You can tell a lot about architects by the furniture they design. Take Zaha Hadid, who whips up sleek, liquidy tables that look every bit as futuristic as her buildings. Or Frank Gehry, whose cardboard Wiggle chair summons the same mix of awe (“geez, that’s creative!”) and fear (“will this thing break on me?”) as his expressive architecture.
A new exhibit at the Museum for Applied Arts and Design Cologne offers a window onto the minds of marquee architects, both contemporary and historical, through their inventive furniture design. From Aalto to Zumthor: Furniture by Architects gives us 120 examples of architect-designed chairs, desks, dishes, and at least one table-bicycle hybrid (you’ve got to see the picture). The show opened last week to coincide with the start of IMM Cologne.
A lot of the pieces will be familiar to students of architecture and design history, whether because they’re iconic on their own, such as Arne Jacobsen’s Egg chair, or because they so precisely echo architects’ famous quirks. Note the gratuitous complexity of Danny Libeskind’s Torq chair (slide four).
More than just shorthand for architects’ individual styles, the furniture also tells an interesting story about the evolution of architecture itself. According to the museum, architects were the first furniture designers of the early 20th-century. This was out of necessity; the market simply didn’t carry enough decent chairs to fill the houses that architects built. Mass production and the rise of industrial design as a bona fide profession changed everything, and nowadays, the marketplace has more chairs than anyone knows what to do with. Yet architects keep grinding out furniture, much of it flamboyant, expensive, and terribly uncomfortable. So it is in the 21st century: With armchairs as with buildings, flash and style trump function (see Torq chair).
[Images via Museum for Applied Arts and Design Cologne; hat tip to MoCo Loco]