Everybody Take A Seat- page 2 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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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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The chair, Yearick told me, begins as thousands of BBsize pellets of virgin polypropylene (the plastic most used for the chairs these days), which are stored in a silo and piped to a hopper. Chemicals that tint and stiffen the plastic and protect the finish from damaging ultraviolet rays are added to the pellets, which fall into a 15-foot-long barrel heated to 440 degrees Fahrenheit. Then a screw about six inches in diameter with 1,000 tons of pressure behind it pushes the plastic through the barrel, whereupon the plastic melts and passes through a quarter-inch-wide hole in the side of a steel mold. The mold is chilled, and as soon as the molten polypropylene enters the cavity, it starts to harden. The time from pellets to chair: less than a minute.

Monobloc chairs may be cheap, but the equipment for making them is not. An injection-molding machine costs a million dollars. A new mold, of solid stainless steel engineered to thousandths of an inch, can cost $300,000. “You make a million of these chairs and your mold is paid for,” Yearick says. “In five or seven years, you might sell the mold to a company in Africa for $50,000, and they will make a[nother] million chairs with it, and they can do it really cheap.”

The resin-chair business hasn’t been around long, but some veterans already remember a golden age. In the early 1990s, sales of plastic lawn chairs in North America were huge, says Rick Baker, a furniture retailer in Macedonia, Ohio. “We had a whole showroom wall of monobloc chairs stacked as high as you could go.” For the most basic models, prices fell as manufacturers undercut each other, and the profit margin got so small that some companies went out of business or compromised on materials, making flimsier products. The molds are so costly that manufacturers were slow to change styles and flooded the market with clones of clones. A product that used to grace furniture showrooms and sell for $30 is now stacked, at $5 apiece or less, in front of hardware and grocery stores.

Paradoxically, perhaps, history’s most popular chair engenders a lot of complaints. “They numb rear ends.” “They increase perspiring.” “They swallow you whole” (are hard to get out of). They’re “annoying,” “awful,” “cursed,” “dreaded,” “scary,” “silly,” “stupid” and “ugly.” The plastic chair is “in the worst possible taste,” Karen von Hahn wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2003, “so cheap, ugly and everywhere, it even succeeds in turning something inherently beautiful that we have borrowed from Europe’s great public spaces—the outdoor café, dining alfresco—into a tawdry, second-rate imitation.” Hank Stuever, a Washington Post writer, expressed his scorn in a 2001 article, saying the “resin stacking patio chair is the Tupperware container of a lard-rumped universe.”

The main objection of design critics who’ve bothered to comment on The Chair seems to be that it’s merely a plastic version of conventional wood or metal chairs, rather than a new creation that honors plastic’s sculptural potential. Karim Rashid, a New York City designer who has been called Plastic Man because of his respect for the often-derided material, claims the chairs started as reproductions of French garden furniture “and haven’t progressed very much.” After having one of them snap under him at a restaurant in Manhattan, he vowed to redesign what he calls the “omni chair.” Why couldn’t they be more beautiful, sensual and contemporary? he wondered. So he made sketches of several all-plastic chairs to replace the ones swamping the global market and showed them to three of the largest chairmaking companies. He got no takers.

For all the gripes about the resin chair, there are also abundant testimonials to its virtues. Want to furnish a living room until you can afford to buy fancy furniture? Sit while taking a shower after bypass surgery? Hold an outdoor graduation or provide seating in a cafeteria, nurses’ station, fishing camp, courthouse hallway, trailer park? “I could not give a dance party without them,” insists a hostess in Key West who gives a great many. Doug Hatelid of North Vancouver, B.C., has written that his decade-old chairs “fit the body well” and that he “chairishes” them. Fiell, the furniture historian, admits to placing several recyclable resin chairs around the yard of his vacation home in Spain. He didn’t want to contribute to depleting the world’s store of teak.

Although I cringe when I see white plastic chairs amid the trees at the Ontario lake I go to in the summer (where I usually sit on Adirondack chairs painted a tasteful cream), I have shed my initial disdain for The Chair. The other day I passed a community garden in a not-so-great section of Manhattan, and there among the tulips was a bunch of those white chairs, and people were sitting on them, talking, and I thought, “Way to go, chairs!” It’s comforting to think that just about everybody who needs a seat can get one.

In any event, people might as well get used to it. Or so I gathered from a newspaper photograph showing a diver who’d searched in a Massachusetts pond for Babe Ruth’s piano, which, according to legend, Ruth tossed off a cabin porch into the water in 1918. The diver found no trace of the piano, but he did emerge with an intact white resin chair.

The Chair is here to stay—and stay and stay and stay.

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