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  • Writer's pictureRoy Jibrin

Beyond a chair.

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

There is an abundance of chair designs. Thousands of designers and production companies thrive to produce a perfect chair; be it for an office, dining or a lobby. Each with a hero feature; like its outdoor durability or its comfort or uniqueness etc.

The chair is now a product with an unlimited variety of materials, functions, and aesthetics. Yet the history and evolution of chair design is defined using a single chair per era. Yet, there's one chair that symbolise every change or milestone. One particular chair changed the way we collectively perceive chairs. This article focuses on that one chair and what we can learn from its design story. But first a brief history about it.

What is the first thing you think of when looking at this photo?

Someone said: ‘I can feel the mosquito bites while looking at these chairs’.

Whether you’ve been bitten by a mosquito or not, everyone can relate to this statement and can visualize an outdoor setting with white plastic chairs.

These light and stackable chairs can be found anywhere around the world. At a family BBQ in an Australian backyard somewhere in Queensland with kids leaning back and breaking one of the legs, in a river-side family-run restaurant in northern Lebanon with few chairs placed in the shallow water as premium seating. It is the most spread and used piece of furniture in the world; commonly known as the plastic chair, white plastic chair, or the Monobloc but that's probably its least known name.

A monobloc is an object forged in a single piece made possible by injection molding, mono-(one), and bloc(block).

In 1972, the French engineer Henry Massonnet developed an efficient manufacturing process that made it possible to produce his ‘Fauteuil 300’ chair in less than two minutes. Massonnet has based his design on numerous previous attempts by other designers that shared a vision to make a chair out of a single piece of material. But his version is considered the archetype of the Monobloc chair we now know. Because of his discovery of a fast and cheap production process.

No patents were filed for a monobloc chair design and since then, millions have been manufactured around the world. The Monobloc shape is based on a design by Douglas C. Simpson dating back to 1946.

The following is a list of the Monobloc predecessors:

- The Panton Chair by Verner Panton (1958-1968)

- Bofinger Chair by Helmut Bätzner (1964-1968)

- Selene by Vico Magistretti (1961-1968)

- Chair Universal 4867 by Joe Colombo (1965) 

That one chair

Defining the shift

A shift in chair design was caused by the Monobloc and the approach of Grosfillex, a French kitchen-utensil company, to chair production.

In 1959, Grosfillex began experimenting with furniture. They figured that a seat is not so different from a soap dish. And there weren't enough 'soap dishes', There are liquid soap containers.

Chairs on the other hand, there are chairs that we don't even sit on. There are ones that are artist-signed, and chairs that are nostalgic and others that we can immediately tell are from IKEA. In short, the Monobloc is the chair that led us to a world where chairs are used everywhere.

Design process

The design process of the white plastic chair from ideation to execution through to adaptations is without a doubt a story of a successful design process. Yet it is the most hated or at least the most ignored piece of furniture design. It is the cheapest chair and that’s what defines it the most now.

The big idea of many designers in the 1920s of creating a seat from one continuous material is now reduced to being a cheap seat accessible to everyone. And this has always been a sign of successful design, but is this what we think now?

Its (Monobloc) affordance though reflects its democratic value and represents the ambivalence of today’s consumer society. Affordable yet not sustainable, it exemplifies the global mass production of uniform products.

Unsung ubiquity

A white plastic chair is not linked to any identity, it just exists. If we see a plastic chair on a beach it’s hard to know if someone brought it to sit on or if it was washed by the waves into the shore. If we see it in a photo or a movie; it never helps to identify a location, a culture, or an era.

Social theorist Ethan Zuckerman describes the chair as having achieved a cultural global ubiquity.

Cultural globalisation is definitely not something that we consider odd or new anymore and designers aim to reach that with every piece they design and make. Yet when it comes to the Monobloc and its design 'value' the majority would say that it lacks nearly every form of inspiration or appeal. Is it even surprising that the very few out there even know the monobloc's name?

Now what?

No matter what the Monobloc represents, or what effect it had on the chair design history, or how its value can be interpreted. What can we learn from how people perceive it now?

That one cheap chair that for most of us is just a place to sit out on summer's days, a chair you'd consider only if you had a patio that's barely used or an event that requires to sit thousands of people with an easy to assemble and disassemble setup.

That one chair is not a design object or a piece that we are specifically happy to own, it does not spark joy, and is not aesthetically pleasing. Our desire for visual satisfaction in the day-to-day objects has grown to be a requirement for every object, and our journey to find unique items that represent us and our individual views have become prominent. A chair for the world is not what consumers want and aesthetics that speak to us is crucial, that's why we have the option to customize almost everything, and designers are providing us with more and more flexibility while balancing functionality, feasibility, and (still) trying to stand out.

Human innovation will never stop and what seems avant-garde now might become the next Monobloc in 50 years.

I personally will always be on the look for the next chair breakthrough. Do you have a favorite chair? Tell me what makes it special in the comments.

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