The influx of Ikea has put paid to the hot seats of the past
Nearly 40 years before the ban on fox hunting, when I was about to get married, the question of wedding presents arose. My partner, who moved in designerly circles at the time, was in no doubt about what should be the grand present: a surprise. The day came and it certainly was a big one: eight cantilever chromium tubular steel chairs - six armless and two with arms - plus a circular white melamine table of matching appearance.
The chairs, though not the table, were made to a design of Mies van der Rohe that is now called the MR chair and it first saw the light of day in 1926 at the Weissenhof exhibition of housing in Stuttgart. The MR was, in fact, the first tubular cantilever metal chair to receive a patent, although its operating principle was descended from a less elegant design by the Netherlands architect Mart Stam.
The chair attracted considerable attention at the Weissenhof, because of the unique properties of its resilient tubular steel frame and the unique springing and self-damping properties of the whole structure.
At first I was mighty pleased with the chairs but the circular melamine dining table was more problematic - so much so that I began drawing invidious comparisons between the two. Intended to serve as an occasional dining table, though it was an enormous 1.5m in diameter and at least 5cm too high when mounted on its single pillar support, diners took their life in their hands when they reached out for a serving dish. Their reward was often a cascade of plates and glasses in the style of a cross-Channel ferry on a bad sea day. The whole thing was a monument to incompetent, unresearched design by gesture, But what of the elegant MR chairs, so numerous and so large that they rendered the search for any other items of furniture academic? These perfect examples of synergy, doing much more with much less than had ever been done before, revealed unexpected weaknesses. The big mistake, it appeared, was to have purchased the variant of the MR chair which is upholstered with cane instead of leather.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with the performance of this variant - if you discount the stumbling lateral fall when attempting to move sideways in front of it without allowing for the projection of the main seat support tubes on either side.
With parties of diners unaccustomed to this structural configuration, a considerable number of casualties could be inflicted before the uninjured could even be seated.
The real problem with the MR chair in the modern world is, characteristically, economic.
No doubt in 1926, when the cane chair was created, cane was a relatively cheap and strong material, very suitable for repairing or recovering.
This is no longer the case. While it is still possible to find caneworkers who are prepared to replace or repair large areas of cracked or loose and broken cane, it is inadvisable to show them the scale of the task first.
Better to mumble something about 'there might be one or two more to do'.
As to durability, 40 years of not very arduous use has almost entirely struck at the canework - whether the leather equivalent would have stood up better is hard to say, as is the cruel question of how much worse would the performance of a couple of tonnes of MDF armchair have been? All of which leads me back to the central fact, which is that these MR chairs - rocket science in the 1920s - have now become liabilities. Too much Ikea has flowed under the bridge to make chairs like these viable again.