In 1989-91 architect Frank Gehry designed a line of fanciful bentwood chairs. Knoll, one of America’s preeminent furniture brands, manufactured and marketed them. I bought one (the Cross Check). After ten years most of my chair’s glue joints failed. But not because of use; the chair was rarely used. I contacted Knoll and was told the five-year warranty had lapsed. I was offered repair instructions. Later I learned of other people having the same problem with the same chair. Through persistent letter writing I finally found a Knoll V.P. who, after thoughtful discussions, agreed to repair my chair at the company’s expense. On the way to this outcome, some curious questions arose:
How long should a $3,600 chair—the Cross Check’s 2012 retail price—last?
Is the Cross Check’s disappointing structural integrity the result of poor design, manufacturing deficiencies, or both?
Why hasn’t Knoll addressed these problems in the intervening 20 years?
Knoll’s current C.E.O. is also a director of the Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum based on the ideas of minimalist artist Donald Judd (1928–94). Judd made both art and furniture. But art and furniture occupy separate, unbridgeable, ontological realms he insisted. According to Judd, art can be manifested in almost any manner or form. Furniture, on the other hand, must principally address utilitarian concerns. In Judd’s words, “the idea of a chair isn’t a chair.”*
Chairs, of course, do embody ideas. This is a big part of the Cross Check’s appeal; it’s chock-full of ideas. It has the lyricism and symbolic complexity of Gehry’s architecture, but in miniature. But a chair is first and foremost a piece of furniture for sitting. If this primary function is compromised because the chair falls apart, is it a bad chair?
Should Knoll market the Cross Check as “an artwork”?
Would this render the preceding issues moot?
*Some chairs do seem to function primarily as ideas. Both Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig Zag and Shiro Kuramata’s Miss Blanche fall into this category. I considered both as possible alternatives when mulling over my Cross Check purchase. I concluded that I really wanted a chair in the Judd-described sense—a useful piece of furniture—not merely a beautiful idea.