'Fifties chic' -- the butterfly chair returns

Remember the canvas-and-metal butterfly chair? It was introduced in the United States after World War II to fill the need for something cheap and comfortable to help furnish thousands of GI-loan houses.

Although it has been made continuously since then by Landes Company Inc. of Los Angeles, its deep comfort and versatility have been rediscovered. The butterfly chair is even described by a few home-furnishings pundits as a part of the new ''fifties chic.'' All this, despite the fact that no one has ever mastered a graceful way to get out of it.

Times and prices have changed, of course. In the '50s you could buy a butterfly chair for as little as $3.25 in eight or 10 colors of canvas. Today, says Martin Liebhold, president of Landes, the standard model sells for around $ 40, and a knock-down model that can be shipped by United Parcel is about $50. The canvas covers now come in 22 colors.

Literally millions of ''recovers'' have been sold through the years to extend the life of the frames. The chairs were introduced as indoor-outdoor pieces. They found a place in living, family, and play rooms as well as on patios, porches, and lawns.

The original concept for the chair goes back to the late 1800s, when it was developed as a folding wooden chair to be used by British officers in the Boer War. The canvas and steel-frame chair that we know today was developed in the 1920's and shown at the Paris Exposition of Decorative Art in 1925. Knoll International purchased the rights to manufacture the piece, bringing out a handsome stainless-steel version with genuine leather sling. ''It was gorgeous, '' Frances Liebhold, wife of the Landes president, remembers.

But after World War II, the rights for making the chair fell into the public domain, and the reputation of the chair suffered when some manufacturers cheapened its construction.

The butterfly chair has been a staple with the Landes company since 1953. The current surge of new consumer interest pleases the Liebholds, but they know it will also stir other manufacturers to revive their own versions.

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