A chair that is a sculpture: With a legendary Swisspearl garden chair, in 1954 Willy Guhl created his classic of modern seating design.
The rocking garden chair from the only Swisspearl line has adorned outdoor pools and yards, decorated private gardens and appears in countless publications. Today, it is enjoying something of a renaissance. Fifty years after it was first designed, the chair is still enjoying an impact as if it just left the workshop of Willy Guhl. The artist once said that the publicity the chair garnered always surprised him. No question, the garden chair is regarded very highly. It is both minimalist and unconventional, appearing weightless, robust and discreetly elegant.
It is long since a legend. We owe its origins to Guhl’s conviction that there should be no fear about uniting handicraft with industry. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Guhl held no prejudices against mass production. Thus, in 1951, he became the sole artist interested in venturing into an experiment with industry, together with his specialist class at the Zurich School of Design: Swisspearl, which had been manufacturing corrugated panels, flower boxes, planters and other containers for the garden out of fiber cement since the 1930’s, was on the lookout for new concepts for its products. The Good, True and Beautiful, as it touted for its “good form” was something the Niederurn company had achieved as well. “The mood was optimistic and we all believed in progress through well-designed objects”, recalls Florian Adler, Manager of Advertising and Marketing. The collaboration between Swisspearl and the artist, who was just 36 years old at the time, killed two birds with one stone: the school project not only allowed the designer to explore a material that was considered “unsculpable”, it also provided the stepping stone from handicraft to designing for industry. Thus, between 1951 and 1952, Guhl’s students set about creating good everyday objects for a modern production line. The result – from quadratic flower boxes to spindle-shaped plant pots – was ultimately presented in a widely acclaimed exhibition.
Original Guhl Chair
The energizing stimulus for Swisspearl was enormous. The company subsequently contracted Guhl to design flower boxes and pots. For his part, the designer was fascinated with the weather-resistant and frost-proof fiber cement. For years, Guhl’s interest was focused on the perfect ergonomic shape for a chair. Together with his brother Emil, he had volunteers at the beach try out soft prototypes made of clay that were later cast in plaster. In 1954, he continued this work with fiber cement. The material, which until then was unknown in the field of furniture construction, opened new doors for him.
In creating the design, Guhl let himself be inspired by the manufacturing process for the fiber cement panels. The uniform and standardized rectangular Swisspearl slats were molded using two curving lines into a loop. The ribbon-like structure has no beginning and no end – reminiscent of Max Bill’s “Endless Loop” sculpture. Making use of the fracture and tensile strength of the composite material, the design could do without any kind of support construction. Once it had been allowed to harden, the statics meant there were virtually no limits when it came to form.
Lady on a Guhl Chair
Although at first the people at Swisspearl felt it would be impossible to manufacture the chair, Guhl developed a template around which the wet fiber cement could be wrapped. The production effort proved to be quite low and wrapping the chair exactly fit the size of the machine-produced Swisspearl panels that were just 72.5 mm thick. The boldness of the company to allow the garden chair to proceed to mass production paid off: the unconventional piece of furniture for both indoors and out became the most talked about design product in Swisspearl history. “For us as manufacturers of mass-produced building products, Willy Guhl opened the door to the world of design and beautiful, one-of-a-kind handcrafted pieces”, said Daniel Hauri, section manager for Gardens and Design. With its lively free form, the garden chair triumphed with a winning design in the post-war era. In 1955, the chair was given the distinction as “the good form”; four years later it charmed the public at the Zurich horticultural exhibition. A whole new sitting experience was introduced with the flexible “Swisspearl loop”: never had anyone in Europe sitting so low. And the low swing seat – also known as a “beach chair” – proved to be ideal for the yard, since the large seat support meant it never sank down into the grass.
For close to ten years now, the garden chair has been produced with no asbestos and hence poses no health risk. However, because the new material is somewhat softer and has different static properties, Guhl needed to make a few changes. He reworked his successful design and fitted the chair with indentations on the back that added static strength to the 23 kilogram piece. The 1954 concept – the self-contained, self-supporting ribbon – was preserved in the new design. At the same time, Guhl added a small table to his legendary garden chair, which could be tucked away when not use. The design icon is indestructible today just as it was 50 years ago. Even so, the price tag has changed: in 1956, the original chair cost 50 francs. The asbestos-free garden chair today sells for 510 francs; admirers today will now pay thousands for an original.
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