Brigitte Bardot. Modern furniture is born from Brigitte Bardot. In real time it makes little sense. In real time Paris and the Bauhaus were turning out glorious design pre-WWII. Burgeoning avant garde-ists in cubist clothes sat on geometric chaises and planned for the future. Post-war, the same designers, now U.S. émigrés, were using the war technology to fashion cool effects for modern living.
By then, Bardot was in training bras. Yet, in hindsight it makes perfect sense. Bardot’s appearance in the 1963 Jean-Luc Godard film, Contempt, is the birth of mid-century design.
Contempt was shot at the Casa Malaparte, a villa by architect Adalberto Libera. Balanced on a cliff in Capri, the casa is a composition of colors: blues, oranges, terra cottas and first wave Modernist lines. The main room fills the entire footprint of the house. The emptiness of the room sends the gaze to the periphery. Vast, unsashed windows open to a vista of the deep blue Mediterranean and a white sky.
Poised against the house is Bardot. The house is transformed. She is a study in curves - hips, breasts and headbands. Her curves mimic and mock the curved, sail-like white wall that crowns the roof terrace of the Casa Malaparte. Despite the white-heat of her exterior, shrouded in black sunglasses, she is cold and hard. Her sensuality is converted to injection molded plastic. The panty line creases left on her bare bottom match the mold seams on the underside of cheap plastic chairs. So she stands, shifts and, at times, acts her way through Godard’s film. She is like sixties furniture. Her body is a bucket seat at the TWA terminal in New York; her curves are a Verner Panton form.
Verner Panton designed the first injection molded plastic chair in 1960. Its form, a single piece of plastic, was self-supporting and designed to match the body. The plastic chairs of other designers prior to Panton were comprised of several parts; legs fragmenting from the whole of the body. Eero Saarinen’s Tulip chair was formed of a base, stem and petal-like seat and back. Panton’s chair was all motion, all sensuality and lust. All Bardot. The chairs were designed to stack together, erotically nestled, rump to rump.
Panton’s shocking design was mass-produced in 1967 - the era of swinging scenes and free love. The liquid forms matched the psychadelia of the time. By then, Panton was designing interiors that took his Bardot forms over the top. His 1968 room design at the Visiona exhibition transformed every surface of the room into a felt-covered sexual object. Far removed from the cool sensuality of Bardot and the Casa Malaparte, Panton’s designs turn architectural space into the Kama Sutra.
When Panton’s honeyed forms trickled down to the mass market of lava lamps and hanging bead curtains in the late sixties and early seventies, they took the form of the bean bag chair. The chair, a great lumpy piece of dorm furniture, has managed, due to a wholesale revival of all things retro, to make a re-appearance into the higher ends of furniture design. The sloth-like throne was clothed in leather and paraded across the pages of the April issue of Ellé Décor. The editors deemed the piece so worthy of modern memorabilia that it can be ordered via the magazine, but the chair holds none of the seductive qualities of other mid-century design.
During a 1963 interview, Godard said of his film, "...Contempt seems to me, beyond its psychological study of a woman who despises her husband, the story of castaways of the western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity who, like the heroes of Verne and Stevenson, one day reach a mysterious desert island, whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth that is to say."
It seems that, with Bardot as the siren, our ship has wrecked on the island of mid-century design. All the attempts to unveil the mystery of this era have lead to a form that speaks truthfully of its purpose. The bean bag tells stories of rooms filled with swirls of pot-smoke and awkward, stoned necking parties; rompus rooms that have deep orange shag carpets and white plastic pellets lodged in their synthetic threads. As 60s and 70s designs resurface in our retrospective nets, what was formerly undesirable (the ubiquitous bean bag chair which is still available for $17.99 at Woolworth’s) is transformed into an object of lust and commodity.
The forms of that era were revolutionary. The exuberant curves and pop iconography flew in the face of traditional modern design. It was furniture for the Molotov cocktail set, not the Banana Republic cocktail set. The furniture provided a new vision of how to occupy dreary post-war flats, offering up a sexy domain of fashion and color. Even the lowly bean bag chair had a bit of the anarchist spirit. It eschewed the standard means of crafting and sitting in furniture. What is lost as the mid-century reaches its peak of collectability is that the evocative, sensual designs have been stripped of all their allure, save the price tag. Today they command a trendy, hip, kitsch perspective. The furniture, the more ironic the better, inspires a lust of ownership among collectors who were tots at the time of production. Nostalgia goes hand in hand with the ATM check card and gone is the time when the Bardot-evoked designs spoke of revolution, production, and desire.