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
10 thoughts on “Highly Recommended: ‘Atlas of Furniture Design’”
Wow! And then some. Come next payday, ’tis a-shopping I will go!
Thanks for the heads-up and the recommendation.
We visited the Vitra several years ago when on a trip to Alsace. What an experience for anyone interested in architecture, design, furniture making.
You can spend a whole day there and they often have guest lecturers.We heard Shigeru Ban architect of the Christchurch, NZ Transitional Cathedral
I’ve also seen enough of those “Encyclopedia of Furniture” books to last a lifetime. They usually have some pretty pictures, but that’s about it.
The handful of books I’ve seen similar to this volume are all European. It makes me curious.
I have a few book regrets, and all are those titles I delayed buying an expensive book. They all went out of print, and the prices are now completely unaffordable. I’m going to buy this while I can.
This book will not disappoint. My publisher’s hat is off to them.
I learned as a young man collecting jazz and related music from the 1920s and 30s (i.e. reissues on LP or CD of the recordings, not the original 78 rpm records; it was the music I was after) that if I saw something I wanted, to buy it there and then, by any hook or crook legally and morally available to me, because the next day it might be gone, not to reappear for who knows how long, if ever.
This is a lesson I’ve taken with me to the realms of books, and hand tools, and, as the song goes, regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention. Or even better, as that other song goes, Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien.
The explicitly stated ambition of LAP to keep their books in print, basically forever, is thus yet one more reason why I hold them in such high esteem.
Looks like a fantastic book! Vitra is quite the organization. The movie they made “Chair Times” covering the history of more than 100 chairs is very interesting.
I found this book at our Public Library about a year ago and I was similarly impressed. I loved all the background on the different furniture movements and what was the historical context that pushed designs in a particular direction. I actually wondered if you had read this book and now I know the answer. Thanks for sharing.
Received my copy for my birthday last year. We visited Vitra Museum a few years ago and definitely felt this was my Grand Tour or even pilgrimage!
Totally agree Chris, this is a great book to add to my collection.
Few months back they have made “Vitra Chair Times”, a Documentary of length 1:30 M freely available for watching on their website. it is in German with English Subtitles. You can still watch it at below link.
From your description of the book it appears to be kind of a furniture design version of David Fleming’s Lean Logic. I will be hoping this stays in play until Christmas time. Or Until I can sell a few spoons.
Comments are closed.