Books that purport to be a “history of everything on a topic” are almost always crushingly disappointing. They are pretty, light on details and focus on the low-hanging fruit you could find on Wikipedia. When these sorts of books make it into my hands (usually as gifts) they end up getting pulped – so they don’t deceive others.
I was therefore skeptical of “Atlas of Furniture Design” – if only from the title. But it was published by the Vitra Design Museum, for which I have great respect. And so I decided to take a look.
The book’s title is indeed deceiving. It is not an atlas of furniture design at all. It is an atlas of chair design. About 90 percent of the objects in the “atlas” are chairs or chair-adjacent objects (stools, low tables, daybeds, settees etc.). Plus some tables and shelves.
But that’s OK, because the book as a whole is an overview of industrialized furniture design from 1851 to the present. The book’s timeline is divided into five major periods: 1780-1914, 1914-1940, 1940-1973 and 1973 to 2017. Each period includes an illustrated history of the technology, culture and design sensibilities that shaped the period. And then there are hundreds of pages of the objects made during that period.
Each object (usually a chair) is put in context – where it came from and what became of it. There are all the facts you need (of course) such as gross dimensions, materials and designers. Plus an engaging history of the object that goes beyond the shallow museum cards in most decorative art wings.
Plus, at the end of each time period are pages and pages and pages of objects of (seemingly) lesser importance with some details. These objects fill in the gaps between the more important iconic pieces.
The last section of the book is a who’s who of designers, with short biographies of the people and companies that brought these designs to life.
All of the information is gloriously cross-referenced (sometimes in crazy ways), which makes the entire book a delight to explore.
Also, as an object, “Atlas of Furniture Design” is a technological feat. The 1,028-page book is assembled from smaller book blocks. Some are different paper stock. Other book blocks are different sizes so you can quickly find your way to a particular date range.
All of this is glued and casebound into a huge object that is still humane. It sits easily on your lap as you browse through it. I have already lost many hours paging through the book and dipping into areas of furniture design of which I have no knowledge (the 1970s?).
At 160 Euros, this book is an astonishing bargain. It took more than 20 years to produce and is a manufacturing achievement as well as an informational one. The book was released in 2019, and I hope it is in print for many years. But you should buy one now. You never know when books like this will disappear.
“Atlas of Furniture Design” is available in either English or German from the Vitra Design Museum, and it is sold by a variety of sellers worldwide.
— Christopher Schwarz