The choice and range of materials available to furniture-makers in the twentieth century have been extremely wide. The continued develop ment of metal, plastics, and wood-based products has been essential to complement the traditional materials still in use.
Metals The use of metal was revived in the twentieth century by Frank Lloyd Wright who developed office furniture made from metal which started a trend that has remained as a type form. The nineteenth century experiments with metal tubing were ignored until Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer in the 1920s developed a cantilever chair. The potential of tubular steel as a truly modern material, ideal for series production, has been vindicated as a number of models from the 1920s were still in production in the 1990s. In other cases, steel bar was bent and polished to produce a highly sophisticated design such as Mies van der Rohe's (1929) 'Barcelona chair'. In many instances the use of chromium plate gave the metal a bright finish and there are also examples of a gold colour being applied. Many of the modernist icons were made in chromed steel, including the chaise longue (1928) by Le Corbusier, the Wassily chair (1925) and the Cesca chair (1928) also by Breuer.
Aluminium, prized for its lightweight and non-corroding properties, was used for decorating and making frames for furniture in the 1930s. Marcel Breuer exploited it for his chaise longue (1932) and it was used in 1938 for outdoor chairs in Switzerland to the design of Hans Coray. After the Second World War, Ernest Race produced the BA chair, made from aluminium sections complete with a padded seat. Aluminium went on to be used in cast or spun form in many furniture designs, especially for chair and stool bases and special applications like the frame of the Plia chair (1968). In the 1980s aluminium was again a designer material with outdoor chairs designed by Jorge Pensi (1986) and the sculptural Lockheed Lounge (1986) by Marc Newsom.
The use of wire for furniture had its roots in the nineteenth century but in the 1950s the sculptural chair designs of the Eames (DKR 1951) and Harry Bertoia (Diamond chair 1952) introduced the 'see-through' chair which was ideal for the open plan interiors of the period.
Metal has continued to be at the avant-garde of furniture design with the work of Ron Arad, Tom Dixon and Kuramata using sheet steel, scrap iron and wire respectively.
Wood-based For much of the century traditional furniture woods have been used with little change. Oak, mahogany and walnut have been used to make reproduction furniture of varying quality. Other traditional woods have been used in the making of modern furniture. The design phases of sapele mahogany, makore, rio rosewood, American walnut and pine are all testimony to the longevity of taste for particular species. The major twentieth-century timbers that were apparently new to furniture were teak and afromosia. Although previously used in boat-building and furniture-making, these woods were reintroduced to European furniture via Scandinavia.
The century is best known for its technical advances in the treatment of wood. Whether it be improvements in seasoning, veneer-cutting, laminations and plywood, or reconstituted wood materials such as block-board or particle board, the advances were highly important. The developments in manmade boards began with plywood, prepared in sheet form for use as a constructional material in the early part of the century. Its value as a panel board was soon acknowledged. The use of plywood as a 'designer material' was developed especially by Alvar Aalto in 1930-1. He then worked on laminated plies in 1936, producing some of the twentieth century's most famous chairs. Other examples of plywood work include Gerald Summers, Marcel Breuer and the Isokon company (Figure 1.26). Although successfully used in much inexpensive production furniture, the three-dimensional chair forms made from plywood by Charles Eames in the 1940s are amongst the most famous results obtained using this material. Plywood was further developed by other designers such as Arne Jacobsen in his Ant chair (1952) and it continues to be a valuable material. Hardboard or Masonite was a later invention which involved pressing a mixture of wood fibres and adhesives into sheets. It has been used for back panels of cabinets and for packing. Block board and laminboard are two further developments of nineteenth century cab-inetmaking techniques that were taken over by timber merchants and made and marketed as constructional panels. However, the most important product in the second half of the century was particle board or chipboard. This board, developed during the Second World War, comprises wood chips of varying shapes
with adhesives and fillers which are bonded under great pressure. The board thus produced is extremely strong and flat with no natural faults, making it ideal for the box-like designs of the later twentieth century. This process was developed to use other materials such as flax residues (flax-board) and sugar cane residues (bagasse board). One of the latest innovations is medium density fibreboard (MDF), which is made from wood fibres bonded together with a resin to make a variety of thicknesses of an easily machined and finished board.
Synthetic materials The astounding advances in synthetic chemistry and the development of plastics have brought unprecedented changes to the way furniture is made. In many cases the skills of the cabinetmaker have been overtaken by engineers skilled in machine development or by semi-skilled assemblers putting together prefabricated parts.
Plastics have been known since the nineteenth century with the work of Alexander Parkes, but their commercial application to furniture-making is a twentieth century phenomenon. In furniture use, plastics have been used for construction, decoration and finishing. The replacement of animal glues with synthetic resins in most assembly and laminating processes is a result of the development in adhesives science. The development of urea-formaldehyde adhesives for veneering and laminating, polyvinyl acetate adhesives for gen
eral wood jointing, and other specialist adhe-sives for special applications, releases some of the original constraints on furniture designers. Plastics were used for construction before the Second World War but it was immediately afterwards that they came into their own. The use of sheet acrylics such as Lucite and Perspex was developed in the 1940s along with further experiments with glass-fibre and an increasingly wide range of special plastics. In 1940 Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen developed moulded polyester seats that could be fixed to a variety of underframes and in 1956 Saarinen designed his 'Tulip chair' using glass-reinforced plastic for the seat and aluminium for the base (Figure 1.27).
The development of glass fibre reinforced plastic led to a new range of multi-shaped objects, including the Womb chair designed by Saarinen in 1948 and the DAX chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the same year. The injection moulding of plastics was a great advance as one-piece furniture items could be made. The most ubiquitous was Robin Day's chair design for Hille, made from polypropylene (Figure 1.28). Italian designers developed
Figure 1.28 Polyprop chair Mark II designed by Robin Day (1915- ). Injection moulded polypropylene made by S. Hille and Co. from 1963
plastics and their processing to a high degree. Two examples from the 1960s demonstrate this. The Blow chair, an inflatable PVC chair (1967), and the Sacco (1968), a bag of polystyrene chips which could be used in a multitude of ways, show how plastics could reflect lifestyles and develop new furniture types. By the 1980s plastics were revived as one of the materials of postmodernism. The use of the ubiquitous plastic laminates was one example.
Upholstery The technical changes in upholstery have been related to both the internal structure and the external coverings. At the beginning of the century the spiral compression spring was supreme but in the 1930s spiral tension springs were introduced into Germany and England. This released the designer from having to create a deep section to a chair to accommodate the spiral springs: he could produce a more elegant easy chair whilst retaining the benefits of metal springing. In 1929 the development of latex-rubber cushioning was patented by Dunlop. When made up into cushions, this became an ideal partner to the tension-sprung chair. Post-war developments included the four-point suspension (a one-piece rubber platform) and the introduction of rubber webbing by Pirelli. Both these processes hastened the demise of the traditional spring until the introduction of serpentine metal springs, which enabled manufacturers to produce a traditional-looking upholstery range without the cost of a fully sprung interior.
Plastics also earned a place in post-war upholstery with the introduction of polyether and polyester foams for cushions and padding. Developments continued with substitutes for most traditional materials, e.g. man-made fibre-fill in place of cotton-fibre wrap. The constructional use of plastics in chairs has been mentioned, but the development of polystyrene shells to create an extremely lightweight frame should be noted. External coverings have been revolutionized by the use of PVC-coated fabrics as substitutes for the earlier leather cloths.
Other There seem to be few materials that have not at one time or another been pressed into service in the name of furniture-making. However, two significant materials that have not been discussed deserve a brief mention. The use of paper, discussed in connection with papier mâché, was reintroduced in a product called Lloyd Loom (1917). This was a material made from metal wire with paper wrapped around which was then woven into sheets so that it could be fixed to bentwood chair shapes. In recent years, cardboard and corrugated board have both been used in the making of furniture, in the case of Frank Gehry (1972), as very limited editions, in another case as throwaway children's chairs. Glass is the other important material that has been used throughout the century for constructional, decorative and finishing purposes. As a table top, it became synonymous with the 1960s style known as 'chrome and glass', although it has been exploited by Art Deco designers such as Lalique as well as contemporary artists such as Danny Lane.
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