Furniture design during the 1980s was characterised by two movements. One was the do-it-yourself spirit bequeathed by the late 1970s punk era, which inspired London-based designers like Tom Dixon and Ron Arad to teach themselves how to weld and Jasper Morrison to assemble chairs using simple tools and prefabricated industrial components. The other was the flamboyant, unashamedly kitsch post-modernist spirit popularised by Ettore Sottsass and his young collaborators in the Memphis movement in Milan.
Steel, polyurethane foam, polyester
Production: Cassina, Italy
Stylistically the Torso is typical of the post-modernist Italian furniture of the early 1980s. Evoking the bold colours and blowsy patterns of 1950s suburbia, it celebrates the kitsch which had long been derided by the rationalists who had dominated modern design. As a co-founder of the avant garde Archizoom design group in the late 1960s, Paolo Deganello was an important influence for the young designers in new movements like Memphis. Yet Deganello progressed beyond post-modernist styling in the functionality of the Torso. Composed of interchangeable parts it can be adapted to meet the changing needs of its user and some components, such as the optional side table, gave it a remarkable versatility for the time.
S chair, 1988
Production: Cappellini, Italy
Having taught himself how to weld in the early 1980s after dropping out of art school, Tom Dixon (1959-) worked on more than fifty prototypes for the S Chair using different materials including rush, wicker, old tyre rubber, paper and copper. Its rough-hewn charm typifies the post-punk, do-it-yourself spirit of Dixon’s 1980s designs. Originally made by Dixon himself, the S Chair was later put into production by the Italian manufacturer Cappellini. Dixon has continued to combine design and manufacturing throughout his career by founding his own production companies, such as Eurolounge, in his role as head of design at the Habitat retail chain and, latterly, at Artek, the Helsinki furniture manufacturer founded by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
Crown Chair, 1988
Sheered sheet steel
Production: Tom Dixon, UK
The flamboyant companion to Tom Dixon’s S Chair is the exuberant Crown Chair, which he designed and made in the same year, using the same self-taught welding process. Like the S Chair and the late 1980s work of designers like Ron Arad and Philippe Starck, the Crown Chair trod a fine line between art and design, sculpture and furniture. 'If it’s a comfortable chair then I’m a designer,' Dixon (1959-) once said, 'but if it’s an uncomfortable piece of scrap metal, then I’m an artist.' This striking throne-like chair fulfils the function of a seat, but comes closer to Dixon’s definition of art, because it can be sat upon, but certainly not in comfort.
Dr Glob, 1988
Production: Kartell, Italy
Philippe Starck emerged as one of the world’s most famous furniture designers in the 1980s by distilling an everyday product, such as a chair, into a bold form often inspired by cartoon imagery that the public could recognise – and smile at. Born in Paris in 1949, Starck originally studied architecture but dropped out of university to assist the fashion designer Pierre Cardin. He made his name in the early 1980s when he was commissioned to design furniture for the French president François Mitterrand's private rooms in the Elysée Palace. Dr Glob typifies his flair for visual puns, comical shapes and equally comical names.
Plywood Chair, 1988
Plywood, birch veneer
Production: Vitra, Switzerland
As a young designer, Jasper Morrison (1959-) was often forced to produce his designs himself, but was determined to do so by industrial means. Short of money, he had to be resourceful by making the most of whichever materials and tools were available. For the Plywood Chair, Morrison’s only tools were an electric jigsaw and a set of ships’ curves. 'It became a project to cut shapes out of a plywood sheet and reassemble them to make something three-dimensional,' he explained. 'I found that by using a thin sheet of ply for the seat and curving the cross bars below it, I could achieve a cushioning effect, which in some way compensates for other, less accommodating features.'
Silver Chair, 1989
Production: De Padova, Italy
At a time when more and more people were starting to work from home for all or part of the day, the veteran Italian designer Vico Magistretti (1920-) developed the aluminium and polypropylene Silver series of chairs for De Padova. As his inspiration Magistretti took a 1920s chair designed by Marcel Breuer and manufactured by Thonet in Austria. Originally an architecture student, Magistretti turned to product and furniture design in the late 1940s during Italy’s post-war drive of reconstruzione. Typically he took an existing object as his starting point and then rethought it by assessing whether it could be improved with the use of modern materials and production processes.