The Chair That Shocked the World Is Still Stirring Up Controversy at 50

The Chair That Shocked the World Is Still Stirring Up Controversy at 50

By Jennifer Pattison Tuohy
B&B Italia celebrates the 50th anniversary of Gaetano Pesce's Up chair by launching new colorways for the voluptuous seat.

The idea for the Up chair came to Gaetano Pesce in the shower. "I had the sponge in my hand," he said. "When I pressed the sponge, it shrank, and when I released it, it returned to its original volume." This visual inspired him to create the pop-up polyurethane chair—versions of which now reside in design museums around the world, including the MoMA. Read on as we take a look at the Up chair's storied past.

The original Up chair, designed in 1969, was manufactured by C&B Italia (now B&B Italia). It was made from polyurethane, arrived flat, and rose to its final shape with the help of Freon gas.

Gaetano Pesce (sitting) and Pierre Cardin with the Up chair in 1969.

The Up5 chair and the accompanying Up6 ottoman launched 50 years ago, in 1969. The furnishings were made of polyurethane—a revolutionary material at the time. The Up chair could be compressed to one-tenth its volume for shipping, and then it would permanently pop into shape once opened. Yet material innovation wasn't the chair's most noteworthy feature—that would be its shape.

An image from C&B Italia's 1969 promotional campaign for the Up chair.

The bulbous and curvy Up5 chair is unmistakably feminine in its design, and it attaches to a round ottoman with an elastic cord. "I was telling a personal story about how I see the woman: Despite herself, the woman has always been her own prisoner," said Pesce. "And so I wanted to give this armchair a feminine form with a ball at the foot, which also represents the traditional image of the prisoner..."

An archival lifestyle image of the Up5 and Up6.

The Up line was discontinued in 1973 when Freon gas—used to inflate the chair—was banned due to its adverse effect on the ozone. B&B Italia reissued it a quarter of a century later, in 2000, with a new cold-shaped polyurethane construction that's held up entirely by the density of its foam.

In 2000, Up was reengineered and relaunched in silver and other colors. 

The Up chair was originally available in striped or plain-colored fabrics, and the second generation introduced eight covering colors—including silver. This year, to celebrate the 50th birthday of the chair, B&B Italia has opened its wardrobe up to orange-red, navy blue, petrol green, emerald green, cardamom, and a special-edition beige/green striped colorway that references the original color palette from 1969.

To kick off the anniversary celebrations, B&B Italia installed a 26-foot-tall Up chair in Milan's Piazza del Duomo as part of Salone del Mobile during Milan Design Week. Titled Suffering Majesty, the chair is pierced by hundreds of arrows and surrounded by six vicious polystyrene animal heads.

The piece was intended as a statement about violence against women. "Today, after 50 years, the existence of women is even more under threat, although luckily there are more and more voices raising to their defense," said Pesce. "The installation in Piazza del Duomo during design week is intended to celebrate Italian creativity, but also to bring back this painful message to the conscience of thousands of visitors from all over the world."

To celebrate the Up chair's 50th anniversary, B&B Italia is bringing back the original striped beige/petrol green color palette in a special edition, as well as introducing some new solid colors: orange-red, navy blue, petrol green, emerald green, and cardamom.

Unfortunately, some didn’t appreciate the symbolism or the history of the piece. An Italian feminist group staged a protest around the sculpture, decrying it as "a further violence against women, represented as helpless and formless bodies, where man is not called into question." Pesce responded by saying, "I believe these feminists have not read nor understood the meaning of my work in Milan."

Related Reading: Breaking the Mold: A Conversation With Architect, Artist, and Iconoclast Gaetano Pesce


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