Hands Off the Icons

By Alexandra Lange / Published by Dwell

“What would Hans Wegner say?” I tweeted upon seeing a citrus-tinged Wishbone chair on Design*Sponge. “Anyone else hate recolored classics too? They had paint in 1950; he chose not to use it.”

Twitter users responded swiftly, coughing up egregious examples of remixed modern icons, from an Eames LCW in a very country-cabin green stain to Le Corbusier’s cushy LC2, revamped by Cassina in rich upholstered hues with acidic powder-coated colors on the frame. Le Corbusier never visited 1980s Miami!

I grew up with my grandparents’ set of Wishbones, and their identity is deeply imprinted on my mind. The beauty of the design is its sensual shape and unassuming palette. The papercord seats blend into the beech or oakframes, which would in turn blend into a hardwood floor if not for the assertive curves. Their sculptural strength is stealth. Lacquering them makes them look pop, synthetic, even Starck.

Maybe I should be happy about these "refreshed" classics, since we hardly need more chairs. Or rather, we don’t need new chairs to solve the same old problems. Instead of more chair designers working in the style of Charles and Ray Eames, we need them working in the Eameses’ mode, narrowing down hundreds of options to the best solution.

There are few things that would have been more horrifying to the Eameses than the suggestion that new colors can solve a design problem. That’s not what modernism was about. Modernism sought the ideal marriage of material innovation and minimal design moves to make a place to sit. That’s why the gaskets and fasteners are exposed on the back of the LCW, and Wegner managed with no nails at all. When you color the Wishbone you lose sight of those fitted connections and camouflage its true intent—elegant material honesty. Once painted, the whole chair might as well be molded in one piece of plastic.

The smarter path is to do as Wegner himself did, experimenting with deeper nostalgia. For example, Patricia Urquiola’s new Comback chair for Kartell slims the profile and reproduces the Windsor in a thermoplastic technopolymer. History offers a much larger playground than the 70-plus years of modernism. Our eyes haven’t been exhausted by more venerable forms the way endless knock-offs and reappearances of mid-century icons have soured us on bentwood, pedestals, and egg shapes.

New colors are a marketing ploy that disrespects a designer’s legacy. Leave the classics alone, and celebrate them for what they are. The future of chairs may lie in the past, but not in the past we’ve repainted.

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Alexandra Lange is a critic, journalist and architectural historian based in Brooklyn. She has taught architecture…
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