An Designanalysis of the Eri Chair
On Hans Sandgren Jakobsen’s failed tatamichair and why culture of design is important.
In the decades before and after World War 2, Danish architecture experienced a radical change, combining the national Danish with features found in traditional Japanese houses. The simple, functional decor of these appealed to Danish architects, affecting among others the countless modernistic single-family houses. Distancing from the bourgeois decor, Danish furniture architects focused more on Japanese inspired principles with a love for natural materials, a common similarity between Danish and Japanese applied arts, where wood as an example is one of both countries most abundant resources. Straw mats and ricepaper lamps came in fashion. The inspiration for furnishing resulted in lower seating and tables, inviting to more informal socializing, and previously symmetrical plans were replaced by an open sequence of spaces.
Danish design is also recognised in Japan, and in 1991 the Japanese manufacturer Kohseki CO. Ltd., which manufactures and furnishes Japanese tea houses around the world as well as importing Danish furniture, invited selected Danish designers to propose a design for a tatami chair. Among them was Hans Sandgren Jakobsen who’s proposal along with one from architect Verner Panton, was selected for manufacturing as prototypes.
The object of examination in this design analysis is the “Eri” chair. I will first and foremost introduce the object, and thereafter apply selected questions from Birds “40 Questions To Ask An Object” analysis. The object is then further examined, where the object’s aesthetic values are analysed through Folkmann’s scheme concerning “Design aesthetics as a method of analysis”. To look at the aesthetic values in a designed object is interesting since it is examining how the object is positioned to seem attractive and challenging to our senses and understanding, where both are connected to the cultural context in which it appears in. Subsequently, the object will be put into perspective by comparing it to Grethe Jalk’s “Ribbon chair” (Sløjfestolen).
The “Eri” is a chair, more specifically a floor- or tatami-chair, designed by Hans Sandgren Jakobsen. A floor chair differentiates from a regular chair by not having legs or other support to raise the seat from the floor, and one thereby sits noticeably lower than on a western chair. That is also exactly a difference, where a tatami chair is rooted in Japanese and eastern traditions. Used for tea-ceremonies the tatami-chairs is a replacement for sitting on tatami, hence the name. Tatami is Japanese mats made from rice straw and often functions as flooring in common rooms in Japan.
Designed for the Japanese manufacturer Kohseki CO. Ltd.’s product line, the tatami-chair, named “Eri”, is inspired by the Japanese tradition of sitting on tatami or pillows. Here “Eri” offers more comfortable seating with pillow and backrest, which are typical features in a regular chair. “Eri” means “kimono” in Japanese, which both connects to the associated tradition as well as the form of the backrest, referencing the kimono belt “Obi”, which is carried by women in some kimono-designs.
This tatami chair is greatly inspired by Scandinavian and organic modernism, combining traditions of applied arts and industrialisation. Using traditional woodworking bending techniques for the backrest, where the bottom and pillow is presumably made in a more industrial manner. The chairs simple organic features and lacking ornaments are characteristic for this period, approaching design in a more homely and authentic manner with the user in focus. These features are also what excludes it from the ornament-full Arts&Crafts and Postmodernism, or the industrial Bauhaus, where it though shares more similarities with the latter.
“Eri” exists in two versions, where the prototype of Jakobsen features a taller bottom and a 10 cm pillow. The revised model by Kohseki includes a lower 16mm MDF-bottom and a 3 cm pillow; more typical dimensions of tatami-chairs. Kohseki was afraid people would fall off the chair. The pillow is additionally upholstered with a standard textile, contra the prototype, which was made of 100 per cent wool, manufactured by the textile designer Inger Mosholt Nielsen, designed with inspiration from the tatami mats structure. I will base this analysis on Jakobsen’s original prototype as showed in Designmuseum Danmark.
The “Eri” prototype consists of a bottom of ash tree with a backrest of the same material, where there on the bottom is fixed a foam pillow upholstered with the previously mentioned wool textile. The bottom consists of a circular frame in compressed wood and the top and bottom plate in plywood. The side of the bottom goes straight vertically down from the top, then bends slightly inwards, introducing a circular cone resulting in a smaller surface area on the bottom contra the top. Seen from above the bottoms circular shape is interrupted by the backrest, where it opens to a flat side making it possible to mount the backrest. Seen from the side the flat side leans approximately 10°, making the backrest lean backwards as well.
The Backrest is made of one-piece compressed wood, which is bent three places in the process. Seen from the back is the backrest resembling a triangle; cut diagonally, the wood rises with an around 35° angle from the bottom, where it softly bends 180° inwards against the pillow horizontal and parallel to it, whereafter it bends down meeting the starting point in an inverted angle overlapping a triangular piece of the start of the wood. The support point of the backrest is the wood bend a bit outwards resulting in more ergonomic support.
The circular 10 cm foam pillow only exceeds the bottom diameter slightly, extending the bottoms shape. The jacquard fabric is woven in a lined pattern on the side and in a square pattern on the top; both patterns being peach and white coloured thread in wool, sown together with an invisible seam.
To analyse “Eri”s aesthetic qualities will Folkmanns scheme concerning “Design aesthetics as a method of analysis” which through questions analyses on three aesthetic levels: a sensible aesthetic, which examines the designs appeal to the senses and experience value, a conceptual aesthetic, which examines the design as an aesthetic media which challenges perception and understanding, and last a contextual aesthetic, which examines the cultural logic behind objects positioning and perception as being aesthetic in media and languages, also called aestheticisation. In relation to aesthetics the interaction between the design and the context.
The backrest is the chairs most characteristic feature, expressing a visual lightness. Despite this light, almost textile-like expression due to its soft wavy shape is the woods solid strength retained through the process resulting in an adequate support. The woods wavy form bends outwards in the middle which also runs parallel with the pillow circular shape, adding to the organic cohesion. The organic shapes fit the natural materials of wool and ash tree, which simple lines and the absence of ornaments results in a cleaner or purer visual aesthetic. The light ash tree and the pillows upholstery in the delicate peach colour results produces an unsaturated and sensitive colour palette, which isn’t visually interfering to the senses but also doesn't create an interesting contrast. Despite the chair’s small size, it is suspenseful with an almost dramatic combination of the seat simple geometry and the sculptural, yet firm backrest.
The idea behind the chair is certainly expressed in its shape, which explicitly lies in the backrest, a central part of the design, which is also the only survivor of the re-design by Kohseki. One can clearly see the aesthetic self-reflection, where the idea is transferred to the experience, where the backrest supports the user as an “Obi” belt would. This idea also comes to light in its contextual function, where the tatami chair and the kimono is both affiliated to the traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.
Exactly this makes the chair interesting in the contextual aesthetic, where the designer origins from a whole other culture than the user and can then require a greater cultural understanding of the cultural context to reach the optimal shape for the function. One should then be critical of Jakobsen’s understanding of the use, especially since the design was revised by the Japanese manufacturer itself. According to Rømer, a design editor for The Danish Architectural Press, is Danish design recognised in Japan for its minimalism, eye for detail and quality materials, which comply with the Japanese values, which is why Japanese and Danish design overall also shares these qualities. Being designed in Denmark is “Eri” automatically put on a pedestal, which is emphasized in Designmuseum Danmark’s Japanese exhibition, where the chair was included. The chair is then staged as being aesthetic. In its visual mediation on the designer's own website is “Eri” positioned in what can be perceived as its optimal surroundings and proper cultural context, in a Japanese common room on tatami mats and matching table in presumably ash. This staging of the design can be seen as an expression of beautification aestheticisation, where the focus is on the surface and put into an ideal situation of consumption.
As said is “Eri”s most prominent characteristic its waving backrest inspired by the kimono, which then reminded me of the idea of another piece of recognised Danish design which is Grethe Jalk’s “Ribbon chair” (Sløjfestolen). The two designs are less anonymous in their ideas, where both are mentioned in their name and resembles textile folds. This idea is continuous in the Ribbon chair’s design as opposed to “Eri”s where it is only expressed in the backrest and thereby more anonymous in the seat design. This makes for a visual light aesthetic, which differs from the well-supported experience of the use, where the chair is imagined as being solid when used thereby not spoiling its aesthetic value. While “Eri” has a heavier visual aesthetic of the seating, the experience is imagined to be softer. The Ribbon chairs backrest is very like “Eri”s, where both consist of compressed wood bending ergonomically outwards in the middle and 180° in a downward angle to connect to the seat. The only exception to the organic flowing shape is the mounting of the seat and backrest on both chairs. This can be seen on the Ribbon chair’s legs which feature sharp edges, and on Eri’s mount where the angle between the two parts is sharp as well. The chairs also differentiate in their respective cultural context, where different traditions and purposes demand different forms implying different patterns of use. As the Ribbon chair includes lower legs and a reclining backrest will it be classified as a lounge chair, which is often used in Denmark contra floor chairs, which, as mentioned, is used for the Japanese tradition.
Jakobsen’s prototype for “Eri” can be seen as a cultural meeting between Danish patterns of use and an idea based in Japanese tradition: a design which doesn’t work in both cultures. The tatami chair works on all aesthetic levels, even though one can be critical of its contextual aesthetic, as the design didn’t get produced as a result of the less aesthetic experience of the chair due to its lack of cohesion to the tradition. This challenges the shape and the sensible aesthetic, where the quality of the experience between the user and the object (interaction between object and subject) can be criticised. Interestingly the chair’s core idea has been able to survive in the drastic, market-oriented revision, from the “tall” prototype to the final version. The prototype is still being put on a pedestal in Jakobsen’s own mediation in its ideal context and in Designmuseum Danmark’s Japanese exhibition, both aestheticising the design as “good design”. One could say this chair has founded new understandings in Danish design, where floor chairs are atypical and a cultural challenge.