How an iconic 17th-century Chinese chair came to inspire a host of contemporary designs
From a pair of Danish classics to a German industrial design, the curvilinear Ming style chair has had a lasting impact
The Ming dynasty (14th to 17th-century) is an era famed for its arts and crafts, whose reputation and influence have spread far beyond China. The success of the era can be attributed to a number of factors. Historians have depicted it as one of history’s most orderly and stable societies, which allowed the economy to prosper. This led to growing towns and cities and, with them, a high demand for quality craftwork. Ming style fuses the Chinese ideologies of Confucianism and Taoism followed by the literati, which in turn was interpreted into solid form by craftsmen.
Function in design, harmony in life
They saw the function of design as bringing about harmony in life by creating simple, precise yet elegant designs that took their references from the natural world. Part of this involved the art of shaping lines, both straight and curved, with the chair back forming a continuous horizon to the curved hand rests to produce an aesthetic known as yuanhun (roundness or wholeness). This can typically be seen in the Ming-style Round Back, also known as the Basket Back or U-Back chair. The decorative sceptre is a symbol of power and good fortune, while the floating armrests represent honour. Together with the cube-like base, the chair is also a three-dimensional representation of tianuyan defang, a Chinese cosmological concept meaning ‘round heaven and square earth’.
The typologies that developed became a solid foundation for Chinese design and records suggest that China had been exporting design since the 17th century. Since then, it has been both appreciated and emulated, the most important examples of all, both for the West and East, being the ‘China Chair’ by Danish master Han J. Wegner (produced by Fritz Hansen) and the ‘Wishbone Chair’ (produced by Carl Hansen & Søn) in the 1940s. These cited direct references to the Ming-style chair (and many believe that Wegner’s inspiration came from an antiquity in the collection of the Danish Museum of Industrial Arts). Taking inspiration from the freedom of movement that it allowed its users, Wegner’s modern interpretation of ancient Chinese chairs represents both his passion and knowledge of the culture and the pinnacle of Danish craftsman at that time. The two designs went on to become Wegner’s most globally successful works and helped to define the essence of Danish as well as modern design.
More recently, in 2016, German designer Konstantin Grcic launched the MINGX chair collection with the Italian producer Driade. ‘What I find so compelling about ancient Chinese furniture is the combination of structural logic and formal beauty. The MINGX collection of chairs is inspired by the Ming style, but the transition from wood to tubular steel has opened up a contemporary, industrial and, admittedly, European interpretation of the classical theme.’ Grcic says.
‘For me, Chinese design has been a great inspiration. It would be terrible to make a mess of it by being superficial and just picking things out at random. When I started the concept I wanted to create a design that really pays homage to the culture.’ — Konstantin Grcic
He set out to create ‘a kind of a logic’ for tubular steel based on that of the Chinese heritage, where the chair has an interesting triangulation between the seat platform and the legs. ‘I took that idea and turned it into a piece of sheet steel, laser cut and bent, and it fulfilled the same function both structurally and in its beautiful design detail. I think in both designs, there is an economy of how a chair is made, using as little material as possible, to do as much as possible.’ As a result, the designer settled on the thin diameter metal tube creating the classical outline with a more fluent and airier silhouette, while the laser-cut, folded sheet steel seat frame holds the entire structure together – a perfect amalgamation of Bauhaus methodology and Chinese philosophy.
Chinese designers are also continuing to explore the ancient forgotten Chinese typologies, crafts and historic decorative arts to offer a fresh look at the culture and bring an eclectic mix of Asian history and culture together with Western functionality, while at the same time searching for a crisp and contemporary style for Chinese furniture. ‘The aim is to illustrate Ming style as well as the Chinese culture in a way that the world can understand,’ Taipei-based architect and designer Shi-Chieh Lu says. He created for the Italian producer Poltrona Frau the Ming’s Heart chair collection that goes straight to the core of two worlds – ‘two visions, two philosophies of life’. Shanghai based duo Neri & Hu also created their own version of the Ming-style chair for Stellar Works in 20XX. ‘It is very important for us to continue rethinking and re-evaluating the history where we came from and we would love the world to have this experience as well.’ Lyndon Neri says. §