Creating an air of suspension

Is a chair with no legs still a chair?

Robert Bernstein thinks so. The architect's floating seat of brushed steel, suspended from slim cables, may seem to defy gravity with its legless elegance, but it's functional down to the last wire. Sit on the smooth metal seat, and it cantilevers gently while staying firm - both "feet" on the ground, so to speak.

"I didn't become an architect to design what I've already seen," he explains from his booth at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York last month. "If you want to design differently, you have to ask different questions. Why must a chair have legs?"

Hanging from the ceiling by four cables and steadied by six more attached to the floor, the chair won a Future Furniture award at the Chicago Design show last November and has a patent pending.

And for all its delicacy, it could probably support a family of four. Each cable can hold more than 900 pounds, he says, and the connections are even stronger.

Compression (sitting on something) sounds safer than tension (hanging from something), Bernstein says. But the advantages of suspension, he goes on, are that you can support something in tension with a very thin cable, which creates light and openness - part of his design objective.

Another part is that "nothing should be unnecessary. Everything should be beautiful and useful," he says, putting a more rigorous twist on William Morris's adage that beauty or usefulness is sufficient.

His off-the-floor ideas started early.

"I got in trouble in architecture school for trying to [do] what they called 'invent form.' And I thought that was a compliment," he says wryly, adding that he got C's and went on probation for his inventiveness. Skipping architecture firms entirely after school, he eventually wound up in store design. But ironically, he says, "I question the structure of things even more than most architects do when they design buildings."

The idea of this floating world came, he says, when he was designing stores for Gingiss Formalwear. One store was small and crowded. "I knew that if you got everything off the floor, the space would look bigger." So, he started suspending the clothes racks, the dummies, even the cash counter. Once on that track, a floating coffee table followed, book shelves, bed, even a staircase - all with the same airy lines.

But in the design world, it's the legless chair that's leaving the deepest track.

The chair costs $1,270 not including installation, and is available with upholstery. For more information go to: www.bernsteindesign.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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