Take a Seat

While I was in Paris, I went to a couple of exhibitions, two of which, ironically, were of British/London based designers – Jasper Morrison and Ron Arad. The Jasper Morrison exhibit, at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs was a small collection of 21 chairs – one for each year he had been designing them. The rest of the museum is a magnificent collection of designed objects through the ages – from the 15th century or so to the present. Lots of furniture, cutlery, textiles, toys, and decorative objects, mostly behind glass, and where not physically protected, then with strict instructions not to touch.

So walking into the small side room, off the ‘contemporary collection’ – works of mostly furniture from the 20th century, along with original models of the TGV and a few smaller products scattered throughout – into a room full of chairs marked, clearly and proudly, with “Take a Seat” was slightly odd. It didn’t help that not only was the signage stylised, with strong dotted lines and repeated in a multitude of languages on the floor, but I was also alone in the space, with a guard hovering near the door. I had nobody to take a cue from – was this simply a way of saying ‘chairs are things for sitting on’ or actually instructions to, in fact, take a seat? After a while, having read most of the writing on the wall, I figured I’d take my chances. glancing nervously at the attendant, I gingerly sat on the most solid-looking chair, made of solid cork. I was not shouted at, and all was well – the guard look amused at my constant looking-over-my shoulder. And the chair was comfortable, too, which was a bonus.

After a while, a few other visitors entered the room, and seeing me sat on a chair, followed suit. A behavioral norm had been set – or reset, as I am sure this pattern repeated itself throughout the day; every time someone came into the empty room.

It was a refreshing contrast not only to the rest of the museum – which was otherwise lovely – but also to most design exhibitions. Most design is meant to be used, not just admired, and contemporary chairs, especially mass manufactured ones, are perfectly able to take the strain of being sat on. The next day I went to the Centre Pompidou (which promptly took over several pages of my sketchbook with all its lovely structures and geometric shapes), where a Ron Arad exhibition was being held. Ron Arad has designed many chairs and other seating implements, a large collection of which were shown, together with prototypes, models, videos, and explanations. Clearly, the prototypes – of foam, cardboard, paper, metal – are delicate, and it was wonderful to be able to see them at all. But it was a disappointment, especially after the previous day, not to be able to experience the chairs and sofas as they are, at least in part, intended to be. They were roped off, displayed very much as objects to be admired from a distance. These were not one-offs, nor were they the design-art objects Arad has also created, sold for tens of thousands – but mostly examples of his “normal” chairs. It was an enjoyable exhibition, and had I seen them in the opposite order, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But as it was, I wanted to sit down; not just on the museum stools, but on the chairs I had paid to see.

Take a Seat is at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs until the 24th May:

“This exhibition consists of 21 chairs, one for each year I have been designing them, and the idea is to line them up and let people sit on them. Partly to avoid the trap of exhibiting functional things with the usual ”Please don’t touch“ instruction, and partly to let people experience the diversity of the subject both visually and physically. They’re part of everyday life to such an extent that we hardly notice them, but most of us spend more time sitting than we do standing or sleeping, and that fact alone is enough reason to keep designing chairs.”

The Ron Arad exhibit closed a couple of days after I left Paris


UPDATE – 05/05/2009:

I just came across the following article by Volume Inc’s Eric Heiman at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s blog on a similar theme, which makes some good and interesting points:


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