Swedish Curves Ahead

An exhibit on Bruno Mathsson illustrates his tireless pursuit for the ultimate place to sit.

Could there really be an ultimate position for sitting? The fact that people have different body types, and that chairs continue to be one of the most widely explored furniture types in contemporary design, seem to suggest there is no single best answer. But that never stopped Swedish designer Bruno Mathsson from trying to find one. Born in 1907 and trained as a woodworker in his father’s workshop, Mathsson began searching for the ultimate seating shape in the 1930s after being inspired by the likes of Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, and Alvar Aalto. He presented his first real attempt – a sultry bentwood easy chair – at Stockholm retailer Svenskt Tenn in 1934.

Although Mathsson’s name may not be quite as familiar as those of his contemporaries, an exhibition now on view at the Bard Graduate Center in New York hopes to change that. Organized by the Swedish Museum of Architecture and the Bruno Mathsson Foundation, and curated by Swedish design journalist Hedvig Hedqvist, Bruno Mathsson: Architect and Designer offers a retrospective of Mathsson’s career, looking at both his furniture and architecture.

Some of the most interesting items on view are letters that illustrate Mathsson’s uncompromising nature and apparent lack of interest in self-promotion. Among the papers is a 1939 letter from John McAndrew, then curator of architecture and industrial art at MoMA, who was looking to purchase three of Mathsson’s Easy Chairs and 17 of his Work Chairs for the museum. Originally quoted a per unit price of 55 Swedish crowns, and 45 crowns, respectively, McAndrew hoped to secure a better deal. “Considering the size of this order, we trust that you will be able to give us a better price,” he wrote, no doubt expecting the museum’s status would help his case. On display beside the letter is the resulting invoice, signed by Mathsson himself, with easy chairs charged at 55 crowns, and work chairs charged at 45.

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The exhibition also presents a series of increasingly frustrated letters from Hans Knoll, who sought to represent Mathsson in the U.S. and manufacture his designs. Mathsson never agreed to the deal, and continued to produce his furniture in his own workshop. “I think Bruno Mathsson is interesting because he had a program for what he was doing,” says Hedqvist. “Business was not his program – he truly wanted to do something for the people.”

By the 1950s, Mathsson had broadened his scope of work and began designing modernist homes that featured large spans of glass and translucent materials, which aimed to create a connection between interior rooms and the outside world. The most impressive structure is Frosakull, Mathsson’s own summerhouse completed in 1960, part of which has been recreated for the exhibition. Furnished with Mathsson’s chairs, visitors are invited to take a seat and try the pieces out for themselves. Do they deliver on the promise of an ultimate seating position? Not really. But few would argue that they’re not extremely comfortable.

Bruno Mathsson: Architect and Designer is on view at The Bard Graduate Center Gallery at 18 West 86th Street, NYC through Sunday June 10, 2007.

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