On September 8, 1849, readers of the Illustrated London News were greeted by an advertisement for a newly designed collection of chess pieces. It read: “A set of Chessmen of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. STAUNTON.” That would be Howard Staunton, generally agreed to be the world’s best player at the time. “The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand,” the copy continued, “and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility.” The Staunton chess set would eventually become the game’s standard, thanks in large part to the champion’s cachet (Staunton’s is thought to be one of the first celebrity product endorsements ever, his set the 19th-century equivalent of the Air Jordan).
But the master was not responsible for the celebrated design itself. That distinction belongs to John Jacques, an established manufacturer of game equipment and a master wood turner. Jacques knew that, in addition to being solid, well-balanced, and easily identifiable, a successful chess set had to be easy to produce, and it’s thought that the design he put forward was in large part informed by the technology he knew best: the lathe. The chess pieces we play with today have Jacques to thank for their appearance, but they probably don’t have a lathe to thank for their production. This is precisely what Neora Zigler, an Israel-based designer, had in mind when she created Chess for the Mass.
Zigler wanted to create a set of chessmen (after reading that advertisement, I don’t think I’ll ever call it anything else) that were made explicitly for contemporary means of production, namely plastic injection molding. After tinkering with a few ideas, she realized her injection-inspired collection could also achieve another modern quality: stackability.
In designing the pieces, she looked to other stacking objects for inspiration. The knight, she told me, borrowed its look from a simple plastic chair. Not terribly befitting of a knight, but it will have to do. The bishop had even more modest beginnings. “It reminded me of a disposable spoon,” Zigler explained.
The designer said she was focused on making the pieces “simple but not minimalist and not abstract,” and she’s done an admirable job of giving them familiar Stauntonesque silhouettes while reducing the amount of materials needed for each. The stackable pieces, she points out, could also allow for more compact packaging. But I’m not sure they match up to their forebears when judged by the last quality outlined in the London News ad: “the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter,” it concludes, “they are more steady than ordinary sets.” It doesn’t look like Zigler’s bishops would tolerate unsteady fingers quite as successfully.
[Hat tip: Designboom]