March 1, 2013
The Iterative Evolution of Jeffrey Bernett’s Landscape Chair
By responding to market and user feedback, the designer created three distinct versions of his now classic chaise lounge.
I didn’t grow up in a house where the furniture had names,” says Jeffrey Bernett, a native of Champaign, Illinois, who studied business before turning to furniture design, in 1995, founding Studio B. “But my first year in college, I walked past a modern vintage furniture dealer in Boston who happened to have a Corbusier chaise in the window.” It was Bernett’s first sight of the famed LC4.
“I didn’t know who Corbu was at the time, but that piece caught my attention and opened my eyes to the elegance, beauty, and poetry of industrial design. The chaise cost twice what my rent was at the time—and my roommate said I was crazy even to consider it—but that was the first piece of design that really resonated with me, and I bought it.” Years later, when B&B Italia approached Bernett to design its Landscape chair, he thought back to that initial moment of inspiration.
It’s the rare designer who can resist the opportunity to reinterpret a truly classic form, and the chaise longue fits that bill. Smaller than a couch; more stylish than a chair or love seat; suitable for lounging, reading, watching television, or catching a quick nap, the form owes its venerable status to its usefulness.
More from Metropolis
That may explain why that initial conversation with B&B Italia led Bernett to design no fewer than three revisions, over the past decade, of the original Landscape chaise. “When we received the initial brief for Landscape, since it was Le Corbusier who piqued my interest in design, I wanted in some way to reference him without being too literal,” Bernett says. “One of Corbu’s more famous architectural images is the roofline from inside the Ronchamp chapel. That formed the initial inspiration for the curves and shape of Landscape.”
The first version of the chair, released in 2001, was born of a creative process that Bernett describes as “an interesting chess game” between his New York City studio and the client. “Design really is a Rubik’s Cube,” he says. “It’s easy to get one side all in one color, but the goal is to get all of the sides right.” Each choice closes off a host of other choices. “The decisions you make early on often define and/or further eliminate later decisions.” Landscape’s success is, to some extent, based on evading that narrowing of focus—on taking the design in new directions with each iteration.
Built into the original concept is the idea of the self-limiting nap. Since there are no armrests, it’s difficult to doze for more than ten or 20 minutes in a Landscape chair; as your sleep deepens, your arm drops to the side, interrupting your nap. From a visual standpoint, the lack of armrests made for a simple, austere silhouette, so Bernett knew the piece would have to be rigorously engineered.
Bernett is known for such exacting practicality, and habitually pays close attention to the details of materials and manufacture. Yet from an aesthetic standpoint, he names some influences for Landscape that seem abstract, including Joseph Beuys and Richard Serra. “Contemporary creative fields are interlocked—art, architecture, literature, music, and design,” Bernett explains. “They’re linked and connected seamlessly, all together. The best of the best in any creative field is always both a mirror and a preview of what’s to come.”
Serra’s Tilted Arc sculpture in Cor-Ten steel guided the graceful shape of the initial design. As for Beuys’s influence, few things can match the emotional resonance of his use of felt, which he used obsessively in his work after claiming that Tartar tribes in Crimea wrapped him in the material when his plane crashed during World War II, saving his life.
That story, with its unique combination of the practical and the deeply poignant, spoke to Bernett. “Purely from a textural, tactile side, for the upholstery of the initial 2001 piece, I suggested that we do a version in industrial felt in addition to a leather version.” He sourced the felt from Kvadrat, a Danish company that’s a global leader in textiles.
For the Landscape chaise 2005, Bernett’s thinking evolved in a different direction. “Being successful in design is being curious about life and thoughtful about others’ well-being,” he says. “One of the keys to our success is that we do try to solve real problems, and not get drawn into trends or fashion. First and foremost, we have to look and think about why customers would want such a piece and how they would use it.”
The result was an added asymmetrical armrest on the right side—a striking departure after the stark, iconic simplicity of the first design. Bernett was unfazed; the armrest was a necessary step in the design’s life cycle. “This time the design exploration was about creating a solution that allows for alternative seating positions, so the design language, because of the new armrest, becomes a bit more visually dynamic and impactful.”
The second iteration was successful, so as the ten-year anniversary of the original Landscape chaise longue approached, B&B Italia approached Bernett to see if there was any new ground left to explore. There was: First, Bernett experimented with the leg design, adding a rocking motion inspired by the experience of dozing off in a hammock. “It’s a nice way to calm the body,” Bernett says. Working with B&B, he also developed a quilted topper mattress derived from a Scandinavian bed design—an element of luxury that offsets the austerity of the Landscape silhouette. “The whole upholstery cover for the chaise comes in a nice storage package, all of which was developed by Kvadrat for the Landscape.” It’s an efficient use of resources, Bernett says, since the new cover can be retrofitted for use with the original design.
“The project represented a great challenge,” says Rolando Gorla, head of development and research for B&B Italia. “Since we had to respect its light, pure design, we worked a lot on the padded seat in order to obtain the best balance between thickness and comfort.” The headrest was also tweaked: “A clever magnetic element allows it to be positioned as desired to obtain the best posture for resting, reading, or relaxing.”
Bernett is gratified by the evolution of his chaise longue. “In the Landscape explorations, we’re pleased that we have been able to come up with three different versions that are complementary to each other—which actually look at and define different user types and thus expand the market, instead of the newest version just cannibalizing the older versions.” Each version has its own unique identity, yet each one contains “the DNA of the B&B Italia brand,” Bernett says. “We also thought and looked closely at the amount of resources we used to accomplish our goals, and in this case we were very efficient and effective.”
Does Bernett have a favorite of the three Landscape designs? “I like them all equally, but the newest version represents the biggest challenge and thus the best success.” But, he adds, “at the studio, we have the 2001 version hung on the wall.”