Anyone who loves design on any scale, from the shape of a building to the color of the furniture inside of it, has probably heard of Frank Gehry. Unquestionably one of the most innovative, most popular and most prolific architects of his generation, Gehry is famous around the world for his unconventional designs and ingenious use of shapes and materials to produce striking, sometimes reality-warping effects with his work. But before gaining renown as an architect, Gehry first grabbed the attention of the design world for his work with furniture (1). And though it remains the lesser known part of his legend, the work that Gehry did in furniture—a precursor to the architectural approach that would make him famous—remains highly sought after, and an inspiration for current designs.
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Easy Edges Side Chair
As was and is true of Gehry the architect, the main attraction to his furniture was its use of an ordinary material—corrugated cardboard—to create fantastic shapes that literally reshaped people's image of furniture while remaining extremely functional and durable. The process began when Gehry discovered that cardboard, weak and flimsy in single sheets, gained considerable strength when worked in layers. From there he began creating interesting new shapes. The ribbon-like arrangements that would define the collection appealed to the architect as they looked and felt, "like corduroy (2)."
Called, Easy Edges, this initial collection gained almost immediate success (ibid.). The side chair, with its vertically undulating effect, is emblematic of the collection as a whole. With only a hardboard facing added to the cardboard and no color or fabric disguising the mundane material, the pieces are nevertheless irresistible fully due to their hypnotic shape and incredible strength.
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The Contour Chair
Another famous offering from this collection, the Contour Chair clearly demonstrates the level of Gehry's facility with the manufacturing process and his complete control of the medium. Though created in layers, the chair appears to be formed from a single piece, expertly bent to create an unexpectedly comfortable seat. Though Gehry would withdraw the collection shortly after its release out of concern that its popularity would overshadow his work in architecture, several pieces, like the Contour, remain available for sale.
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Cardboard Table Lamp
In addition to a number of chairs, lounges and even tables, the Easy Edges collection also included lighting options like this cardboard table lamp. The ability of the designer to continually surprise his audience with the potential of his chosen medium is one of the reasons why the pieces were so well received. Though furniture design was clearly not Gehry's intended profession, the success of Easy Edges helped fund some of the early projects that would catapult his architectural career to even greater heights, including a remodel of his own Santa Monica home (1).
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In 1979, six years after ending the production of Easy Edges, Gehry returned to furniture design with a new collection (5). In Experimental Edges, Gehry went even deeper with more intricate designs. At the same time, even more of an effort was made to emphasize the rough, unfinished texture of the cardboard as seen here in the Carumba side chair.
At various points in the pieces of this collection, Gehry manipulated the density of the cardboard in certain sections. He varied the widths of the cardboard sheets used together in certain sections and purposely misaligned others, which increased the ripple effect seen in his earlier creations (ibid.). Together with the rough textures, these ripples increased the ad hoc appearance of the pieces all in an effort to make chairs that, as Gehry put it, "nobody would like (1)."Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Bent Wood Collection
The Experimental Edges collection lasted until 1982. This time it would be seven years before Gehry would produce another selection of furniture (5). When he did, it would be unlike anything he had done before. Originally created for Knoll beginning in 1989, and produced in 1992, Gehry's Bent Wood Collection offered exactly what the title suggested. Gone were the rough edges and challenging textures of his earlier works in cardboard. In their place, the smooth finishes and soft curves of bent wood were employed to realize the designers' ideal forms. Again the architect was inspired by the notion of structural integrity as much as aesthetic value as the inspiration for this collection came from memories of the strength of apple crates that he played on as a child (9).
In speaking about the collection, Gehry maintained that, like all of his work in furniture, his bentwood collection was, "a reaction against the usual expectations of the furniture market. (9)." As he explained it, the difference between earlier bentwood offerings and his own work was that:
"All bentwood furniture until now has relied on a thick and heavy main structure and then an intermediary structure for the seating. The difference in my chairs is that structure and the seat are formed of the same incredibly lightweight slender wood strips, which serve both functions. What makes this all work and gives it extraordinary strength is the interwoven, basket-like character of the design… It really is possible to make bentwood furniture pliable, and springy and light (ibid.).”
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Where the "Edges" collections had appeared molded or even glued together the pieces of the Bent Wood Collection seemed almost woven, as if the various wooden planks had simply been twisted together like yarn. On the contrary, the effect was the result of almost continual experimentation by Gehry with maple wood in a workshop next to his office (5). Only seven pieces of the more than one hundred prototypes that were created ever made it into production (ibid.). Of the seven, five remain available for purchase from Knoll.