Bourbon, Burgers, Nylon, and Beansprouts

On Chairless, minimalism, and coming back to 'irreduceable' basics.


Even at the time it debuted during my ostensible underage years I remember being impressed by the brilliance of Jim Beam’s ‘You always come back to basics’ ad campaign. The original, which ran in the October 1989 issue of 16 national magazines, depicted a progression of America’s preferred foodstuff over 5 decades. A series of 7 photos included 1955’s hamburger, then a hero sandwich in 1975 and bean sprouts in pita bread for 1983 before returning to the hamburger as the goto of 1990. Subsequent variations played the same trick with boxer shorts, record albums, salt and pepper shakers…

When the Fast Company feed deposited a story on the ‘The Most Minimal Chair in the World’ in my RSS aggregator yesterday, I clicked. I’ve designed and developed in four generations of IE browsers, have lived through the gloss of Web 2.0, and these days find myself in somewhat of a reactionary phase where instead of chasing glass button effects I try to shed the superfluous as if my apps were fuel-starved bombers partaking in Doolittle’s raid. Minimal appeals to me. What I took from the Fast Company story is that it appeals to others too.

What is Chairless? Chairless is one of the latest offerings of Vitra, a Swiss furniture firm that develops its products by "applying a design process that brings together the company’s engineering excellence with the creative genius of leading international designers" (from their About page). It’s a process that regularly results in chairs priced at $3,000 and up, but which this time around has coughed up a $25 nylon strap. The Vitra website offers the following background on Chairless Designer Alejandro Aravena’s inspiration:

Aravena saw a picture of an Ayoreo Indian sitting on the ground with a tight strap around his knees and back. This simplification of what he knew as a chair – a reduction to "irreducibility" – fascinated Aravena, who went on to capture the potential of this seating device.

The sharp-tongued wag might comment on Vitra having effectively marketed a rope. But with so much stripped away is there any chance for the product to stand on anything except its merit? The verdict is perhaps still out. What’s interesting to me is the consumers’ interest in this exercise of reduction to irreducibility. Without knowing how many Chairless(es?) were produced in the first production run, it seems at least safe to say that Vitra underestimated the consumer appeal of the product (the run sold out fairly quickly). It’s not complexity that people crave, it’s simplicity. While ‘Design’ is increasingly equated to tool and technique familiarity (see Smashing Magazine’s The Dying Art of Design) the truly kickass designer is the one who can shut out the ever louder noise and reduce. The one who takes his Jim Beam 1955- and ‘90-style in the midst of heros and bean sprouts. Hats off, Alejandro.

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