Picked up a pair of Steelcase side chairs off craigslist from a guy who was whining about how his wife won’t let him keep his cool shit. My cool shit now, dude! I hope your wife gets better taste but mostly I hope you can work through your masculinist territorial interior design ego. This isn’t the mancave side chair you really want, anyway. And she deserves a little Art Van, at least once in her life.
For $10. They’re probably 1950, armless, in the marbled emerald vinyl, fully the texturescape I want to pursue in the dining room. Consider, maybe: a dining table, set (as currently) with four molded plywood chartreuse Target knockoffs of Ross Lovegrove’s Sprite chair for Knoll—quality fakes, hard on butts at any bracket. Now, flanked at the long ends with two deep green and generously padded regional icons of the “office” genre. Square except with outward sloping back legs with a rectangular backrest. Entering the room you can see them, from behind, a bluish steel skeleton with a plaque affixed to the neck, stamped “Grand Rapids” in a deco border. A dining room experience I can get into!
You never have to flip over an early Steelcase chair to know where it was made, it was branded right on the top, and the words are part of its design and your experience thereof. I like this textuality because Steelcase in the home and the collector’s arena is about legibility, now. Steelcase in the dining room! A very apartment therapy move, “accent chairs,” and yet, not: it’s more than an accent, it’s a violation of genre. It’s office! For evening! Generically slippery. But wasn’t it always? How does a modernist deal with Steelcase?
And Steelcase, while coveted and unarguably canonical, is not Knoll, and certainly not Herman Miller. (Ok, well, sometimes it was literally both or all three at once: Grand Rapids was still, for all intents and purposes, a small town, and everybody worked everywhere, but I’m speaking mostly here of collectors on the internet and men who write books arguing which chair manufacturer was the purest of the avant-garde.) Steelcase never had a chair that you could put out as an “Eames Chair” and sell for any arbitrary stupid price. Steelcase is something else and these chairs I have seen for $5 or $20 at thrift stores and $40 in local boutiques that know they won’t sell it, but also bids on ebay from New York or Dallas, going for $25, $65, in sets for $250, as machine age deco mcm space age atomic industrial business casual.
It is Frank Lloyd Wright for Johnson Wax, sure, but it is more than that: it is fundamentally about the women clerical workers who sat in them. (And, in the case of the women who worked in FLW’s Johnson Wax office building, sat in his deliberately uncomfortably designed chairs manufactured by Steelcase and covered their desktops in pots and pans to catch the drips from the ceiling Wright knew wouldn’t hold but which nobody would fix.)
My love for Steelcase is in large part about this facet of gendered labor. Not just Florence Knoll and her professionalization of interior design, the feminine; not just her production (the production, broadly) of the monumentalized (“Barcelona”) chairs by Mies van der Rohe that were honestly probably mostly conceived by his now-mostly-ignored woman collaborator, Lilly Reich; not just (to cross the aisle, to the studios at Herman Miller) the systematic discrediting of Ray Eames, The (Woman) Other Half Of The Greatest Furniture Designer Of All Time (R). Chairs are always about gender and labor and very little else; but Steelcase is and has always been about “office furniture,” and, as such, the clerical labor of women. This is everything to me. (If I might someday continue, I will talk about the marriage between the emergence of the clerical genre in 20th century and the institutionalization of domestic sciences.)
I like Steelcase in particular because they are generically liminal in these ways, passed between and eyed by collectors who can’t agree if they’re aesthetically correct or Important Works. But most of all because this becomes, you know, political. The whole history of the butts of women in clerical labor, and the market that erects itself to manipulate them.
And they’re so great, this look. The marbled vinyl really punctuates this play. I love these faux finishes, in paint or textiles, the malachites, tortoises, bois. This kind of materiality is a move that made sense at the time! If it looks like marble, it is fancy. But it is still vinyl, and it is still something for an underpaid secretary to put her butt on. That is a type of marginality, in a way. But if I may examine the upholstery of my cool new chairs from a later modernist perspective, I must say that I am taken most by the uncanny experience of putting my butt on this vinyl and steel thing that is printed to look like precious minerals. I experience this symbolically, but also embodied (and, thus, spatially), and I think Robert Venturi would think this was cool and interesting.