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Learning from Piet Hein Eek

There’s a fascinating story behind almost every chair designed by Piet Hein Eek. Gathering from the sea of chairs on show in his To Sit exhibition, there’s more than enough stories to fill a entire book, which it does.  

By Jeanne Tan / 01-11-2012

There are just so many chairs featured at Piet Hein Eek’s seating exhibition To Sit and this is only the tip of the iceberg of what the prolific designer has produced from 1980-2012. The accompanying book entitled The Chair includes the complete works of seating, each one explained by Piet Hein. “There is a story behind the origin of virtually every chair I designed. The moment, the client and, first and foremost, the material, technique and handicraft are recurring factors. The stories are often more important to me than the design itself. I call them fairy tales, and fairy tales do not always end well, but are none the worse for that.”

In the book and exhibition the viewer is guided through Piet Hein Eek’s career that has spanned 20 years, through experiments, prototypes, and final models of seating, both self initiated and commissioned. Following developments through the various collections and their variations (including the families of scrapwood, oak, aluminium, Crisis, pipes, and beams) one gains a personal insight into his design approach which he sums up in his very first design entitled Miniature chair made in 1980. In his childhood, Piet Hein constructed complete buildings including the interior from used matchsticks. Almost all these creations have been discarded except for a chair and cupboard. In 30 years of moving house, these objects travel with him in a plastic sewing box. “Much has changed in the last 30 years but the way of working has remained the same: the possibilities offered by material, techniques, and craftsmanship still form the starting point for practically all my products.”

The individual stories that illustrate the development of Piet Hein Eek are fascinating. With brutal honesty, he describes the process behind the chair, right down to its successes and failures. Interestingly, the amount of chairs sold (since 2007) is also included which offers a rare commercial insight. The best selling chair is the Scrapwood chair followed by the Scrapwood stool which Piet Hein initially didn’t want to make because it seemed too simple. But after strong insistence from one particular client, it was successfully developed, later into a stackable version. There are valuable lessons, especially for young designers, to be learnt from these stories. Here are some highlights:

Early mistakes and failures
The prototype of Piet Hein’s first aluminium chair was made from steel and not aluminium which was more expensive. Realising this was not the wisest decision since the qualities of steel are totally different to aluminium, this taught the lesson that prototypes should always be made in the material they were intended for. The chairs were later sold to MoMA for the Dutch Café. The Aluminium chair sparked the beginning of an entire collection that has become iconic today. Several years later with the Aluminium bar stool, the design according to Piet Hein looked super fancy but didn’t sit well. “With the chairs made completely from aluminium, we’ve never been able to solve the ergonomic issues as with the Oak chair. The corners and proportions work well but everything is straight, super hard and above all cold and if you sit on it for too long, it hurts. The furniture is more stylistically sound and pure in its design than ergonomic but still offers clues for new designs and improvements.”
Similarly, when a chair originally upholstered with a floral pattern was redesigned with monotone leather upholstery (Nutreco Jufferstoel) something wasn’t right: “The chairs turned out super chic but also really ugly and for sure, dead boring. As soon as the contrast between the slick chair and the flowers disappeared, the design became weakened.”

From the Bouwpakket chair to the Crisis series, DIY products were hardly a success for the company. “Our clients aren’t really keen about the idea of assembling everything themselves but it seems that part of the charm of our products is that people often think that they could make it themselves.” It was a good decision to sell the Crisis chair, which Piet Hein couldn’t finish assembling on Japanese television because of missing parts in the package, as a ready-made piece. Turns out it took more effort to count the components and pack the package than to assemble the chair. During times of crisis, this chair seems to sell well for some reason.

Imperfection and the imagination
The kid’s high chair in white scrapwood sells regularly but Piet Hein prefers the prototype: “Due to the steel parts, the chair looks more sadomasochistic than childlike. The final model is made totally from wood and is less adjustable but more friendly in appearance and easier to produce. Still, the prototype is more charming than the final product. That’s often with prototypes: the search and imperfection that’s behind the first model often leaves more to the imagination that the end result.”

Zambia chair
Piet Hein was asked to design a chair for an income generation project in Zambia where victims of civil war worked in a wood workshop. The chairs were to be produced in Zambia and exported to Europe for sale. However the transport costs rendered the chairs too expensive and the project was stopped. Later Piet Hein heard that the locals, who had perfected making the chair, were producing it themselves and selling it on the Zambian market. So in actual fact, the real goal of the project was achieved, only through a detour.

The beam collection is composed from enormous wooden beams that were the result of a spontaneous purchase. Through sawing and stacking them like children’s building blocks, a chair could be made: this led to a whole new collection. Despite their chunkiness, the beams were surprisingly easy to handle. The design for the one-seater marked the beginning of a phase of extremely simple designs; a simplicity according to Piet Hein that was probably only possible through the extensive amounts of experimentation conducted up until today.

The exhibition To Sit runs from 8 July until mid December at the Piet Hein Eek gallery

Click on the images to enlarge

Main image: overview exhibition
Other images: 1. aluminium stoel 1993 2. Jufferstoel 3. Crisistoel grijs 4. stoelen affiche 5.-6. exhibition overview 

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