What is the best designed chair in the world?

I wanted to address this topic because I have recently restored what I regard as a perfectly designed piece of furniture: the Lamino armchair by Yngve Ekstrom for Swedese.

The Lamino Armchair: a flawless design

The Lamino chair, voted “The 20th Century’s Best Swedish Furniture Design” at the start of the millennium, first appeared in 1956. Iconic designs such as this often date back decades but are still being manufactured today – a clear sign of a great design.

It is obvious to the untrained eye that the Lamino chair is a beautifully simple design. This becomes even more obvious if you have the opportunity to restore it.  As an upholsterer, it was my job to dismantle the frame, leaving just the section where the fabric is attached. It was then I realised just how ingenious the design was. It fitted together like the best piece of Lego! It was a real joy to have the privilege to restore what was a rather sad and dilapidated chair to its former glory, using a luxurious faux sheepskin by Designers Guild. Whilst the chair was waiting to be collected by the client, we all kept stroking it like a dog, as the fabric was so soft!

What makes a great chair?

The best designed chair, I think, should be two things: comfortable and aesthetically pleasing. There are many, many chairs in the design world that, in my humble opinion, are one or the other but not both. Comfort is a must, bearing in mind the high prices of “iconic” furniture. As the style icon, Coco Chanel, once said: “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury”.

Here are a few other examples of “iconic” chairs. The pieces I have focused on here are upholstered pieces, as this is our raison d’être!

One of my favourite “iconic” chairs is Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair from 1943. I love Saarinen’s design concept behind this chair: “It was designed on the theory that a great number of people have never really felt comfortable and secure since they left the womb. The chair is an attempt to rectify this maladjustment in our civilisation”.

Another great chair is Finn Juhl’s Chieftain Chair from 1949. This chair is regarded as one of the stars in the Danish design movement. Even though it is still manufactured today, design enthusiasts are always clamouring to source original examples. However, you will need a minimum of £11,000 to buy one! One of the reasons why I love this chair is the juxtaposition of the leather upholstery with the show wood (walnut).

A more contemporary design that I love is the Togo collection by Michel Ducaroy for Ligne Roset, making its debut in 1973. The collection includes the Fireside Chair. The upholstery is all hand-sewn (explaining the rather large price tag). The design lends itself to all sorts of fabrics, including leather and velvet. Sitting on the Fireside chair (alas, not my own…) is like being given a massive hug. It’s also psychologically very difficult to get up and do anything else! A word of warning though; if the upholstery ever needs repairing, it’s a very challenging job for an upholsterer. You need the best professionals! But if you have a Togo chair or sofa that is upholstered in leather, worn leather can look great. And even minor repairs don’t look out of place, adding character to a design that already oozes personality!

Is it worth buying replicas of “iconic” chairs?

Most people, particularly designers, would say no.  Michelle Ogundehin, renowned interiors writer, brand consultant and TV presenter, and former Editor-in-Chief at Elle Decoration UK is a passionate advocate of “fighting the fakes”. Back in 2012, she launched the Elle Decoration UK Equal Rights for Design campaign and made some very valid and interesting comments about this issue. One comment stuck in my mind aimed at consumers: “[have] the confidence to buy something else if an original classic, or designer piece, is deemed too pricey. There are many fantastic affordable designs available without recourse to fakes”. Basically, “Style for Less” alternatives.

However, if you really want a particular piece, ask yourself why. If you want it because you love the aesthetic of the design and the comfort, then buying something “in the style of…” can be a much cheaper option. Many iconic designs, particularly from the mid-century era, were copied to a very high standard at the same time but could be purchased by less affluent people. These copies often look very similar to the original designs (unless you’re an expert) and if you don’t mind not owning an original piece, then go for it.

If, on the other hand, you are a collector and want to own a particular piece for the prestige of the design and as a long-term investment, then buy original pieces (making sure you are actually buying original pieces).  If I’m lusting after a particular piece (be it furniture, art or shoes!), I save up my pennies and wait…

More iconic furniture designs…

Three other iconic chairs that always appear in “Best of…” lists include:

The Eames Lounge Chair, circa 1956

My verdict: I’m not a huge fan of this chair, finding it rather masculine. But I do love the show wood and the usability of it. Clearly a chair to laze around in for hours…

The Barcelona Chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, circa 1929

My verdict: Even though I can appreciate the chair’s simple, refined lines, I find the design a little austere. More a statement chair for elegant, open-plan modernist spaces, than a lounging chair. Although, if someone gave me a Barcelona chair, I wouldn’t say no!

The Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen, circa 1958

My verdict: There’s nothing that I don’t love about this chair. And the fact that the design is still in production today is testament to its overall effectiveness as a chair and design icon. In terms of upholstery techniques, it’s more akin to dressmaking: machine-stitching pieces together gradually and then fitting it to the body (the chair mold) as you go.

To end…

You may have noticed that all the pieces that I love have two attributes in common. Firstly, all the designs have an organic quality and are very curvy and tactile – much like the human body that furniture is supposed to be designed for. Secondly, they’re all classed as “mid-century” design.  As an upholsterer, I have sat on many chairs and find the more curvaceous pieces much more comfortable (and comforting!). And as American designer Paul Rand is famous for saying: “Good design doesn’t date. Bad design does”, which is why mid-century furniture is so sought after decades later!

Online resources about great design and “fighting the fakes”

New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s website hosts an extensive range of articles about iconic furniture designers, including Marcel Breuer, Philippe Starck and Ludvig Mies van der Rohe.

Design Museum
Designers from their archives include: Eileen Gray, Charlotte Perriand and Terence Conran.

Design wars: Original iconic furniture & the fight against replicas; 30 June, 2019; on Hausporta, a great interior design site (including a blog) created by designer Saffron Finch.

Where to source design classics online

In my opinion, one of the best online portals selling an extensive range of furniture and collectibles at reasonable prices. Hamilton & Hodson use this very reliable and professional portal to sell our own restored furniture.

The Hoarde
Another great portal where you can buy unique pieces directly from professional sellers.

Rag & Bone
A quirky shop in St Nicholas Market in Bristol. The bricks-and-mortar shop is lovely and their website is great. They are very talented at spotting quality, unique pieces that everyone wants in their home!

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