1000 Chairs book by Charlotte & Peter Fiell, published by Taschen in 1997.

History of the Balzac

1000 Chairs by Charlotte & Peter Fiell

Continuing our content celebrating 30 years of the Balzac armchair, we talk to Charlotte & Peter Fiell about the design being included in the first edition of Taschen's influential 1000 Chairs, first published in 1997.

When first published in 1997, Taschen’s 1000 Chairs quickly became a kind of bible for designers and collectors alike. With chairs dating back to the 1800s, the book gave the reader a definitive overview of both individual chairs and of the major design movements that had shaped the modern world. Being included in the book was a real badge of honour for the Balzac and for Matthew Hilton. It helped cement the reputation of a chair that was quickly becoming an SCP customer favourite. We asked Charlotte and Peter Field a few questions about what they remember about the chair, Matthew Hilton and SCP at the time.

When did you first become aware of the Balzac armchair, Matthew Hilton, or SCP?

Even before we opened our first design gallery on King’s Road in 1988, we were aware of what SCP was doing and had visited the shop in Curtain Road. I distinctly remember seeing Jasper Morrison’s early slatted stool for SCP and appreciating its stark minimalism. It was, however, the Balzac armchair that really struck an emotional chord with us – it was a design that you actually wanted to live with. And we loved the fact that it was being made by skilled craftsmen in the East End of London, plus it was a chair that you knew had the potential to grow old gracefully.

The Balzac armchair and ottoman in Taschen's 1000 Chairs.

When choosing the first set of 1000 chairs for the launch edition in 1997, what were the basic criteria for entry?

The criteria for selection were primarily based on innovation (aesthetic, technical, philosophical) but also authorship and historic importance. To this end, each chair had to have a definable presence, a sort of wow factor. We were also very careful to pair up designs on the pages that made sense together, so there was a comparing and contrasting dialogue throughout the book.

What was it about the Balzac armchair that made it iconic at the time?

Although it was so obviously a contemporary chair it cleverly evoked memories of old leather club chairs, which gave it a very rooted sense of Englishness. It also had an engaging handcrafted sensibility that, likewise, gave it a refreshing feeling of authenticity. Its soft rounded form was also immediately inviting, as was its innate simplicity, which meant it worked well in all sorts of interior settings.

Have you ever sat in a Balzac? If so, can you remember what it was like?

I remember trying one out years ago and sinking down into it very happily. I especially like its undulating armrests, which help give the Balzac such a characterful poise.

The Balzac has been in continuous production for 30 years, and has now been developed to be made sustainably without the use of foam. What new considerations will designers from this generation need to take account of to create the iconic chairs of the future?

Durability is the key to design sustainability. We need to go back to basics and create furniture (among many other types of product) that will serviceably last not just a few years, but decades – that can literally be lovingly passed on from one generation to the next. Designers need to embrace the values of craft more and create chairs that people will not only appreciate because of their form and function, but also because of their beautiful manufacture and exquisite detailing. Charles Eames once noted “The details are not the details. They make the design.” – and he was absolutely right. Our whole understanding of design needs to be predicated on the idea of sustainability through emotional connections. And if as a designer you can create a chair that people really connect with on an emotional level, then probably if sufficient numbers feel the same way it will go on to achieve iconic status. Few things that are truly loved get easily thrown away.

Balzac Collection

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A big thank you to both Charlotte and Peter Fiell for taking the time to speak to us, and for being able to remember so much about just one of the 1000 chairs.

Find more Design & Architecture books by Taschen here.

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