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Seating That's Worth A Standing Ovation

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2004; Page C02

Frank Gehry's furniture is almost as iconographic as his architecture.

Swirls and curls of maple ribbons masquerade as dining chairs. Ripples of cardboard have been cut and glued into a massive throne. Smooth hunks of plastic in metallic gray are shaped like a sofa, or is that a model of the Guggenheim Bilbao? A slip of silvery aluminum has been draped over a tubular frame, as if nothing more is required to qualify as a chair.

Visitors to "The Furniture of Frank Gehry" exhibition, which opens Wednesday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, will have more than a month to contemplate these unusual but completely functional structures. The show was organized by the Corcoran College of Art and Design as a companion to "Frank Gehry, Architect: Designs for Museums," opening Oct. 2. Four adjacent rooms will be filled with models of Gehry museums, and the Hemicycle Gallery normally devoted to student work will display 17 chairs, tables, stools and a bench by Gehry. All are in production at four of the most adventurous names in furniture design: Knoll, Vitra, Heller and Emeco.

In furniture as in architecture, Gehry's forms defy convention. Chairs may be squiggles or twisted cubes. Materials are unexpected, and processes experimental. Layers of corrugated cardboard are glued together and sculpted like solid wood. Strips of wood are woven into New Age wicker. Aluminum has been rendered pliable enough to drape, while molded plastics with metallic sheen promise utility without sacrificing glamour.

Architects have a substantial history as product designers, from Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Michael Graves. Sir Norman Foster does faucets. Santiago Calatrava has designed a floor lamp. No living architect has broader household name-recognition than Gehry, but products designed by him have remained scarce. There is a Gehry watch for Fossil, packaged in a box of corrugated cardboard and brushed aluminum. A line of door handles for Valli & Valli was announced this spring. Gehry also has been asked to design a World Cup hockey trophy and a vodka bottle for Wyborowa. And he is working with MIT's Media Lab to design a car.

Not everything he touches turns to titanium. In the 1980s, a fish-handled teakettle for Alessi flopped. On a visit to Washington a few years ago, Gehry sketched his kettle on a napkin and acknowledged, "I loved it, but it didn't sell."

The Corcoran has kept its focus on Gehry's chairs. The best designs are the early ones.

Easy Edges, the famous cardboard collection, is a late '60s classic. Conceived and produced from 1969 to 1973, it was Gehry's attempt to create a simple, affordable Volkswagen of furniture. (At the time, he was sheathing his home in corrugated metal with touches of plywood and chain link.) Gehry glued 60 layers of cardboard together, then cut out simple, sculptural chairs and tables. The pieces sold easily, at prices of $35 to $100. But Gehry, who worried about being "marketed like Yves Saint Laurent," called the project off.

The Museum of Modern Art's Design Encyclopedia records a second cardboard collection, artier and costlier, called Rough Edges (1979-82). A decade later, the Vitra furniture company in Germany recognized that the late '60s would be modern again. The company reissued four items from the Easy Edges collection. Those 60 layers of laminated cardboard now cost $1,045 to $4,440.

Gehry first experimented with bent wood at the invitation of Vitra (for whom he created the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany). The project ultimately came to fruition with Knoll, one of America's premier design companies. To push wood beyond the 19th-century innovations of Michael Thonet or the 20th-century designers Aalto and Charles Eames, Gehry asked for a special workshop next to his architecture studio. For three years, he and Knoll worked to layer thin wood strips and bend them into a basket weave inspired by apple crates. Success was achieved after 120 prototypes.

Knoll launched the Gehry Collection in 1992, with a book and exhibition organized by the Montreal Museum of Decorative Arts. Before the show could debut at the American Craft Museum in New York, the Museum of Modern Art raced to put prototypes on display. By the time the first prospective customers stretched out on a Gehry armchair and ottoman ($3,785 today), the collection was being hailed as an instant classic.

Gehry's later furniture designs, after his reputation as an architect really took off with the opening of the titanium-clad Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in 1997, have been interesting but not as breathtaking. Before the Conde Nast Cafeteria opened in New York, with its talked-about wall of titanium, Gehry designed a metal chair for Knoll. Titanium was too expensive. So the glowing aesthetic had to be rendered in cast aluminum. The chair, called FOG after Gehry's initials, weighs 19 pounds and sells for about $970, which makes it more like a Mercedes than a VW Bug.

Gehry's designs for Heller and Emeco, launched last spring at the Milan Furniture Fair, can't help but ride on the publicity for his newly completed Walt Disney Concert Hall. Heller, which is known for relatively affordable plastic designer chairs ($200 to $1,300), invited Gehry to do a group of indoor-outdoor furnishings in resin. The forms play unabashedly off Gehry's buildings, and that's their whimsical appeal. In a documentary made for company owner Alan Heller, Gehry appears in a studio surrounded by dozens of sculpted blocks of wood, each a model for his set of post-post-postmodern garden furniture. The models would have made a compelling display on their own. Only three were sent to the Corcoran.

The latest attempt to create the Volkswagen of furniture is the chair called SuperLight from Emeco. The Hanover, Pa., company is known widely for a World War II-era Navy submarine chair that has become an icon of modern design. Gehry ordered the chair for a bagel shop he designed as a young architect. And his new offices are furnished with sturdy Emeco chairs updated a few years ago by Philippe Starck.

The Gehry chair for Emeco is little more than a frame with detachable skin. At 6 1/2 pounds, it's very portable. At $350, it's fairly affordable. Factory owner Gregg Buchbinder asked filmmaker Eames Demetrios, the grandson of Charles Eames, to document Gehry's chair. Visitors will be able to gain insight into the manufacturing by viewing Demetrios's "Ping Pong" as they enter the exhibit.

The Corcoran has focused on design as art. Beyond the museum walls, design is commerce. This summer, the cover of the ultra-trendy Design Within Reach catalogue featured a quartet of musicians seated on SuperLight chairs at the new Gehry band shell in Chicago's Millennium Park. The retailer's message to fans was unabashed: Love the architect. Buy his chair.

Washingtonians have no wavy metal backdrop to set off the furniture designs at the Corcoran. But that may not matter. Gehry once likened designing a new chair to "trying to find the meaning of life while standing on one foot."

At the Corcoran's show, visitors may simply stand in awe.

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