This week at the Milan Furniture Fair, Frank Gehry, the white-maned maven of expressive architectural design, is unveiling his newest work: An undulating chaise lounge for Emeco, a Pennsylvania-based furniture maker with a specialty in aluminum that made submarine chairs during WWII. Dubbed the Tuyomyo (Spanish for "yours and mine"), the chair's first run will be auctioned off, with proceeds to go towards the Hereditary Disease Foundation, in memory of Gehry's deceased daughter, Leslie Gehry Brenner.
Currently there are no mass production plans, but Emeco says that it might use the production methods in a piece TBD. It is a technical marvel: A whopping nine feet long, it weighs just 122 pounds, thanks to specialized lightweight manufacturing techniques borrowed from the aircraft industry. And it's probably the most direct translation into furniture of Gehry's recent building aesthetic. That's been a common thread for Gehry in particular. In 2004, also for Emeco, he designed the Superlight Chair, that can carry 750 pounds but weighs just 6.5 pounds itself. It's both handcrafted--natural variations in the polishing are visible in every copy--and high-tech, utilizing a hinge that allows its seat pan to flex independently of its frame:
Much like Tuyomyo, Gehry translated the raw forms of works like the Guggenheim Bilbao into an outdoor line for Heller:
But the crossover between Gehry's buildings and furniture is older than that. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gehry first rose to fame by scavenging low-cost industrial materials, and cheekily using them for avant garde architecture--the most famous example being his own house in Santa Monica. That in turn led to his cardboard furniture series, still being produced today, which took that same approach of finding unconventional uses for familiar materials:
[Image by Tim Street Porter via Achievement.org]
Few architects have been quite as successful as Gehry in pulling off the crossover to furniture. It's not an easy task: Forms that might be monumental and eye-popping at a large scale can often look fairly banal when reduced to the size of a chair. One example is Zaha Hadid, whose furniture, though shiny and sinuous, comes off as a bit one-note, especially compared to her architecture. It doesn't help that the pieces cost hundreds of thousands of dollars:
Meanwhile, Greg Lynn, one of the leading lights of "blob architecture," managed to create this regrettable chair for Vitra. I've actually seen this one on sale at 1/3 the retail price--with exactly zero takers:
Another example is Peter Zumthor, recent winner of the Pritzker Prize, who went small scale, and in 2006 designed a pepper mill for Alessi. Though minimal, it does manage to convey Zumthor's obsession with natural materials and raw forms:
None of this stuff comes cheap, though some of Gehry's pieces cost a couple hundred dollars (the Superlight chair runs $560). And much of it remains better to look at than live with. Which ironically, might be the best expression of what big-name architecture is often like--witness Gehry's battle with his clients at MIT.
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