Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown - Design London Wednesday, April 26, 2023 | Phillips

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  • ‘‘What I propose is chairs, tables and bureaus, that adapt a series of historical styles involving wit, variety, and industrial process’’. 
    —Robert Venturi

    The ‘Chippendale’ chair, belonging to a series of works created by the American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, perfectly encapsulates the ethos of postmodern design: transcending categorisation through a playful reworking of historical idioms. The model is part of Venturi and Scott Brown’s collaboration with the furniture manufacturer Knoll, which began in the late 1970s and led to the design of nine historically inspired chairs, along with three tables, a sofa, and a set of surface patterns. In his 1978 proposal for the furniture series, Venturi described his impetus for the project; ‘What I propose is chairs, tables and bureaus, that adapt a series of historical styles involving wit, variety, and industrial process’.


    The model was designed and named after Thomas Chippendale, the eighteenth-century English cabinetmaker who produced works in the richly ornamental Rococo style. Here, Venturi and Scott Brown borrowed motifs from Chippendale’s original Rococo chair but used modern materials and manufacturing processes to simplify and abstract the initial form. The chair echoes its traditional counterpart in the elegantly carved ‘Chippendale ears’, which describes the two pieces that flare out to the sides of the crest rail. Perspective is central to the design, with the ornamental cut-outs of the backrest only visible when it is viewed from the front. From the side, the true minimal shape of the piece becomes apparent, revealing the flatness of the ornamentation in what Venturi likens to ‘a building with a false façade'.



    Side and front elevations by Robert Venturi for the ‘Chippendale’ chair, 1980.
    © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.


    The present ‘Chippendale’ chair holds a particular significance given that it was originally belonged to Marion Bolton-Stroud, who established The Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia in 1977 to host artist residencies. Visiting practitioners, including Venturi, were encouraged to develop their work without rules or limits, and it was here that Bolton-Stroud became an influential figure in Venturi’s career.


    By assessing its formal execution, it can be inferred that this chair is a rare prototype of the ‘Chippendale’ model, diverging from that which was officially produced in several respects. The chair also provides a valuable insight into the experimental process by which Venturi and Scott Brown approached their designs. The curvature of the front legs differs from the production version, in which they are flatter; an adaptation that was likely made to accommodate Knoll’s production cost requirements. Materially, the present example is also different given that the legs are executed in ply, while the production version has plastic legs.


    The laminate pattern is perhaps the most idiosyncratic design feature of the chair, in that it was never used in its serial production. The production variants were typically executed in Venturi and Scott Brown’s own surface patterns. The ‘Bacterio’ print of the present example, composed of repeating blue curlicue shapes, can be traced to a series of patterns designed by Ettore Sottsass, Jr. for the Italian plastic laminate manufacturer Abet Laminati in the 1960s and 1970s. Sottsass began by experimenting with plastic laminate patterns in his sculptural ‘Superboxes’; prototype cabinets which were never produced for consumption. Influenced by the built environment, Sottsass designed his patterns by stylising the textures of found objects and buildings. He created the ‘Bacterio’ print, for instance, by abstracting the wall surface of a Buddhist temple in Madurai, India. The Laminate patterns went on to be used in various works by the Memphis Group, the Italian design collective founded by Sottsass in the 1980s. At the time that the present chair was executed, Sottsass had also begun collaborating with Knoll. It is likely this connection, as well as the quintessentially contemporary appearance of the pattern, that prompted Venturi and Scott Brown to use it as a test material in the design of this striking chair.

    • Provenance

      Estate of Marion Boulton Stroud, Philadelphia
      Wright, Chicago, 'Design', 22 March 2018, lot 236
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Michael Collins and Andreas Papadakēs, Post-Modern Design, New York, 1989, pp. 102, 110, 112 for similar examples
      David B. Brownlee, David G. DeLong, and Kathryn B. Hiesinger, Out of the Ordinary: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 2001, pp. 201, 209 for similar examples
      Nancy Schiffer, Knoll Home & Office Furniture, Atglen, Pennsylvania, 2006, p. 164 for a similar example
      Judith Gura, Post-Modern Design Complete, New York, 2017, p. 24 for a similar example


Prototype 'Chippendale' chair

circa 1983
Plastic laminate-covered plywood, fabric.
94.6 x 58.8 x 58.9 cm (37 1/4 x 23 1/8 x 23 1/4 in.)
Manufactured by Knoll International, Inc., New York. 'Bacterio' pattern designed by Ettore Sottsass, Jr. for Abet Laminati, Bra, Italy.

Full Cataloguing

£4,000 - 6,000 

Sold for £8,890

Contact Specialist

Antonia King
Head of Sale, Design
+44 20 7901 7944


London Auction 26 April 2023