A long chair with an even longer history
The chaise longue (French for "long chair") has a long history. It has appeared in ancient Egypt, the Classical world, Baroque France, and the modern psychiatrist's office. Today, it is more commonly seen on cruise-ship decks and sunny beaches.
They were favorites of Bauhaus and Modern architects, who designed them for particular settings. This time period (1920s to 1960s) is the focus of "Design~Recline" at Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge, Mass. The architects' chairs, aesthetically pleasing yet physically forgiving, echo the straight lines and enlongated floor plans of their surroundings. Le Corbusier dubbed the form "the machine for rest."
The designers sought to "tame" their materials: Wood was bent, and chrome "domesticated." The chaise exemplified Bauhaus and Modern philosophies, incorporating clean lines with no extraneous decoration. The chairs were to be placed in rooms characterized by openness and light, in contrast to Victorian and other pre-Modern styles.
Curator Robin Schuldenfrei has set the chaises against large photos of rooms or buildings by the designers, so viewers can see them in context. Some designers thought the chaises could be mass-produced for the early 20th-century's emergent middle class and incorporated into indoor-outdoor living spaces - a chaise longue for every Paris apartment balcony. This is not to say that they were plain: some examples are even playful, such as Le Corbusier's cowhide chaise.
Bringing chaises longues to the masses proved too ambitious: because chrome needed to be bent - often by hand - it could not be produced economically. This ran counter to a pillar of Bauhaus theory mandating cost-efficient production of functional yet beautiful buildings and furnishings.
With life moving at warp speed and customers eager for creative, functional style, it may be time for a chaise revival. The chairs are seen in home-design magazines, featured by lifestyle designers such as Ralph Lauren. You cannot help but want to recline in them; fortunately, the exhibit features two designs that visitors can try. But, as one museumgoer remarked: "You need a TV."
• 'Design~Recline: Modern Architecture and the Mid-Century Chaise Longue' is at Harvard University's Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge, Mass., through July 11.