Construction, deconstruction, redesign – the journey of 19 chairs during a year of lockdown.
@proteinstudios 20th – 23rd May 2021
Online auction 1st – 31st May 2021
AS A TITLE for a design project, ‘19 Chairs’ is intriguing, although its reference to Covid-19 is perhaps not obvious. But it was the pandemic – and the longueurs of the first UK lockdown, followed by restricted business activity – which provided the context for this venture, instigated by brothers Will and Tom Butterfield.
Will, a recent graduate of graphic design from Kingston University, and Tom, who studied industrial and product design at Northumbria University, were at a loose end when the pandemic struck in early 2020. Tom, who periodically works for Tom Dixon and is very much a doer, contented himself knocking out simple wooden chairs. It took the strategic thinking of Will – also the mouthpiece of the project – to spot that Tom’s energy could be channelled into an ambitious undertaking.
“With most businesses shut, Tom used easily available, off-the-peg 27mm square-section timber and 40mm screws,” says Will, who lives with his brother at their parents’ home in Esher, Surrey. When he told me he would continue making them, I said, ‘That’s all very well but where are all they going to go? Why don’t we build something more special?’” The figure 19 in the project’s title became a conceit extending beyond Covid. A decision was made in the spring to create 19 chairs in 19 days, then invite 19 creatives in 19 international locations to rework them. The aim being to auction them off to raise money for charity. By September, 19 designers had agreed to participate.
Given that the elderly have been particularly affected by Covid, the brothers approached Age UK. “We wanted to work with creatives of all kinds – product, fashion and set design, photographers, conceptual artists and illustrators – whom we admire,” says Will. “Contacting them via email or Instagram, we asked them to reinvent, reimagine or redesign your chair with an older person in mind.”
Es Devlin, ‘The Norns’, Chair 19 of 19 reworked, 2020
COURTESY: 19 ChairsThe brothers cannily enlisted some stellar names to raise the project’s profile: Tom Dixon contributed a throne in space-age silver – a tribute to astronaut Buzz Aldrin – while set designer Es Devlin reassembled the chair to create an alluring, box-shaped lamp that emits a golden light. Lesser-known names also took part. Clearly, the brothers had huge faith in what the designers would dream up. “We didn’t ask for a sketch of their final designs, so it was exciting to see them for the first time.”
The brothers later involved the charity Resourcing Racial Justice – profits from the sale will be split between the two charities. A worthy cause indeed, although the lack of a thematic link between the second of these charities and the chairs’ designs is in stark contrast to the cogency of the project’s theme otherwise. Costs were kept low: between lockdowns, the brothers personally delivered their chairs to all UK-based designers. All designers paid for the materials used to customise them. The biggest outlay was international shipping.
The chair collection is strikingly eclectic, reflecting the broad spectrum of creatives who collaborated. The brothers admit that some designs proved more successful than others: “For us it was more interesting to see designers engaging with the brief, not just putting their personal stamp on the chair,” says Will.
Although Tom’s modest chair inspired the project, it quickly took a conceptual turn. There is nothing practical about Chicago-based Benjamin Edgar’s ‘Tired but Quite Optimistic’ chair with a seat whose bent wooden slats dramatically sag. “We were seated in 2020 far more than usual,” he says. “I felt we kind of melted into our seats from boredom.” Paradoxically, this sense of exhaustion is offset by the chair’s invigorating colour – electric blue. According to Edgar, the collaborative nature of 19 Chairs “was more satisfying than say a brand/ company/ client collaboration”. It felt fairly pure and free”.
Meanwhile, New York-based Nicole McLaughlin wholeheartedly, wittily embraced the brief with her Booster seat. “I concentrated on upcycling the chair into something more comfortable and functional,” she explains. “Its rolled-up, discarded newspapers filled with foam boost its comfort. I thought about activities one could do while sitting and crosswords came to mind – a great way to keep mentally active. I added a magnifying glass to the chair’s arm to aid visibility and alleviate the worry of misplacing it.”
London-based duo Isabel and Helen’s ‘Cocoon’ chair also prioritises comfort: wool yarn wound repeatedly round the chair’s unyielding frame cushions the sitter.
Young design outfits thrust into the turmoil of Covid have been forced to find novel ways to make their mark, and the Butterfield brothers have done so with ingenuity.