Thursday, May 12, 2016

Design just has to work

     Certain things are so iconic, so ubiquitous that it's odd to think that someone designed them, and they have an official name, like this classic of industrial seating, the GF 40/4 Chair, designed by David Rowland, who spent eight years, from 1956 to 1964, perfecting it.
    I noticed the chair last week at the Art Institute of Chicago in, appropriately enough, an exhibit on the influence of architects on chairs (and some people think the Van Gogh bedrooms are the most exciting thing going on there now!)  The "GF" in its name is for "General Fireproofing," the Youngstown, Ohio company that made a variety of iconic office furniture: swivel desk chairs, metal bookshelves, generic office desks. The "40/4" part of its name is because 40 chairs can be stacked four feet high. It was shunned by "skeptical manufacturers," according to the exhibit, who didn't believe the wiry chair could support human weight and stand up to hard use. Until Skidmore, Owings and Merrill ordered 17,000 for the new University of Illinois at Chicago campus in 1964, and General Fireproofing happily took the job. Millions more of the chairs have been made since then, though I would bet many of those original  U of I chairs are still in service. A reminder that design doesn't have to be beautiful; it just has to work, in order to endure.


  1. I've sat in this chair & knockoffs. It's fairly comfortable.
    Compare that to the Wassily Chair, which is a pathetic joke & extremely uncomfortable.
    Many architects decided that the standard chair wasn't any good & designed their own.
    Frank Lloyd Wright did that & his chairs are miserable to sit on. He designed an officel chair for Johnson Wax that had only three legs. People fell off them if they crossed their legs, so he was forced to make them with four legs.

    1. Frank Lloyd Wright never seemed to give a damn about whether anything he designed, from chairs to buildings, was practical or usable. The goofy roof he conjured for the Johnson Wax building chronically leaked, and when the CEO complained about dripping on his desk, Wright airily told him to move the desk. He would design mostly-glass houses that were impossible to heat or cool, doorways that knocked the hats off normal-sized people. Wright belongs in the Chicago Academy of the Overrated, between a Chicago hot dog and a 16-inch softball.

      Bitter Scribe

    2. There's not a damned thing overrated about Chicago hot dogs or 16" softball!
      The main Johnson Wax Building no longer leaks, as they put another greenhouse type roof over it.
      Wright's ceilings & doorways were low because he was really short.

    3. I had the privilege of being able to attend a few get-togethers at Wright's Brown House, and it didn't seem to be the least bit uncomfortable. Mr. and Mrs. Brown lived there for decades, and they adored it.
      I agree, Clark St., nothing overrated at all about those. I've been wanting to play some mushball, but no one really knows what I'm talking about here.

    4. had a couple of Wassily chairs i bought at a garage sale, and found them quite comfortable. but then, i'm 6'4" with very long legs.
      alas, my wife made me get rid of them when we got married.

  2. Yes, we are still sitting on those chairs at UIC.

  3. My daughter bought us a couple of very expensive "designer" chairs a few years ago, hammocky seats of leather with chrome supports, attractive and serviceable (except if you need to stand on them to change a light bulb), but I would replace them in a minute with the 40/4 if I could. When burglars broke into my house, they took a $700 TV and a $1000 computer and left the chairs, which cost twice as much and would have been a lot easier to carry. I'm going to put price tags on the chairs now in hopes that next time someone breaks in he leaves me my TV and computer and takes those damned chairs.


  4. Probably the most famous modern chair is the one designed by Miees van der Rohe and Lily Reich for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. Unlike, say, the torture devices Frank Lloyd Wright was in the habit of designing, they are quite comfortable. I recall many hours spent studying sitting in one in the lobby of the Social Sciences Building on 60th Street.

    Tom Evans

  5. I have a nice metal folding chair I sit on at work....



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