Museum & exhibitions

Ode to the chair

The Centraal Museum is famous for its collection of chairs, with the Rietveld chair as the jewel in the crown. The exhibition Chairs take a stand (Stoel neemt stelling) is not so much about the iconic designs as the stories behind them. ‘Some chairs were never made to sit on.’

It starts in the cloakroom: when you hand over your coat, it’s laid on one of 200 chairs that were found on the streets. ‘We came up with the idea during lockdown, when we spent a lot of time wandering through the streets of Utrecht and kept seeing chairs left out on the street,’ explains Natalie Dubois, curator of Chairs take a stand in the Centraal Museum. The museum also appealed to the local population to donate their redundant chairs to the exhibition. This resulted in some very special chairs with equally special stories, which you can listen to via a video screen.

The first part of the exhibition comprises Rietveld designs and the reactions they have elicited from contemporary artists. Such as the ironic painting Nobody gives a Shit about Rietveld in Mali by Victor Sonna, which immediately sets the tone. The exhibition explores the meaning of iconic designs and features chairs with a special connection to nature, such as The Wiltshire Chair (which grows out of a tree) by Alice and Gavin Munro. The second part zooms in on more abstract, arty and activist designs. ‘Chairs take a stand is about chairs with a background story’, Natalie is keen to stress.

Where did the idea for this exhibition come from?
‘Our museum has the largest Rietveld collection in the world, and many of the items are chairs. They include the famous slat chair dating from 1919. When we purchase other items, we always check whether the designer has designed any chairs, and whether they fit in with Rietveld’s principles. Has the designer stuck their neck out? Do they use unorthodox materials? Can their work be termed ground-breaking? We now have some 1,100 chairs in our collection. Our collection policy states that in ten years’ time, we aim to be a museum that people associate with chairs. That’s why three years ago, we decided to go for this exhibition. At first, I was just focusing on the more iconic chairs, but our choice of chairs became increasingly abstract and conceptual along the way. In fact, some of the chairs weren’t even made for people to sit on.’

How did you make the final selection?
‘We were looking for chairs that would take a stand, chairs that were unconventional in terms of materials or technique, or which showed a pioneering social spirit. Chairs that open your mind, arouse curiosity and raise questions about society. We have a one-off version of the slat chair that Rietveld made. It’s said that a female neighbour told him that the chair was woman-unfriendly because most women wore their hair in a bun in those days, and the chair made their head uncomfortable when they leaned back. So he didn’t pursue the design. Another notable chair is the A Basic Instinct design that we bought from Anna Aagaard Jensen. When I sit in this chair, it gives me a real sense of my power as a woman. If any of our chairs take a stand, it’s this one.’

Does the exhibition include non-western chairs?
‘Yes. I happened to see a lot of designs by the same collector, Galila, at an exhibition in the Design Museum in Brussels. She has around 400 chairs, made by people from Bangladesh to Israel. Thanks to her, we’ve been able to make the exhibition more international and less western. And as the designer Mina Abouzahra subtly pointed out, not everyone is familiar with the Rietveld chair even though it’s iconic within my own bubble. The tradition of the empty chair in Africa is particularly fascinating: it’s the chair that belonged to a family member who has died. Families hang onto them but no-one is allowed to sit in them. Another real eye-opener for me was the idea that in much of the world, people don’t even sit in chairs, while to me, a chair is an everyday object.’

5 chairs in the spotlight

1. A Basic Instinct

This provocative chair made by the Danish designer Anna Aagaard Jensen challenges women to demand their rightful space in the public domain. And then to ask themselves: how do I feel if I sit like this? Why are women inclined to make themselves small? And what role do men play in this? Jensen thinks that our behaviour is dictated by social standards and that our bodies shape themselves accordingly. Her chair, which is part of a series, is designed to make you sit in a position normally adopted by men: confidently leaning back with your legs wide apart – typical manspreading. The name of the chair is a reference to the infamous scene in the film Basic Instinct, where actor Sharon Stone briefly spreads her legs while being interviewed by the police.

2. Clay Chair

You’ve probably walked past it on Stationsplein: a four-metre-high, red clay chair, made by the Utrecht designer Maarten Baas. It’s a magnified version of the furniture from his CLAY series, comprising brightly coloured chairs, cupboards, tables, ventilators and lamps, all made from synthetic clay. As Baas doesn’t use moulds and rarely sketches his designs, every item is unique. His work is known as rebellious, frivolous, intellectual and artistic. If you fancy trying out one of Baas’ chairs, his Chair 101 is currently ready and waiting in Museumcafé Centraal.

3. Abouzahra &Rietveld Fauteuil

Mina Abouzahra’s work unites the Dutch and Moroccan cultures, as is evident from this armchair. She has covered the modern, minimalist, functional chair (designed for Gispen in 1959 by Wim Rietveld, son of Gerrit) with a colourful, hand-woven carpet. The carpet is made from vintage fabrics, which she collected during a year she spent in Morocco doing an internship with a furniture maker.

4. Stop discrimination of cheap furniture

The Monobloc is one of the best-known, best-selling garden chairs ever. Approximately one billion of these chairs are in use around the world. They date back to 1946, when the Canadian designer Douglas Simpson created a plastic chair, which was cheap, practical and lasted forever. However, as it looked cheap, it was looked down on. In 2004, the Spanish designer Martí Guixé painted the caption ‘Stop discrimination of cheap furniture!’ onto ten of these chairs. It was intended as a criticism of the expensive chairs on sale at furniture fairs. The series was expanded in 2009, with a caption reading: ‘Respect cheap furniture’.

5. Wrapped armchair

A brown faux leather chair covered with a white sheet, wrapped in plastic and held together by string: this is the work of the world-famous wrapping duo Christo and his wife Jean Claude. When Christo moved to Paris in 1958, he came into contact with artists who made ready-mades of everyday objects. In response, he started wrapping up small items such as bottles and cans, followed by larger objects including furniture, a motorbike and a display case. He met Jean Claude in the 1960s and together, they started wrapping literally anything that could be wrapped: bridges, museums, islands, the Rijksdag in Berlin and more recently, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The objects are still recognisable under or through the wrapping (like this chair), but the procedure strips them of their functionality.

23 September 2023 t/m 14 January 2024 at Centraal Museum


Centraal Museum

The Central Museum has an extensive collection of old, modern and applied art and fashion and city history collections.

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