If the history of 20th-century design proved anything, it’s that a chair is certainly not just a chair. A good chair can embody its designer’s aesthetic system and serve as visual shorthand for everything he or she has completed up until that point. It can even stand in for an entire movement, just as Mies’s Barcelona chair or the Breuer chair distilled the essence of heroic modernism and all of its formal and ideological content.
As such, the cult of the chair weighs heavily on every generation of designers. Everyone wants to design that chair, and any look at a design student’s portfolio would undoubtedly reveal some overly fussy or trite sculptural designs that would attest to those lofty ambitions.
Carlo Aiello would be the first to admit to this. The LA-based architect and designer, whose "Parabola Chair" just won the 2013 ICFF Studio Award, confesses that he has "always wanted to design a good chair." By "good," Aiello tells Co. Design, he means a chair "inspired by mid-century simplicity but radically new, something that we have never seen before." Mission accomplished.
Of course, you just don’t knock that out in one go. The Parabola Chair was the result of months of work and countless design iterations. The primary challenge, one Aiello set up for himself, lay in achieving the usual components of any chair—seat, armrest, backrest—using only a single surface. To do this, he developed a shell that curved in two directions (a "hyperbolic paraboloid") that conformed to the sitter’s body, and which needed a very minimal frame to support it.
Aiello says he wanted something "sculptural, but easy to manufacture and ergonomically correct"—not a simple task. But the final design exhibits all of these qualities. It’s effortless and formally suave, thanks to its use of parabolic curves. It’s also comfortable—those curves mesh to create a womb-like basket to accommodate the user. And it uses a chrome-plated steel structure whose components are all straight, which means they’re somewhat easy to reproduce.
There’s a reason why you think "mid-century" when you look at it. Parabolas were first implemented in architectural and product design in the 1950s (see Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion or anything by the engineer Pier Luigi Nervi), when designers were free to move past the Platonic, rectilinear, and by then historicized high Modernism of the '20s. Aiello’s use of chrome finishes draws on the Modernist chairs, but it also nods to diner design and Ford T-birds.
The Parabola Chair is currently on display at Bergdorf Goodman’s Fifth Avenue flagship store. But you can also catch it at next week’s ICFF (May 17-21), where Aiello will be showcasing the chair—and on the lookout for manufacturers.