By JULIE LASKY
NY Times: August 29, 2012
DESIGNED by Philippe Starck in 2002 with an eye to the 18th century, the Louis Ghost chair pays homage to French baroque style. The chair has an oval back and twisted angular arms — fancy stuff for a piece of transparent plastic furniture.
But is it a classic? That’s the claim of its producer, Kartell, which recently announced that 1.5 million Louis Ghosts have been sold since the chair’s introduction in October 2002, making it “the most widely sold design chair in the world.” (The company neglected to say exactly what a “design chair” is — presumably not something you unfold on the lawn or buy from Ikea.)
“An icon,” Kartell declared.
When I first received the news of Louis Ghost’s impending 10th anniversary, I was skeptical that a chair could be canonized after only a decade. As far as I could see, it performed no greater miracle than being produced as a single molded injection of molten plastic.
Then I reconsidered. Of all the furniture produced in any given decade, only a few pieces qualify as what we think of as icons of that period, and they’re not always easy to predict. Might Louis Ghost be one of those objects of which a future connoisseur would say, “That is so millennial”? The sort of thing our grandchildren will drag out of our children’s attics and install in their own living rooms?
For a better perspective, I asked a dozen contemporary furniture experts for their opinions on which objects produced in the last decade or so would occupy the design-conscious home of 2050, just as, say, the Eames lounge chair, a mid-20th-century creation, resides in ours. The result is a showroom’s worth of potential design classics, against which I offer my own list of five.
But first, what makes a classic?
That question neatly divided the experts’ picks into two categories: oaks and seeds. The metaphor came from Emilio Ambasz, the celebrated architect and industrial designer. Midcentury notables like the Eames lounge, Mr. Ambasz said, “are like big, strong oaks in the forest. They will last for many years, probably with many little descendants.”
However, Mr. Ambasz went on, “Since 2000, I’ve only seen things that are more like seeds,” that is, design that may not survive in its original guise, but is important because it gives rise to other creations. “The iPhone is a seed of more that’s to come,” he said.
Half the designers, scholars and connoisseurs I polled, in fact, selected an Apple product as an example, if not their sole choice, of canonical early 21st-century design.
Even Murray Moss, the contemporary-design retailer, who is the last person one would imagine championing technology over physical objects, offered the 2007 iPhone as his first choice of a future classic, “because the era is defined by a new means of communication.” He predicted that “at least the next half a century will continue to explore how we communicate.”
Another seed Mr. Moss proposed was Tomas Libertiny’s 2007 honeycomb vase, produced with the assistance of a swarm of bees. He called the vase “a profound, quiet, esoteric kind of object, which was presented as a technology that was right under our nose.” Mr. Libertiny, Mr. Moss suggested, was on to something by harnessing nature to do the work of machines. Referring to the inspirational potential of a lone artifact, he added, “You don’t know how many minds are triggered by that small wave.”
Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, has long been smitten with technology. (Her 2011 exhibition, “Talk to Me,” dealt with the interaction between people and machines.) She proposed the 2001 iPod, clarifying that she was lumping it with the iPhone and iPad, but giving it special mention for coming out first. Much of the 1980s and 1990s was about style, image and form, Ms. Antonelli said. “It’s only with the turn of the millennium that a new sense of ethics and a new sense of experimentation took hold.”
In the same vein, she mentioned Honey-Pop, Tokujin Yoshioka’s 2000 chair made from sheets of recycled paper that unfold like a Chinese lantern. She also suggested Algues, the 2004 room partition by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Vitra, which users assemble from green plastic pieces to create what looks like a wall of seaweed.
Both highly influential products anticipated some of the social preoccupations in the 2000s, she pointed out: sustainability in one instance; customizable, do-it-yourself design in the other.
After the iPhone, the most popular seedling the experts cited was Patrick Jouin’s furniture made with 3-D printing technology — the C1 and C2 chairs in Mr. Jouin’s Solid collection for the MGX by Materialise collection (2004), for instance — which demonstrated the possibility of manufacturing objects on demand anywhere in the world. Ron Labaco, the Marcia Docter Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, lauded Mr. Jouin for “taking this technology out of the prototype stage and into the domestic realm.”
Similarly, Mr. Moss called Mr. Jouin’s parasol-like One Shot Stool for Materialise (2006) a “game changer.” The stool emerges from its manufacturing process fully jointed and ready to unfold, though it hasn’t been touched by a human hand. “It’s the first object made ever to be born fully articulated with no assembly required,” Mr. Moss said.
The chance that any of these pieces will actually make an appearance in the living room of the future, though, is slight. One Shot sells for $2,500, and at least one curious journalist I know who tried it out found it a little wobbly. Nor would I recommend a box of bees, however constructive, as a housewarming gift.
I had asked for objects that were not just emblematic of their time, but also held the promise of remaining visible and prominent several decades from now. In other words, oaks.
The entry with the most votes in this category (four, which is pretty good considering all the possibilities in a decade) was Chair One by Konstantin Grcic for Magis (2004). “This strangely skeletal, fractal chair embodies the digital age that engendered it, while also obliquely recalling the classic furniture of Harry Bertoia,” the British design curator and writer Gareth Williams wrote in an e-mail.
Charlotte and Peter Fiell, the authors of several books on groundbreaking furniture, endorsed objects with strong silhouettes as well. The design classics of the past, Ms. Fiell said, “apart from having a good level of everyday function and bold aesthetics,” have “a very graphic profile.” As a result, she said, they are easy to pick out of a crowd and identify with an era, and people can connect with them on an emotional level.
Leading the Fiells’ list were Tom Dixon’s Beat lights (2006), a collection of hand-beaten metal pendant lamps with a black finish. The Fiells also proposed Ross Lovegrove’s Supernatural chair for Moroso (2005), a lightweight plastic piece whose oval back is pierced with cheeseholes.
The designer Vicente Wolf took the opposite tack, recommending furnishings that meld effortlessly into a variety of environments and eras. Despite the brief, the two he proposed were introduced decades ago: a 1970s Cedric Hartman marble-top table and a 1940s swing-arm wall lamp for Hinson.
Mr. Wolf did suggest one recent object, Jeffrey Bernett’s 2003 Metropolitan chair for B&B Italia, which he called a “modern slipper chair.” He said, “Wherever I’ve used it, it always looks well, and it travels well with traditional things.”
But will we see it in 50 years?
“Well, honey, you may, but I’ll be dead,” Mr. Wolf said.
In general, chairs dominated the nominations. Whatever else may change in the next four decades, people will probably continue to sit. “Of any object, chairs are the most representative of a time period because they’re also about structure,” said Cara McCarty, curatorial director at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. “They relate to the architecture of the time. When new materials are being worked on, they’re often tested on chairs.”
And of all the chairs that Ms. McCarty has encountered in the last dozen years, the one that made the biggest impression was Mr. Jouin’s 3-D printed C2, but she hesitated to declare it a classic. In her view, no one in this century has matched the accomplishments of Mies, Breuer, Aalto or the Eameses. “We can’t expect every generation to produce an iconic chair,” she said.
As for the Louis Ghost, is it a classic or a flash in the pan? The experts were divided. Mr. Williams, the British design curator, suggested that the chair’s “chameleon-like character” gave it longevity. It “seems to fit it into very many kinds of interior,” he said, “from commercial to domestic, cutting edge to conservative, high-end to economical.”
R. Craig Miller, curator of design arts at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, also saw a glorious future for the chair. “When the postmodernist revival happened in the 2000s, Starck was one of the first to sense this, and he did it with the Louis chair,” Mr. Miller said. “It became an icon.”
Ms. Antonelli, on the other hand, insisted that the chair was a product of the style-conscious ’90s, “no matter when it was designed.” In her view, it lacks the conceptual weight of true millennial products. “It sends the wrong message,” she said.
Even so, I believe it will endure. Evoking the past is one way to guarantee timelessness, because doing so creates a reassuring sense of continuity. And the strong impression made by Louis Ghost early on may well leave its mark with consumers. Not that we need to wallow in nostalgia. Today’s innovators may not have the same opportunities to invent paradigms that earlier masters did, but standards for contemporary design remain high. As Jennifer Hudson, editor of “The International Design Yearbook” (and another iPhone proponent), noted: “It is no longer enough to make something look good and function, but it has to appeal to our emotions and use technologies and materials in ingenious and imaginative ways, as well as having minimum impact on the environment.”
Anything that manages to run that gantlet will be a gift to our descendants.