When Is a Chair Not a Chair?

The Paradigma gallery in Tel Aviv, which usually highlights the best of contemporary Israeli design, has missed the mark this time.

Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar
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Yuval Saar
Yuval Saar

A line of nine chairs greets the visitor to the exhibition "A chair is a chair is a chair" at the Paradigma design gallery in Tel Aviv. For a moment it seems as if they were placed there as part of a children's game of "musical chairs."

Chair.Credit: Haaretz

The fact that these are not standard chairs contributes to the feeling of a game, but above all this feeling stems from the fact that it is clear that the chairs are not meant to be mass produced, but rather are experimental objects whose morphology those who designed them wish to investigate, even if this is at the expense of comfort or utility. This is also true of the other chairs on display at the exhibition - 17 in all.

Efrat Barak examined the balance of power between material, space and lightness. Shuli Strauss pushed a metal fence into a block of wood as if it were a soft material. Ron Calabresi placed one of the tools used by carpenters - the shim, or wedge - under a chair instead of legs. Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow utilize the contrast between polished car parts and a crumpled mass of tin created by compressing the license plates of motor cars. Raviv Lifshitz built a parabolic surface of straps, inverted from the sitting position. Galit Shvo created a chair in the shape of a metal profile and covered it in red leather.

However, what is shared by most of the chairs is the basis that is faithful to the well known shape - four legs or a broad flat surface that is used as a basis, a seat and a back rest.

Is this sufficient to call those objects on show at the exhibition chairs? And on the other hand, is it possible to call an object a chair only if it serves its original purpose - to seat people comfortably?

We are not talking about a new question, and it resembles another philosophical question: Is a broken chair also eligible to be called a chair even after it has lost its functionality? It is difficult to answer the question of functionality since here, as in many other exhibitions, it is forbidden to touch the exhibits and in this case, it is forbidden to sit on them. From this point of view, it is possible to attribute the chairs on show at the exhibition to the stream of design art whose products are meant for collectors who are prepared to pay thousands of shekels for each item.

Chair.Credit: Haaretz

Since its opening half a year ago, the Paradigma gallery has presented a fascinating collection of contemporary Israeli design. This is one of the only exhibition spaces in Israel that deals with this sphere, and they have generally succeeded in avoiding what can be called the "decoration committee" which, even if it also comes from a source that tries to investigate material and shape, nevertheless ends up being mainly decoration.

The basic assumption is that we are not merely referring to an exhibition aimed at collectors or one that is supposed to show only beautiful objects, but that, contrary to a shop, a gallery also has a function on the broad cultural level and in educating the public to consume design, even when it is not functional.

In this respect, the exhibition is a failure.

One of the widespread reactions when coming across an exhibition of this kind is the lack of understanding by the public, the way people reject and denounce it. It suffices to read the reactions that appear on the Internet against anything that seems too "artistic" to understand just how widespread are the reactions based on lack of understanding of what the chairs are necessary for, what kind of message they bring to the world, and what the aim is of designs like these for a piece of furniture that is supposed to be useful.

As if they are trying to answer even before the question is asked, the curators of the exhibition, Anat Benvenisti and Ezri Tarazi, write in the text that accompanies the exhibition, and which is even pasted on the wall of the gallery: "A chair is a basic object in the world of design. Just as bread represents man who settled in one place instead of wandering over open plains, so the chair represents man who stopped sitting on the ground just as it was. The chair turns the connection between the person sitting on it into one piece with the body of the chair. The chair will always maintain its strong status as an object of desire for designers and design collectors.

Chair.Credit: Haaretz

The very basic functional rigidity is what poses a challenge to the morphological question of shape. It is also what poses a challenge to the technological and manufacturing questions, together with a huge variety of new and exotic processes and materials."

The contradictions to which the text points are also those that constitute the act of design or of art - the tension between functionality and technological advances, between the desire to create something new from the aesthetic point of view and the attempt to produce an item that will still be considered a chair.

However, people coming to the exhibition will see 17 chairs which, even though they are placed in an interesting way in the space, could just as well have been the products of a course in one of the academies of design.

The exhibition hardly makes any effort to be user-friendly, to make the information accessible and explain why it was expressly these chairs that were chosen for the exhibition, what differentiates between them and thousands of other chairs and what makes them worthy of being sold at a price of several thousand shekels apiece. The text that appears on the wall, and the small tags that indicate the names of each of the designers, do not suffice.

All told, the impression is that this is an eclectic exhibition without any unified connection in the best case, or, in a less good case, an exhibition that shows chairs that are not sufficiently interesting.

"A chair is a chair is a chair." Paradigma design gallery, (60 Ahad Ha'am Street, Tel Aviv ). Mondays to Thursdays, 11 A.M. to 7 P.M., Fridays 10 A.M. to 2 P.M.