Everybody Take A Seat

Comfort for the masses? Or a tacky blight? Seemingly overnight, the one-piece plastic chair has become a world fixture. Can you stand it?

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Maybe you’re sitting on one right now. It has a high back with slats, or arches, or a fan of leaf blades, or some intricate tracery. Its legs are wide and splayed, not solid. The plastic in the seat is three-sixteenths of an inch thick. It’s probably white, though possibly green. Maybe you like how handy it is, how you can stack it or leave it outdoors and not worry about it. Maybe you’re pleased that it cost less than a bottle of shampoo.

No matter what you’re doing, millions of other people around the world are likely sitting right now on a single-piece, jointless, all-plastic, all-weather, inexpensive, molded stacking chair. It may be the most popular chair in history.

That dawned on me recently after I started noticing The Chair in news photographs from global trouble spots. In a town on the West Bank, an indignant Yasser Arafat holds a broken chair damaged by an Israeli military operation. In Nigeria, contestants in a Miss World pageant are seated demurely on plastic chairs just before riots break out, killing some 200 people. In Baghdad, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III, during a ceremony honoring Iraqi recruits, sits on a white plastic chair as if on a throne.

My curiosity aroused, I found this chair (via the Internet) almost everywhere: at a minor-league baseball stadium in West Virginia, at roadside food stands in Vietnam, at a rustic waterside tea garden in Istanbul, at a school principal’s office in Malaysia, in shallow seas off Bora-Bora (where tourists sat on partly submerged chairs and ate grilled lobster off plastic tables). Friends told me of seeing it at huge village weddings in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in cinderblock houses in Mexico.

The plastic chairs in all those places were essentially alike, as far as I could tell, and seemed to be a natural part of the scene, whatever it was. It occurred to me that this humble piece of furniture, criticized by some people as hopelessly tacky, was an item of truly international, even universal, utility. What other product in recent history has been so widely, so to speak, embraced? And how had it found niches in so many different societies and at so many different levels, from posh resorts to dirt courtyards? How did it gain a global foothold?

For one thing, the resin chair, as it’s technically known, is perhaps the world’s cheapest seat. In some places, you can get one for a dollar. Also, it doesn’t need painting or harsh cleaning (some folks dunk theirs in the swimming pool). It supposedly doesn’t dent or corrode or fade in sunlight or harbor fungus or disintegrate in saltwater or chlorine. It’s so lightweight that the very old and very young can drag it around. It is manufactured in Russia, Australia, Taiwan, Mexico, the United States, France, Austria, Morocco, Turkey, Israel and China, among other countries. How many have been sold? “Beyond millions,” Wade Jones, a Miami-based distributor, told me. “I couldn’t begin to guess how many.”

The Chair took about a quarter of a century to come into being. After World War II, progressive designers like Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen tried to produce affordable plastic furniture. “There was a long evolution from the war, with different plastics being developed and different designers trying to exploit these plastics,” says Peter Fiell, coauthor with his wife, Charlotte, of the book 1000 Chairs. Eames and Saarinen, among the most prominent mid-century furniture designers, made chairs with “shell” seats molded out of fiberglass-reinforced polyester. But their chairs had metal legs; the plastic alone wasn’t strong enough to support someone. Saarinen (who died in 1961) very much wanted to produce a chair that was, as he put it, a “structural total,” as all great furniture from the past had been. But when he made his famous tulip chair—a plastic shell seat atop a pedestal—he had to sheathe the metal pedestal in plastic so the chair would at least appear unified. “I look forward to the day when the plastic industry has advanced to the point where the chair will be one material,” he once said. (If he were around today, might he think, Be careful what you wish for?)

In the 1960s, European designers created chairs that took advantage of improvements in plastics technology. One was a polyethylene stacking chair that, although it had detachable legs, was made by a process that would be central to success: injection molding. Another was an armless chair of fiberglass-reinforced polyester that was all-of-a-piece, legs included, but was produced by compression molding, a process less suitable for mass production. Then, in 1968, came what Fiell calls “one of the most important events in the entire history of furniture design.” Danish designer Verner Panton, after ten years of searching for the right plastic, produced the first single-form, singlematerial, injection-molded chair. It achieved total design unity in combination with a high-volume industrial process. Still, Panton’s chair was very high style, a single long S curve with a U-shaped base, and demand for it was limited.

Eventually, a savvy manufacturer combined plastics, process and practical design to make The Chair as we know it. “It wasn’t until a more utilitarian manufacturer embraced the injection-molding process that this design happened,” Fiell says. So who set off this revolution in seating? “I wish I knew,” Fiell says, adding that he assumes it happened in the early 1970s. In any event, none of the current makers of monobloc chairs—monobloc meaning a single piece of plastic shaped by injection molding—is taking the credit, or the blame, for the breakthrough.

Grosfillex, an american branch of a French company with a factory in Robesonia, Pennsylvania, makes monobloc chairs for what it describes as the middle- to upper-middle end of the market. Touring the factory with Dan Yearick, Grosfillex’s vice president of manufacturing, I visited a huge room that held several injection-molding machines, each about as long as a locomotive. One was making an armchair called the Madras Classic, with a weave pattern on the back, in a color called sandstone.

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