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By the turn of the 1990s, the exuberant post-modernist spirit had faded and designers searched for a more purposeful approach to design with greater depth and meaning. Some, such as Marc Newson drew on the optimistic 1960s vision of the future. Others, like Jasper Morrison, returned to the origins of the modern movement to revive its attachment to simplicity of form and seriousness of intent.

W. W. Stool, 1990

Design: Philippe Starck

Varnished sand-cast aluminium
Production: Vitra, Switzerland

As one of the most dynamic furniture designers of the 1980s and 1990s, Philippe Starck (1949-) developed dozens of chairs to be put into volume production by different manufacturers, yet he also executed experimental projects by designing conceptual pieces. Starck described them as “surrealist or Dada objects" intended to liberate the user “from the humdrum reality of everyday life". Among them was the W.W. stool, which was originally designed by Starck as part of a fantasy workspace for the German film director Wim Wenders and named after him. The only object in the room to go into production, this stool seems to ignore all functional constraints by barely providing a surface to be sat on.

Soft Heart, Spring Collection, 1990

Design: Ron Arad

Steel frame, polyurethane foam, fabric
Production: Moroso, Italy

“There are virtually no limits," said Ron Arad of the creative possibilities of technology. “Smart materials, sharp tools, sci-fi production, it’s all here. Now! The present is much too fascinating to stop and worry too much about the future. If you look at the present deeply enough, the future will become discernible." Having studied architecture, Arad (1951-) taught himself how to make furniture, initially from found materials, in his London design studio during the early 1980s before welding exuberant forms from metals, such as steel and aluminium, in limited editions of sculptural furniture. Arad then developed mass-manufactured versions of those forms as upholstered pieces like Soft Heart.

Crosscheck Chair, 1990-1992

Design: Frank O. Gehry

Bent and woven laminated wood
Production: Knoll International, US

When Frank Gehry (1929-) starts work on the design of an architectural project, he begins by sketching the lines of the building in a fluid, almost abstract style. His sketch is then converted by computer into the precise technical specifications required to construct such a structure without losing the expressiveness of the original drawing. The complex curves of the Crosscheck Chair evoke the organic forms of Gehry’s architecture. Before the Crosscheck, even the most sophisticated plywood chair depended on a substructure or intermediary support for solidity. Gehry experimented for two years to produce this ingeniously interwoven structure which is remarkably strong, yet apparently light and transparent.

Louis 20, 1991

Design: Philippe Starck

Blown polypropylene, aluminium
Production: Vitra, Switzerland

Best known as the post-modernist prankster who made his name by designing notoriously unstable three-legged chairs, and a lobster-shaped lemon squeezer that sold in tens of thousands yet squirted lemon juice unerringly into the eyes of its users, the French designer Philippe Starck (1949-) imbues his best work with a technical rigour that enables him to express his wacky humour. The Louis 20 chair is the product of lengthy technical experiments by Starck and the engineers of Vitra, the Swiss office furniture manufacturer. Eventually they succeeded in combining a shell and two legs made from blown polypropylene with an incongruous pair of aluminium legs to add Starck’s inevitable joke.

Aeron, 1992

Design: Donald Chadwick and William Stumpf

Recycled aluminium, polyester
Production: Herman Miller

At a time in the early 1990s when many more people were working for longer each day, often on computers, the US furniture manufacturer Herman Miller decided to develop a new office chair – the Aeron – for “the person who sits in it longer than he or she should". The designers, Donald Chadwick and William Stumpf, consulted numerous ergonomists and conducted intensive consumer tests to ensure that the Aeron was as adaptable – and as comfortable – as possible for people of different shapes and sizes. Among the Aeron’s defining characteristics is its biomorphic, curvaceous structure. As there are no straight lines in the human body, Chadwick and Stumpf saw no reason to add them to their chair.

Fibreglass Felt Chair, 1994

Design: Marc Newson

Fibreglass, aluminium
Production by Cappellini, Italy

A few years after leaving art school in his native Sydney, the Australian designer Marc Newson (1963-) moved to Tokyo, where he became fascinated by Japanese culture – from the purity of traditional ukiyo-e, to the candy-coloured kitsch of kawaii. Newson was also fascinated by the Japanese craft of origami, or paper folding, aesthetically and in terms of its functional possibilities. When creating the compound curved form of his 1988 Felt Chair, Newson applied the origami principle of working from a flat piece of thick felt – of the type he admired in Joseph Beuys’ sculpture. He later worked with Cappellini to remake the Felt Chair in fibreglass.

Jack Light, 1996

Design: Tom Dixon

Production: Eurolouge

Fulfilling a dual function as a light and a seat, the Jack Light was developed by the British furniture and product designer Tom Dixon who also put it into production through his manufacturing company Eurolounge. Now the creative director of Artek, the Finnish furniture manufacturer, Tom Dixon combined design with manufacturing and retailing in his earlier career as a freelance designer. Frustrated by the difficulty of finding UK manufacturers willing to put his work and that of other London-based designers into production, he set up his own manufacturing company Eurolounge in 1996. Dixon’s most successful design for Eurolounge is the Jack Light which also functions as a seat.

Memo bean bag, 1999

Design: Inflate and Ron Arad

Plastic, styrene beads
Production: Inflate, UK

After the British designer Nick Crosbie gave a lecture to the product design students at the Royal College of Art in London on the inflatable furniture he was developing, the department head Ron Arad suggested that they work together to rethink the Transformer seat which he had developed in the 1980s. Having agreed to create a seat in the form of an air-tight bag with an adjustable valve and styrene beads inside to add rigidity once it was inflated, they developed a series of prototypes in the hope of producing a comfortable and robust bean bag. Memo was unveiled as a pre-production prototype at the Milan Furniture Fair in April 1999 and went into full production a few months later.

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