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Despite the economic depression at the beginning of the decade and the social and political upheaval in the years before World War II at the end, the 1930s was a period of progress in chair design. Metal had dominated design experimentation in the 1920s, but 1930s designers such as Alvar Aalto in Finland, Marcel Breuer, then in England, and Bruno Mathsson in Sweden, tested the tensile qualities of wood.

Paimio lounge chair, 1930-1931

Design: Alvar Aalto

Laminated birch, plywood.
Production: Artek, Finland

When Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) won the commission to design the Paimio Sanatorium in the late 1920s, he approached the project as if he was a patient. No detail escaped him: from the meticulously planned lay-out of the building and canary yellow paint on the stairs with which he hoped to cheer up the patients, to the robust, comfortable furniture made from Finnish birch. Aalto experimented with plywood for three years to develop a chair which would ease the breathing of tuberculosis patients and succeeded in producing the first pliant chair to be built without a rigid framework.

Stacking stools Model No.60, 1932

Design: Alvar Aalto

Bent laminated birch.
Production: Artek, Finland

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the work of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) was influenced by that of the International Style designers he had admired on trips to France and Germany, but he was determined to interpret it in a distinctive style, notably by using native Finnish woods. Originally designed for the Viipuri Library, these stools caused a sensation when they were exhibited in 1933 with Aalto’s Paimio Chair at Fortnum & Mason department store in London. Aalto’s practical, stackable stools have since been in constant use – particularly in public buildings such as schools and libraries.

Zig-Zag, 1932-1934

Design: Gerrit Thomas Rietveld

Oak, brass.

The son of a Utrecht cabinetmaker, Gerrit Thomas Rietveld (1888-1964) worked in his father’s workshop as an apprentice craftsman from the age of eleven. In his early twenties Rietveld opened his own cabinetmaking workshop while pursuing his passion for architecture by enrolling on an architectural drawing course. Rietveld’s early work with wood reinforced his later role as a radical designer, architect and member of the avant garde De Stijl movement. It gave him the technical expertise to put some of De Stijl’s principles into practice, notably by realising its zest for oblique diagonal lines in this cantilevered Zig-Zag chair.

Crate, 1934

Design: Gerrit Rietveld

Red spruce.

Intended for use in holiday homes, the Crate reflects the growing enthusiasm of its designer, the visionary architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) for rudimentary construction during the 1930s. Like its predecessor, the Zig-Zag Chair, the Crate was simply constructed from inexpensive planks of wood with visible flaws. For Rietveld, the uncompromising simplicity of the Crate was an honest response to the harsh economic climate during the early 1930s. Later generations of designers – from the Castiglioni brothers in the 1950s, to the Droog group in the 1990s – have shared his zest for unashamedly simple forms and banal materials.

Chair No. 406, 1938-1939

Design: Alvar Aalto

Bent laminated birch, textile webbing.
Production: Artek, Finland

Conceived as a variation on Alvar Aalto’s earlier laminated wood cantilevered armchair, the Chair No. 406 was designed at the same time as he was working on the Finnish Pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and Villa Mairea, a house for the industrialist Harry Gullichsen and his wife Maire. A few years earlier Aalto (1898-1976) had co-founded Artek, the furniture manufacturer, with Maire Gullichsen and his own wife Aino. Based in Helsinki, Artek produced many of Aaalto’s furniture designs and continues to manufacture them today.

T 102 chair, 1934-1941

Design: Bruno Mathsson

Laminated beech, hemp.
Production: Karl Mathsson, Denmark

As an apprentice craftsman at Karl Mathsson, his father’s woodworking company in the early 1930s, Bruno Mathsson (1907-1988) experimented with making different types of bentwood furniture. By combining these experiments with detailed anatomical studies, he developed new methods of bending and laminating wood to produce furniture which, he hoped, would give greater comfort to the sitter. After seven years of research and development, he completed this T 102 chair with a frame made of laminated beech and stretched hemp webbing on the seat to allow for greater mobility and elasticity.

Landi, 1938

Design: Hans Coray

Aluminium alloy

When Hans Fischli, the architect of the 1939 Swiss National Exhibition in Zurich, organised a open competition to design the official chair for use in the parks and gardens, it was won by literature student Hans Coray (1906-1991) with the design for this aluminium alloy Landi chair, named after the exhibition. Practicality was the priority for Coray when designing the Landi. It needed to be light and stackable to enable the exhibition staff to move chairs from place to place for different events. As an outdoor chair, it also needed to be rainproof. Coray’s solution was to add perforations which not only reduced the chair’s weight but allowed rain to drain from the seat.

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