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Jonathan Olivares, with his Olivares Aluminum Chair, and Charles Pollock, on a CP Lounge, in New York on July 10, 2012

Jonathan Olivares And Charles Pollock On Designing The Perfect Chair

Charles Pollock, the force behind many of George Nelson’s classics, and Olivares, a design historian with a new chair out from Knoll, sit down.

Jonathan Olivares

L.A.–based Olivares, 31, created the Olivares Aluminum Chair for Knoll, which came out in June.

Charles Pollock

Pollock, 82, this year debuted the CP Lounge for Bernhardt Design, his first new chair in decades.

Jonathan Olivares: Why chairs?
Charles Pollock: Most industrial designers do a bottle or a pen or a computer--things that go right past your eye. When you see a chair, it’s almost like a person. It’s this great big thing in front of you. It hits you more.

Olivares’s 2011 book A Taxonomy of Office Chairs

JO: I feel the same way. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is the pace of furniture. It has a different life cycle than other products do. I don’t know how I’d approach a product that has a two-year life cycle or a one-year life cycle. There’s an heirloom-ness to furniture that you don’t get with cell phones, for instance. I’ve had 20 cell phones since I was 18! I like the idea that you work on something that’s gonna be around for a while. So what’s the goal for you when that chair goes out into the world?

CP: You’re trying to sell it. You’re trying to make a profit.

JO: So you’re very concerned with design’s business side.

CP: You have to be.

JO: But what do you hope that object will do for people?

CP: Just like if you buy a brand-new Porsche and you just love that car and you get in and you want to drive it, I want people to love to sit in my chairs. You gotta want the people to buy it because they love it.

JO: Last year, Knoll sent me a Pollock chair. At the time, I was sitting on an extremely ergonomic, contemporary office chair. To be honest, that other chair was better for my back. But I prefer your chair. There’s a friendliness to it--and the softness of the armrests!

CP: It’s like holding a person’s hand.

JO: It’s such a weird thing to talk about loving something like that because it’s pleasant to touch and to look at. But in your chair, I feel like my senses were heightened. I felt more sensitive to the environment. I was learning from the experience of what it is to sit on that thing.

CP: Do you realize, in 1965, when this chair came out, you would have been like--
JO: I was born in 1981.

Pollock’s
1965 Pollock Executive Chair for Knoll

CP: Oh, all right. You wanna hear a story? I had a crummy little apartment on West 25th Street starting in the 1940s. With hardly anything to build anything, I built this damn chair with my bare hands. One day, I carried it on an elevator--it’s heavy!--and I was getting off the elevator, and I knocked Florence Knoll down! I just left, I was so embarrassed. I told my psychiatrist, and he said, "This is perfect! Now you write her a letter and you say you were so embarrassed and how much you love Knoll and how you worked so hard on this chair." And she hired me.

JO: He sounds more business consultant than psychiatrist.

CP: That’s what psychiatrists are, if you get a good one! Look at how great Marlon Brando was in On the Waterfront and what a mess his life was later, when he got so fat and died. Ugh! A good psychiatrist could have straightened him out.

JO: There are a lot of examples of people who have cut their careers short. I look a lot at Gerhard Richter’s paintings. He said that for a creative person to really fulfill their role as an artist, they have to have created in all periods of their life. They have to have dealt with the creative act as a young person, as a middle-aged person, and as an older person. That represents the full development of an artistic career. How do you think you’ve had such a long career?

CP: You don’t want to have that many projects that are real, real hard on you to do. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take on things that are hard. Just don’t take on too many.

JO: It doesn’t mean you’re not working hard. It’s about the process of doing and designing and thinking.

CP: Most designers work up to a peak. They do some great stuff, and then it’s just junk. Either you have mistresses--Picasso had a bunch, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and they both worked up until the age of 90, 95, and did very well. Or you have a good psychiatrist to explain to you why you’re doing such and such and how to get past it. With years of psychotherapy and my own bipolar thing--which has worked out very well for me--I’m doing better work than I did in the earlier part of my life. And I feel better doing it.

JO: So design isn’t just a profession . . .

CP: It’s design and psychotherapy and life. To keep the edge, you just keep doing something new. I’m not gonna say that working is easy, but while I’m doing it, I’m just a happy little moron--that’s how my girlfriend describes me. The fact that nothing might happen with those things is not the point. The point is, I’m doing new things, and I have a good feeling in my soul. I want to stay alive.

A version of this article appears in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company.

Photograph by Christian Witkin

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