As a traveler in Europe during the Middle Ages, you’d probably be able to find a good game of chess wherever you went. It was also likely that every game would be played on a different type of set. Until the invention of the lathe during the Renaissance, chess sets were handcrafted by artisans who treated every set as a new project—resulting in frequent confusion amongst players. All that changed in the mid-1840s, when a Victorian architect named Nathan Cook designed the Neoclassical Staunton set, which has served as a design standard for the past 200 years.
During the same period—and especially during the past 50 years—chess has declined as a universal game. Blame it on our short attention spans, the ubiquity of computer games, or even the rise of sports as an armature of international politics—people just aren’t playing as much chess these days, and we as a culture just aren’t watching it at the competitive level.
Daniel Weil, the Pentagram designer known for his thoughtful reinterpretations of everyday objects, believes that it’s time for a second renaissance. "It’s a participation sport, and millions of people play it," he told Co.Design. "But at the top end, competitive players are simply extraordinary performers."
Every performer needs a good stage, so at the request of the World Chess Federation, Weil undertook an overhaul of the Staunton set earlier this year. His contribution to the long line of chess sets debuted at the World Chess Candidates Tournament in London last week, which ended up being a historic and theatrical event (some even called the proceedings "bizarre"). Weil couldn’t be happier with the drama: according to him and his client, the biggest challenge with bringing people back to chess is conveying the excitement. "The biggest hurdle is in keeping it engaging, he says. "That’s the first step."
Weil’s chess set takes the original Staunton set as a jumping-off point. Staunton and its designer, Cook, were deeply influenced by the renewed popularity of antiquity and Greek culture in the 1800s. For example, Staunton’s braying Knight was inspired by the magnificent Elgin Marbles, which were moved from the Parthenon to the British Museum in 1803 (an excellent explanation of the set’s history is here). Weil, himself a former architect, wanted to strengthen the neoclassical aspects of Cook’s design. He did so by rejiggering the height of each piece so that, before the first move is made, the pieces conform to the exact height of the Parthenon’s pediment. He also redrew the profiles, bringing them closer to column proportions and making it easier for players to make theatrical gestures like the "south hold."
According to Weil, the drama of the set contributed to the high theater that went on at the tournament in early April. "It was incredible," he says. "Every player felt that they were on their stage." In addition to the new set, Pentagram redesigned the tournament identity and website, and launched a visualization system, called ChessCasting, where the audience could contribute analysis of the games in progress.
To him, it’s simply a matter of bringing chess into an era where design and visualization programs are changing the way entertainment is broadcast to an audience—the rest will happen on its own, and hopefully, the public will rekindle their centuries-old love of the game. "It’s very much like LEGO, in the sense the LEGO is good for children’s spatial thinking and coordination. Chess does the same for adults," he says. "It’s a great social game."
You can buy the new Staunton set here.