The secret history of a plastic classic that doesn’t sit quite right.
We canonize designer chairs with books, posters, movies, and collectible miniatures. We purr at them in museums and swoon in showrooms. Yet when the world sits, it sits in a chair that no one notices. Scan a newspaper and you’ll see it at a Nigerian beauty pageant, on a Spanish beach, stacked high and gleaming in aisle five awaiting patios yet unseen. Technically, this commonplace type of outdoor seating is called a monobloc, but the Flickr group that honors it and its brethren has a different appellation—“those white plastic chairs.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, plastic was heavy with promise. The Eameses molded it into a seat and put it on an Eiffel Tower pedestal. Eero Saarinen dreamed of an all-plastic chair but had to settle for plastic-coated metal for the base of his Tulip series. Finally, Verner Panton hit the sweet spot of style and strength when he unveiled his eponymous icon in 1960, an all-plastic chair in one seamless piece.
Panton’s was made by hand, but its cousin, the monobloc, was factory-born. We don’t know exactly whose conveyor belt first offered it forth, but odds point to Grosfillex, a French kitchen-utensil company that in 1959 began experimenting with furniture. A seat, they figured, is not so different from a soap dish; their first was cherry red and pocked with holes. Then came the classics: the stately Miami, and the Pacific, with its jaunty scallop-shell back.
Soon enough, monoblocs had become an affordable and easy way to outfit yards worldwide. They became banners for accessible leisure, and when Americans headed out back for a cookout, odds are the lawn would be strewn with the erstwhile mascots.
During the summer, Grosfillex’s U.S. headquarters in Robesonia, Pennsylvania, runs 24 hours a day, squeezing out batches of the market-saturating chairs that wholesale for $5 each. Factories make a few million chairs, then sell their molds down the industrial food chain. Monoblocs are so cheap to make—at least 11 nations do—why even import them?
The chair itself is versatile and accessible, and at a mere three-sixteenths of an inch thick, it’s functional, flexible, and within the grasp of the masses—in other words, a modernist dream fulfilled. But how does this utopian vision end? Unsung ubiquity, it seems. Lacking nearly every form of inspiration— that key quality that divides the great from the merely present—is it any surprise we hardly know the monobloc’s name?
Some artists and designers have taken notice, though: The Campana brothers wrapped them in Apuí fiber; artist Sam Durant made them out of porcelain; and Viennese furniture designer Robert Stadler made spectral porous versions out of aluminum. But for most of us, the monobloc is just a place to sit out on a summer’s evening, a chair you’d consider only if you had a bare patio, and even then simply because it’s cheap. We needn’t make every deck chair a poolside art project, but shouldn’t we populate our spaces with something more than an afterthought?