent thing that’s important.

De Cárdenas: The idea of being able to move it around is kind of amazing, but I don’t think Piero Lissoni needs the airtime.

Haramis: I’m not sure that popularity should be a reason not to include someone.

Antonelli: He’s right — we’re talking about impact.

Few designers evoke postwar American modernism — and optimism — better than the husband-and-wife duo Charles and Ray Eames, who lived and worked in Los Angeles. During World War II, the couple used plywood plies to develop new splints for the Navy, refining molding techniques they later applied to domestic designs, including the Side Chair, a simple shell mounted on an Eiffel Tower lattice of wire spindle legs. At once biomorphic and industrial, the Side Chair is now endlessly cribbed and reinterpreted, showing up in high-end restaurants and Brooklyn townhouses. Originally a molded piece of fiberglass that came in shades of gray, it’s now fashioned in postindustrial recycled material. Perhaps more than any other Eames piece, it fully expresses the couple’s animating principle: slightly goofy but still disarmingly elegant. — M.L.

Antonelli: If we don’t include it, people will say we’re missing (something by) Charles and Ray Eames. I’d do the fiberglass chair because it was also about using a material that had been an important part of the war effort.

De Cárdenas: I want to go on the record not to put in the Eames. I don’t think they need this. There’re entire museum shows dedicated to their work.

Haramis: I don’t think they can be left off a list of influential furniture.

Antonelli: There’re whole stadiums with seats that are derivative of them.

Moore: And it’s egalitarian design, and I’m all for that.

Antonelli: Even with Ray, we don’t have enough women on this list. How is that possible?

Moore: The … patriarchy?

Can an armchair be sexual? Funny? A feminist manifesto? In the hands of the Surrealist Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, the answer is a resounding — and perplexing — yes. Her fabric sculpture is furniture reimagined through a provocateur’s lens. Covered in exploding clusters of hand-sewn stuffed tentacles, which Kusama has described as phalluses, “Accumulation No. 1” was constructed in her downtown New York loft, in the same building that housed the studio of her friend the Swedish American sculptor Claes Oldenburg. The chair also seems to have anticipated the strange eroticism of the Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo’s spring 1997 “lumps and bumps” collection 35 years later. Tapping into Kusama’s themes of repetition and whimsy, the peculiar creation originated from a more serious impulse: “(I) began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust toward sex. Reproducing the objects … was my way of conquering the fear,” she once said. It’s also been read as a taunt lobbed at the male-dominated art scene of the era and the ultimate subversion of a domestic object by a female artist: an armchair overrun with limp penises. — M.B.

Delavan: Are those …

Stout: Yes, they’re little peens.

Antonelli: I used to teach a class at U.C.L.A., and I’d say that there’re two big differences between art and design: One difference is that while an artist can choose whether to work for many people or not, a designer, by definition, works for others; the second is who you sell it to and how you market it. (The artists) Martin Puryear and Andrea Zittel are fabulous designers, too. But someone like Kusama or Donald Judd? No. Those are the ones who think they can just do something. I remember having an argument with (the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) Kirk Varnedoe. He said, “Paola, you should consider (acquiring a piece by) Donald Judd. I said, “Why? It’s bad design. If you want to acquire it for the sculpture collection, go for it. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s uncomfortable. It rips your stockings. It’s not childproofed. And if it didn’t have Donald Judd’s name, you’d never buy it.”

Stout: So much of the history of art and design has been about white men. I think this chair was a commentary on that.

Antonelli: While I appreciate that, I just don’t want to acknowledge any artist descending toward design.

Moore: Does design just mean utility? Whenever I have an argument with people about art and design, it seems to come down to the idea that design is something you’d use. And what I don’t understand is why that’s less than. As a person who wants to live with objects, I don’t value a lamp any less than I do a painting. I want to live with them both.

If your chair could talk, would it beg to be sat on? Would it complain about bearing your weight? In the beloved TV series “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” — created in 1986 by its star, Paul Reubens — an armchair is a main character. Voiced by the actress Alison Mork, Chairry invites a wide range of guests and regulars, from Dolly Parton to S. Epatha Merkerson, to plop down on her demented dinosaur face. With her velvety turquoise skin (or, as more prosaic sorts might call it, upholstery), oversize maw (with rounded white teeth positioned between the cushions) and circular eyes with curling lashes, Chairry was an important precursor to Barney, the singing dinosaur who emerged six years later. Chairry — along with the other anthropomorphic elements of the trippy set designed by the boisterous painters and puppet masters Gary Panter, Wayne White and Ric Heitzman — gently mocked the innocence of 1950s children’s shows and subverted the family values rhetoric of the Reagan era. Channeling the colorful postmodernism of the 1980s, Pee-wee’s world was an outsider artist’s pastiche of psychedelia, hippiedom and joyous toddlerhood. For some adult viewers, it was also a queer-coded haven. — E.M.

De Cárdenas: There were at least three tributes in The Times in the days after Paul Reubens died (in July 2023). One of them was about what a truly democratic, inclusive show this was. I remember Cher being on a holiday special (1988’s “Christmas at Pee-wee’s Playhouse”). You know how he’d always have a word of the day? Cher came to introduce the secret word. And every time he said it everything in the room would scream. It was a kid’s show, but it wasn’t just for kids.

Stout: Design for kids is so important.

Moore: And influential. As a parent, I think all those anthropomorphized pieces of furniture are wonderful.

Antonelli: It’s certainly very American.

De Cárdenas: Pee-wee spoke to gays and misfits the way that (the Swiss artist H.R.) Giger (known for his design of the title creature in the 1979 horror film “Alien”) spoke to bros.

Moore: Frankly, I don’t think bros are reading this article.

The Milanese artist, architect and designer Nanda Vigo helped usher in the disco era with this chair, originally manufactured for the Italian furniture company Conconi SNC/More Coffee. While its chromed iron or brass tubing evokes Bauhaus functionalism, the cylindrical, fur-covered seat and backrest, not unlike the giant rollers that provide polish at a carwash, give it a touch of Pop Art kitsch. Vigo, who founded her studio in 1959 after spending time in Switzerland and the United States, was inspired by science fiction and the style codes of the burgeoning aerospace industry, as immortalized in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. She also became known for her fur-lined conversation pits and staircases, like the ones she installed in the 1960s in the poetically named Lo Scarabeo Sotto la Foglia (the Beetle under the Leaf), a private residence in northern Italy. On the Due Più, the material adds a softer touch to the hard-edge minimalism of Vigo’s contemporaries, with results that are undeniably groovy. — E.M.

De Cárdenas: This was very ahead of its time. As ubiquitous as it is, I’ve never seen it at anyone’s house.

Moore: How do you use it?

De Cárdenas: Right? Like, “Sit here, have coffee with me.”

Antonelli: I would like to have a dining table with 10 of them. It’s not super comfortable after a while, but it’s pretty great.

Romualdez: It’s the perfect makeup chair.

With three L-shaped legs and a childlike disk seat, the startlingly simple Stool 60 encapsulates the design ethos of the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. The result of a partnership between Aalto — fresh off his work on Paimio Sanatorium, a triumph of 1930s Functionalist architecture — and the carpenter Otto Korhonen, it represents their first experiment together with what would become an emblematic technique: They sliced fissures into pale birch slats, softened them with heat and water and then filled each gap in the wood with a timber strip dipped in adhesive. They then bent the assemblage at a 90-degree angle, creating sinuous yet sturdy curved supports. The stool’s impact can be seen not only in the innumerable ways it’s in dialogue with its environment — a place to sit or a small side table, it can be stacked into an elegant column to be stored — but in its playful execution as well. Unsurprisingly, it’s been in continual production, and has been deeply influential: Ikea’s Frosta was widely considered to be an offshoot, and the streetwear brand Supreme collaborated with Artek on a 2017 version with a checkerboard motif. — M.B.

Antonelli: We need Scandinavian design.

Delavan: Then the Aalto stool makes the most sense.

Stout: It’s almost so iconic that I’m like, “Get rid of it.”

Moore: I have about 20 of the Ikea version of this stool in my basement left over from a kid’s party.

De Cárdenas: They make an Ikea version of this?

Delavan: Those aren’t quite as thick.

Moore: And very wobbly.

“Enchantment should also be considered as function,” said the Tokyo-based designer Shiro Kuramata. There’s certainly a sense of magic to his Feather Stool, with its wisps of yellow and white plumage suspended in an acrylic block. Kuramata won early acclaim as the creator of more than 100 Issey Miyake retail environments, beginning with the brand’s first Tokyo store in 1976. Like the fashion designer, who died in 2022, Kuramata was innovative in his use of materials, producing chairs and sofas in translucent glass and acrylic, or steel mesh with diaphanous profiles. He created many of his iconic designs in the 1980s, when he was an early member of the Memphis Group, including the Miss Blanche armchair, an acrylic throne embedded with synthetic roses and named for the character in Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Both pieces, while heavy, give the impression of weightlessness. — E.M.

De Cárdenas: It’s barely furniture, and I like that about it.

Haramis: I’m kind of surprised we aren’t choosing the more famous Kuramata chair, “Miss Blanche.”

De Cárdenas: I prefer that this is a gesture to a chair. If it didn’t have that (short rounded back), it wouldn’t be one.

Moore: It doesn’t look very comfortable.

De Cárdenas: Yeah, I don’t want to, like, watch the Super Bowl in it.

Romualdez: Maybe chairs shouldn’t be comfortable. At some point, you want your guests to leave.

Research editor: Alexis Sottile

Photo editor: Katie Dunn

Copy editors: Diego Hadis, Courtney Pressler

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