The Most Successful Chair

The monobloc is not the first plastic chair in design history. This honor goes to Joe Colombo’s stacking chair Universale. First introduced in 1965, it was made of five injection-molded pieces and thus started a new way of mass production. The monobloc is not even the first one-piece plastic chair in design history. That’s Selene, presented by Vico Magistretti in 1969. And there’s another iconic one-piece plastic chair, before the monobloc finally set out to conquer the world in the early 1980s, Verner Panton’s cantilevered Panton Chair from 1973.

Yet of all chairs, plastic or not, the monobloc is the most successful. Technically, Selene and the Panton Chair are monoblocs, too, as they are made in one injection-molded shot. But given their fancy names, they don’t need to be called after their production mode. That’s why only the sturdy, anonymous, ubiquitous, cheap, and mostly white plastic lawn chair, the chair we have all seen a million times, is referred to as the monobloc.

It is not clear, where it made its debut, but most probably it was first mass-produced by the French Alibert group or the US company Grossfilex. Today it is manufactured in Australia, Taiwan, China, India, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Marocco, Italy, Germany, France, the United States, and Mexico, among others, with many of the producers accounting for local taste preferences. The Indian company Nilkamal, for example, offers monoblocs that feature lotus patterns and peacock feathers in the backrest. Worldwide, every 70 seconds, a chair drops out of a press—5.5 pounds of polypropylene molded at 450°F. Early monoblocs cost around 60 dollars, but as production increased prices dropped to less than three dollars.

Which is why you’ll find the monobloc at any trailer park, any public pool, any open-air taco place and probably at every landfill around the globe. Average Joe rests on it as much as the late rock star Kurt Cobain—the latter being proved by the photographer Juergen Teller who took a picture of Cobain sitting backstage on a stack of monoblocs during Nirvana’s Nevermind tour in 1990. The plastic chair appears as a prop in peaceful idyll such as campgrounds and gardens and in violent drama such as Abu Ghraib prison. We will find it in the windows of luxury department stores like the I. M. Pei-designed Quartier 206 in Berlin last summer. And we can see it in shantytowns and other poor regions where, more often than not, it will be mended, revamped and customized.

A website exclusively dedicated to the monobloc, funtionalfate.org, shows the chair’s skillful repairs, creative re-uses, and maverick anti-design. We see wooden slats and metal sheets screwed across fractures, or just tape, and in some cases even wire seems. Frequently, resourceful tinkerers have added new legs or mended two broken chairs together. They have converted the plastic chair into seats for rickshaws, canoes, and camels. And the Free Wheelchair Mission, an international nonprofit organization, provides wheelchairs assembled, among others, of the monobloc and mountain bike wheels. Designed by the American Don Schoendorfer, a Columbia University graduate with a Ph.D. from MIT, the Mono wheelchair will come to 59.20 dollars, while a regular one costs a minimum of 400 dollars[1]. Despite its humble price, Dr. Schoendorfer’s genial invention seems to be more durable than its more refined counterparts, too. Functionalfate quotes an orthopedic surgeon in the Philippines who reports that the Monos “have outlived the conventional wheelchairs the hospital purchased from a medical supplier”.

Professional designers have dealt with the monobloc, too. Yet, compared to the ingenious and clever tinkering in underprivileged communities all around the world, their efforts almost seem dull. At the exhibition R-use—R-design—R-vitalise, taking place at the 2004 Stockholm furniture fair, for example, the Swedish designer Rebecca Ahlstedt mounted the plastic chair on a rocking iron frame. Nice, but executed more creatively in Africa, Asia, or South America.

Given a twist towards the world of art, Western tinkering seems to make more sense. Asked to design chairs for the Swedish museum Tensta Konsthall, the label Front bluntly used monoblocs, unobtrusively customizing them according to their function. At the cafeteria, they upholstered them with leather, mounted casters onto the office chairs, and did not alter the outdoor chairs at all, apart from engraving them with the museum’s logo. Next to the fine arts, the vernacular plastic chair seems subversively provocative.

The same holds true for Marti Guixé’s 2004 limited edition of ten signed chairs called Stop the Discrimination of Cheap Furniture!, which was followed up in 2009 by the Respect Cheap Furniture! series, available in a limited edition of fifty pieces. A self-declared “ex-designer”, Guixé deeply dislikes design as stylized object and form, yet continues to develop new products (because, as he says, he needs to use them). Focusing on the functionality rather than looks and materials however, he remains true to his critical and anti-materialistic views, for example when he illustrates the packaging of the Spanish shoe company Camper with the slogan, “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it”. The Austrian, Paris based designer Robert Stadler seems to make a similar anti-consumerist comment with his Rest in Peace chair. Peppered with orifices, holes, tears and laces, the plastic chair seems to have been maltreated with acid. Yet, it is no longer made of plastic, but out of cast aluminum and then painted in white—eternalized evanescence.

Changing the material seems to be a worthwhile way to deal with the monobloc and, at the same time, criticize social phenomena. The Dutch designer Maarten Baas, for example, presented the monobloc carved in elm wood by Chinese craftsmen.  “I like to play with the fact that it’s such a mundane object”, he told me in an interview in 2008, “using a different material and thus putting the chair into a new context forces us to look at it in another way. It is full of paradoxes that are hard to define.” The fact that Baas’s Plastic Chair in Wood was exhibited in China, the land of mass production, is one of them. “And it is also the land of the knock-off, the land of a very old wood carving tradition, the land that has impressively fast adopted Western lifestyle, and so on. All of this plays a role in my design.” The American multimedia artist Sam Durant follows a very similar logic, when he presents nine different monoblocs in ceramics—all of them hand-made by craftsmen in Xiamen, China.

The persistence of designers and artists has finally called the attention of curators and writers to the monobloc. In September, the German art and design book publisher Gestalten released 220°C Virus Monobloc: The Infamous Chair, “an entertaining documentation of the love-hate relationship designers have with this chair, including Phillippe Starck, Jerszy Seymour, Maarten Baas, Konstantin Grcic, and hundreds of more examples of monoblocs from across the world.” The pervasive plastic chair will soon star its own exhibition, too. Curated by the renowned German design theorist Volker Albus and Jens Thiel from the web platform Functionalfate mentioned above, it will start in June 2011 at Die Neue Sammlung—The International Design Museum Munich. Excitingly, the show will, for the first time, introduce the monobloc’s inventor. And who knows? Maybe he will give the monobloc a new name, one that’s more glorious than the old one, which simply denominates its production mode.


[1] http://www.thewheelchairsite.com/price-comparisons.aspx

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