A bit of background before we begin this month’s SPOT column in earnest.
Some months ago I accidentally bought a set of 4 dining chairs. Honestly, it could happen to anyone. There I was, minding my own business and tooling around on ebay, when I spotted a burnt orange and white polypropylene flash. It’s this sort of pairing that Sinatra wrote songs about. Don’t you think?
So (obviously) I bid $10 out of curiosity, just to see what the other bidder had been prepared to pay. And then I forgot about it. And then I won. See? Accident.
So what are they? They’re a great vehicle to investigate the plastic bucket dining chair.
They sure look like a ‘something’ – original or knock off, the styling cues are all 1960s pop.
There’s that rounded space age feeling for one, the smooth, plastic, all-in-one bucket seat. It riffs on the Eames DAW chair (and yes, I know we haven’t looked at that yet). Then there’s the red/orange chunky woven wool that looks old enough no to place it squarely in a Mad Men scene. And those bent tubular steel legs.
A quick google of retro 60s dining chairs gives me a whole lot of variations on this theme.
The closest piece I can find to these white & burnt orange buckets-o-mine is the Polyprop Armchair (1967) by Robin Day.
We touched on Robin Day last issue looking at Saarninen’s Grasshopper. Day was a contemporary of Saarinen and the Eames, though working for Hille, a furniture company in the UK. Day, along with Hille and Shell (petrochemicals) were the first in the UK (arguably the world) to bring polypropylene in to the realm of furniture manufacturing. In 1963 they released the result of much prototyping and testing with this new material – the Polyside Chair (don’t google this if highschool auditoriums trigger your PTSD) and in the ensuing years released a whole ‘Polyprop Family’.
As the origin of it’s species, what’s neat about the Polyprop Armchair is, well, everything.
First up, it embodies all of Day’s design ambitions – functional, affordable, durable seating for the masses.
There’s a minimum of structural joints and connections, and that minimum number is concealed under the seat and under the rolled edge. It’s also a chameleon, produced in upholstered and un-upholstered versions, and available on a variety of bases from – swivels with castors, pedestals with glides, spindles and sleds – make it useful everywhere from offices to boardrooms, waiting rooms and lobbies.
And my dining room.
HOW TO SPOT THE POLYPROP ARMCHAIR
- Look for the tag! Hille UK were the primary producers, but later years saw Herman Miller licensed to produce Hille designs for the American market. Both had their sticker on the base of their product. If it’s not there you’ll need to work harder to establish provenance.
In my case, all I can establish is that my chairs once resided in the AEC.
- Front profile is like a squashed hexagon, with a flat top line across the back. The DAW from the Eames had a camel back (curved top line).
- Hille offered a variety of bases – a chrome pedestal with castors, a chrome pedestal with black glides, bent chrome ‘sled’ legs
- Exposed white/cream polypropelene shell (This will flex gently under pressure, unlike fibreglass or ply forms) Other colours were also available in various production editions.
- Upholstery detail – The inside shell is upholstered in 4 pieces (inside back, 2 arms and seat). The original model featured upholstery that wrapped all the way to the edge, and a piping/welt cord in the same fabric.
IS IT A BARGAIN?
I think my eBay purchase was a steal! Even regardless of provenance potential, when you think about the material and labour that goes into building a chair of any sort, buying 4 structurally sound chairs for $10 is definitely a bargain.
IN SHORT I think pre-loved chairs of this style are a savvy buy if you’re looking to pick up something retro-chic for yourself. There’s no treasure guaranteed at the end of this rainbow, unless you’ve got provenance.
In the case of my chairs, given their previous home at the AEC, they’re far more likely to be ‘no-name’ from Sebel, which is itself a pioneering furniture production company with a great reach and legacy here in Australia.
THE LONGER DISCUSSION; ‘Bargains’ really boil down to value vs cost, a big part of ‘value’ is a chair’s ‘Collectability’, which has a direct impact on the price you can command for second hand furniture. The “Air Quotes” are free.
Provenance alone accounts for a large part of a chair’s perceived value, but the rarity/availability of pieces is also a big contributor. The prevalence and durability of Day’s Polyprop Armchair means there was never a prolonged period where the chair was not in production, thus widely available. Which means supply and demand isn’t necessarily on our side.
What makes something an original worth collecting in this instance is it’s birthday. An ‘original’ Robin Day from the debut release in 1963 would be a boon, as an icon and a piece of history; one of the first pieces of plastic/polypropylene furniture in the world. This age value arguably decreases as plastic furniture becomes more and more prevalent. A Robin Day rolling off the production line in 1980 among a multitude of other plastic furniture is of far less interest than it’s brother made in 1963.
Beyond provenance, market demand has a lot to do with collectability. Robin Day’s expansive and lengthy body of work falls in the category of excellent design, if we define ‘excellent design’ as design that works so well it’s largely invisible. The Eames and Saarinens achieved wider notoriety in their work, while the name ‘Robin Day’ is less likely to be recognised by a large market, limiting the buying pool to those architects, designers and serious MCM buffs.
For everyone else, the ‘look’ of this particular chair can be gained with the pristine, new ‘close-enough’ pieces for a fraction of the ‘collector value’. Polypropelene is also disadvantaged by the ageing process, while less than pristing timber can be viewed as ‘character’, there is no euphemism that makes stained plastic a desirable quality.
BUYING? SOME THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
- Structural Stability – Cracks and tears in the polypropylene shell, particularly around stress points, such as the connection to the legs.
- Shell Condition – Stains in a polypropylene shell are difficult if not impossible to remove. Spray paint isn’t a desirable DIY option as the plastic shell moves and flexes with the seated user.
- Re-Upholstery – Mass production techniques are not part of the skillset of every upholsterer. If the upholstery is in poor shape, you’ll want to factor in the cost of having it replaced, and finding someone to do it!
Manufacturers often develop new techniques to achieve specific design outcomes, not to mention the design and production of specific parts and hardware which may not be available in today’s market.
Which is to say, re-upholstery of these chairs is not something many upholsterers are keen to engage with. Of course, at MAAIKE we love a challenge and will happily work with you to refurbish chairs of this nature, either using the original techniques or designing new ‘work-around’ solutions to revive the most tired of chair suites.
So. Now you’re keeping them, why not start thinking about what we can do to make them absolutely awesome for you and your home. Think outside the box. A set of these lined in traditional textiles such as kilims or sarapes would be AMAZING.
FIND OUT MORE
Check out the history of the Polyprop Family at Hille UK
Watch the Film “Contemporary Days” – Students of Upholstery Resurrection at MAAIKE can borrow it from the studio library, or you can order your copy here
You can read more about what Paula Day is doing to protect her Parent’s intellectual property legacy here