New York

Robert Venturi

Knoll International

The design of furnishings has become a testing ground for artists, architects, and designers concerned not only with the individual pieces of furniture created, but with the relationships between production techniques and invention, market potential and originality. In this century, the forces and tenets of mass production have shaped the attitudes and ultimately the designs of furniture-makers far more than any desire for richness in the working of their materials. The consequent blandness of so many office and domestic interiors causes even the most uncritical to wish for more.

In a furniture line that he created for this design center, Robert Venturi has reasserted a leadership role founded in controversy and supported by substance and invention. Venturi designed a couch, several tables, and nine chairs; the chairs are the heart of the collection, dealing firmly with issues of both esthetics and manufacture. In order to satisfy the homogenizing requirements of industrial production, while also creating furniture of unprecedented variety, given the techniques of their fabrication, Venturi devised a theme-and-variation approach capable of both continuity and flexibility of form. That flexibility was not entirely realized in just nine pieces, but its potential was clear.

In silhouette, each chair looks the same; thin sheets of wood laminate swell in a continuous, graceful Iine inspired by Alvar Aalto’s sensuous chairs. From the front, however, each chair has its own flat, jigsaw-cut profile to signify a particular furniture style from Queen Anne and Chippendale to Art Nouveau and Art Deco. As Venturi and his firm have done so effectively with their buildings, he once again extracts a distinguishing essence of form and line from style and history, and melds this with an original interpretation of contemporary values and images.We know that history should be neither forgotten nor carelessly misapplied; Venturi formulated this lesson almost twenty years ago, and he continues to create on the cutting edge, in counterpoint to the excesses of post-Modernism.

The chairs are cartoonlike, and they may seem like heretics within a very sober and serious industry. Yet this flat, billboard quality projects an ambiguity between fact and fiction, excess and understatement. Venturi shows that style is both silly and significant, that it is often facilely mimicked and vastly misunderstood. This collection of furniture rattles many firmly maintained conventions about the design and production of domestic items; Venturi began this five-year-long project with a willingness to conform to standards and methodologies, and then subverted accompanying expectations about product and results. His furniture line decisively reorients the dialogue between industrial production’s leveling dynamics and the power of innovation and originality. Venturi’s chairs are art because he knows when to think as a designer and when to be an artist; this is an inner conflict that only the most imaginative and experimental can sustain and draw on.

Patricia C. Phillips