Blake on Corbu’s “furniture”

L-R: Lounge, “easy” chair, British officers’ chair designed by Le Corbusier. (Blake)

Peter Blake, modernist architect, critic and (eventually) apostate, writes about “functional” modernist furniture in his book Le Corbusier: Architecture and Form (1960), which I’m reading as a sort of launching pad to his book Form Follows Fiasco (the best book title I’ve seen), which he wrote 17 years later.

The quality that distinguished Corbu’s [furniture] designs from those of the Bauhaus was exactly the same that distinguished German functionalism from Corbu’s rather special brand: while [Marcel] Breuer’s chairs were entirely rational, technically impeccable, and, incidentally, very handsome, Corbu’s were neither particularly rational, nor especially easy to manufacture. All there were, in fact, was ravishingly beautiful.

Corbusier sitting in chair (of his design?) in unknown location. (allposters.com)

Blake was unabashed in his remarks on Corbusian architecture and furniture alike. He has the modern critical habit of striking directly the note of the obviously not true. He is a fountain of pishposh, to use yet another Menckenian formulation. In short he is fun to read. His apparent critical honesty and charm disarm loyal modernists among his readers. The furniture would out of place in any comfortable room. They are refugees from a torture chamber. He describes his famous lounge chair, the British officers’ chair, and the “easy” chair, and continues:

This and other little details – such as the cylindrical pillow strapped to the head of the reclining chair – make these just about the wittiest, sexiest chairs designed in modern times. The fact is, of course, that much modern steel furniture does tend to look a little grim; all of us who solemnly assert that we like it do so because we think we ought to like it since it “makes sense.” To a Frenchman this is a perfectly silly argument; he would never think of making love to a “nice, sensible girl” as an Englishman might, or to a potentially “good mother” as a German would. Corbu’s chairs are rather like expensive tarts: elegant, funny, sexy, and not particularly sensible. Nobody has improved upon them [the furniture, not the tarts, the reader must assume] to date.

Witty? Sexy? As in S&M, I suppose. Even as more vital topics cool their heels, it’s impossible to get through this book, this fantasia, without quoting passages at length for the reader’s amusement. Is that legal? Stay tuned.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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11 Responses to Blake on Corbu’s “furniture”

  1. John the First says:

    Better focus on modern brutalist furniture design, interior decoration, and car design. You get too focussed on those architecture oldies, they are out and modern-dusty anyway. Aesthetics is the subject, not famous or infamous people.

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  2. Milton Grenfell says:

    David,

    Thanks so much for calling attention to Blake’s Form Follows Fiasco. Your excellent essay prompted me to fetch my copy from the shelves, and in do doing, discovered to my surprise that the book was first published in 1977(?!). Coincidentally, this was the very year I graduated from architecture school. I don’t know when Blake’s book entered my library, but when it did, it was confirmation, not discovery. In 1979 or thereabouts I Iaunched forth with my first classical essay…a screened garden pavilion in the Doric order. A few years latter I began a correspondence with H.H. Reed, and I never looked back. But is was a pleasure reading Blake’s arguments, and appreciating how trenchantly unassailable they remain. And yet after all these years, we classists remain an embattled minority, ergo the establishment’s violent reaction to EO on Classicism and Federal Architecture of last spring. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, “There are no final victories, nor final defeats, there is only the struggle.”

    Milton

    >

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  3. LazyReader says:

    Le Corbusier wasn’t much to look at building wise, but one thing the modernists did right was furniture. Fitted with thick resilient cushions to guarantee comfort. The cushions are not only comfortable, they look good. Cassina of Italy retains manufacturing rights and yeah the chairs is comfy to sit in. The most comfortable piece of modernist furniture, Eames Lounge chair.

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    • The “easy chair” was fitted with cushions, Lazy, but not the British officers’ chair or the chaise lounge (except for its “cylindrical pillow”). These featured leather stretched over air and supported by steel rod structure. I cannot say what is or is not comfortable to other people, but harking to Blake, it is clear that some if not all of those who like this stuff like it because they feel they ought to like it, and that is the source of at least some of their feeling of “comfort.” Their regard for its comfort is of a piece with their regard for its beauty.

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  4. sethweine says:

    How much time have the people who dismiss Corb’s furniture (or Mies’ or even Wright’s) actually spent in them? I’ve been with & around & in Corb’s and Mies’ chairs quite a bit—even to the extent of putting them to the ultimate test: sleeping in them.
    They’re not so bad—not anywhere as villainous—as described.
    Like people—and indeed, like much traditional furniture (assuming we need an oppositional figure for this argument)—some is better than others. Some is more comfortable than others. Some is easier (or more difficult) to manufacture than others…
    Easy dismissals are not our line of business.

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    • “Not so bad” is pretty lame, Seth, for a set of furniture with the rep that Corbu’s stuff has. Low bar! Even Blake does not claim it is actually comfortable. Maybe the stuff doesn’t feel like it belongs in a torture chamber, but it sure looks it. I’ve sat in some of them over the years, and I really didn’t feel a hankering to stay there. Some dismissals really are just … easy. If only Corbu and his decades of acolytes had concentrated on producing furniture. Our cities would be much lovelier.

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  5. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    beautiful ??? Comfortable? Look at him tightly sitting with most of his upper leg hanging off the chair …pure crap to call this art …I guess it would win a minimalist award

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  6. Peter Van Erp (aka Peter Khan) says:

    I have the Corbu Chaise Longue (the left in your upper photo). It did seduce me once upon a time, but then I sat in it. It looks as if it should be comfortable, but after about 15 minutes, the body rebels at being restricted to a single angle. When you try to get up, you are very low to the floor, and those continuous curved rockers slide back and forth, not giving you any solid base from which to rise. In the end, you end up scrambling out of it, much as you might end up doing a penniless walk of shame home after spending your last sou on some high class piece of fluff who can’t even be bothered to see if you arrive safely.

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