Director's chairs date back to ancient Greece and Rome. During military campaigns, George Washington slept on a bed that folded out of a trunk. In the 19th century, Victorians enjoyed such luxuries as a combined sofa-bathtub and reclining chairs.
hese examples of novel precedents are featured in "Innovative Furniture in America: From 1800 to the Present." Published in conjunction with a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, the book traces break- throughs in furniture with brief sketches of notable designers and the specifics of their work.
Author David Hanks, guest curator of the exhibition, covers five areas of innovation: use of new materials, technique, comfort, portability, and multiple functions. Although the book spans nearly two centuries, it highlights examples of Victorian furniture that predated many contemporary versions.
The sofa bed, for example, was as necessary to Victorian hostesses as it is to studio-apartment dwellers today. As described by 19th-century tastemaker Andrew Jackson Browning, sofa beds "are particularly convenient in a house where the number of bedrooms is limited . . . enabling the mistress of the house, when her hospitality is severely taxed, to turn a dressing room into a bedroom at a moment's notice." Sofa beds have changed in appearance, but the concept remains the same.
The modern-day demand for multifunctional furniture has not produced the oddities conceived by the Victorians. As Russell Lynes notes in the introduction, the complexities of a combination baby carriage, high chair, folding table, and rocker that could take seven different configurations "must have made mothers and nursemaids frantic." And even the most elaborate desk, bed , and media center grouping could not surpass the originality of a convertible bedroom piano complete with bureau and roll-out bed.
Victorian ingenuity did have some 20th-century competition in the "wearable chair" designed in 1976 by Darcy Robert Bonner Jr. The chair is made up of two bar-shaped mechanisms, each with a flattened upper portion, which are strapped to the legs and automatically extend to provide seating as the user squats.
Twentieth-century designers did come up with more comfortable seating ideas as well. In 1948 Eero Saarinen designed the upholstery-covered molded plastic "womb chair," especially suited for curling up in. "People sit differently today than in the Victorian era," he said. "They want to sit lower and they like to slouch. In my first postwar chair, I attempted to shape the slouch in an organized way by giving support for the back as well as the seat, shoulders, and head."
Ideas of comfort may have changed, but many of the 19th- century demands for space-savings, easily transportable furniture are the same today. Although convertible pieces have been around for centuries, the Victorians were the first to produce them for the masses as "patent furniture."
Light folding stools, tables, and chairs, for example, found their way from camping expeditions into parlors and even onto the Vanderbilt yacht. Twentieth-century designers expanded on the compact storage-versatility theme with stacking chairs and flexible modular seating.
The progression of furniture design is amply illustrated with black-and-white photos of examples from the Smithsonian exhibition and reprints from catalogs, magazines, and advertisements.