Sometimes a chair is just a chair, but at the Cooper-Hewitt through February 4, it's a cigar -- charged with complex meanings and as sexy as furniture gets. One hundred pieces from the collection of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, now occupy the old Carnegie mansion, and the baronial, turn-of-the-century rooms haven't looked better since the original period furniture was auctioned off after Mrs. Carnegie's death in 1946. The stately halls are again furnished, only now by the icons of the design revolution that swept away the ormolu of the ancien régime. Furnishing the Modern Era is a pleasure: The furniture brings new life to the mansion, as it did to the century.
The chair is design's chosen object, and if you can see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour, you can extrapolate entire design philosophies from each specimen in this impeccably chosen, nearly encyclopedic collection. The museum invites you to sit upon an idea. Virtually every modernist architect who aspired to greatness in the twentieth century distilled his philosophy in a chair, and the pieces that coexist so politely in the show often come from different sides of the intellectual tracks. Together, the hundred theses chronicle the design history of the century, and they also expand the canon as New Yorkers know it through MOMA.
Chairs, like politics, are local, and assembled by Vitra (which itself has produced some of the classics presented here), the collection reflects a point of view culturally equidistant from Italy, Germany, France, Holland, Denmark, and the United States. MOMA's collection tilts toward the great German chairs, most made of metal. The collection spreads the credit and expands the genealogical tree. Many of the pieces are little known and deserve recognition.
What distinguishes the Vitra interpretation of modernist design history is that subordinate histories obscured by the Bauhaus achievement come forward. Wood chairs in this collection -- whether by Thonet, the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, or the more obscure designers like H. V. Thaden, an American, and Gerald Summers, who is British -- are well represented. We learn that wood, like the tubular steel used so creatively by the Bauhaus mafia, is capable of long cantilevers and the much-cherished spring that lent modernist chairs their comfortable give. Like their colleagues in the Dessau school, the designers using wood usually separated the frame of the chair and the seat -- keeping the supporting and the supported distinct -- to emphasize structure, then tantamount to a ubiquitous religion.
After the war, the terrain of invention shifts from wood and metal to fiberglass and plastics; the new moldable materials could accommodate compound curves and continuous shapes. Charles and Ray Eames famously made the transition, and their work is well represented by a wide selection of designs scooped up by Vitra when Ray died in 1988. But Danish designer Verner Panton, breaking with the poised classicism of crafted Danish design, takes the idea much further in a brilliant, stackable S-shaped chair of 1959 that integrates structure and support in the same continuous, liquid form. In the context of Bauhaus classicism and the sheer beauty of the Eames chairs, Panton subverts the seriousness of high modernism with the pure sass of his nearly cartoonish design.
There were always moments of strangeness, like Italian designer Carlo Mollino's scrolling bentwood chair and his glass-topped "Arabesco" table, with a cutout laminated maple base straight from a melting surreal dream. But Panton and a few others (including the Italian designers of a bean-bag chair in 1968) opened Pandora's box, and no amount of architectural righteousness will ever close it again. The chair morphed from a strictly rational, utilitarian thing into an iconic object itself. Furniture lost religion but got attitude.
Architects designing signature pieces with an eye to history can be a lugubrious lot, yet some architects send up others in their own sardonic designs. The most explicit declaration of independence from the canon is the "Vodol," by the Viennese firm Coop Himmelblau, which performs an impolite riff on Le Corbusier. Corb designed the supremely sittable chair, a leather cube one meter square: The human being sat neatly within the mathematics. Coop Himmelblau pried the cube off the floor at an angle with a permanent steel beam, forcing the person to sit straight within the tilt. Design has hit the fan. Alessandro Mendini conceives "Proust's armchair" as a pointillist tableau superposed on a Louis-ish salon chair. Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata embeds plastic flowers in a transparent resin. Philippe Starck concocts a stool shaped like so many tendrils looking for stability. Italian designers Gruppo Strum create a rubber asparagus patch for the group sits of the sixties. The second half of the century is much funnier than the first. Sometimes comfort suffers, but not always. Anyway, the spiritual lift is worth it.