This video was produced in cooperation with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”GlassChair,”]
Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Cooper Hewitt in New York City, and we’re looking at one of my favorite design objects in the world, chairs.
Emily Orr: [0:12] This chair originally debuted at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Dr. Zucker: [0:17] That was this quintessential moment in New York history, and I think in American history. The World’s Fairs were so important, but the 1939 World’s Fair was this incredible expression of modern architecture, and innovation, and optimism.
Emily: [0:32] The idea of progress, of tomorrow, is a sentiment that you see sprinkled throughout the exhibits at the fair. This is why this object is in our collection here at the Cooper Hewitt, because it’s a remarkable survival of the material culture of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Dr. Zucker: [0:46] The chair is just amazing. It is almost entirely made out of one piece of glass. When we think about glass, we think about glazing for windows. We think about perhaps something that we drink out of, but we don’t think about it — and certainly in 1939, when this chair was first designed — we certainly wouldn’t think about it as the structural material for a chair to support our bodies.
Emily: [1:09] Here we have a single piece of glass that’s making up the back, the seat, the arms, the feet, the legs. It’s a single streamlined form. This would have appealed to the modern homemaker in its roundness, in its sleekness, its transparency.
Dr. Zucker: [1:25] Hold on, you used the words arms, legs, feet. Those are the forms that we associate with a traditional chair. They’re totally inappropriate here. There are no feet. There is no leg. There is no arm. We see this material that is really trespassing into a completely new category.
[1:43] I think that notion of upending those traditions must have been so powerful in 1939. I think they’re still powerful today. It in a sense almost disappears. It is so clean and so perfect. All of these are ideas that are so embedded in our understanding of the new, of the modern — that is, moving away from the organic, moving away from natural materials.
[2:05] In fact, initially, although the chair that we’re looking at has a reupholstered seat cushion, originally we think that the seat cushion would have been fiberglass. We think that this might have been the very first time a lot of visitors to the World’s Fair would ever have encountered that new material.
[2:23] When we actually look at the catalog for the 1939 World’s Fair, specifically for the exhibit which is called “The Miracle of Glass,” — which was the Glass Center, where three large glass manufacturers came together to showcase their goods — the very beginning of the brochure discusses the history of glass. This chair then becomes the ultimate statement of what glass has now become.
Emily: [2:45] Glass is most definitely marketed as the material of the future. As a visitor to the 1939 World’s Fair, you would’ve walked into this Glass Center pavilion and seen decorative panels that depicted the history of the industry, looms that would have woven fiberglass goods such as the textile that covers the seat of this chair, and a crew of skilled glassblowers at work on an enormous furnace of molten glass.
Dr. Zucker: [3:08] But none of those techniques or the techniques that would’ve been used to create this chair. To create large sheets of flat glass had always been a difficult process. If we go back to the pre-industrial era, what people used to do was to blow glass, spin it until it was flattened, and then cut squares from a large round disk.
[3:27] It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that we actually are able to manufacture plate glass in the ways that we do now, which is known as the “float method,” where you actually have glass laid out on liquid tin.
Emily: [3:38] In order to make this, molten glass would have been poured into an iron casting table, rolled smooth with a large iron roller, and then cooled until it emerged as a sheet of hard glass of uniform thickness.
Dr. Zucker: [3:50] But because it was against a roller, it would have had a lot of surface imperfections.
Emily: [3:57] Then the surface would have been ground and polished by hand. This remarkable sheen that we see is actually evidence of the hand of the polisher and the grounder.
Dr. Zucker: [4:06] That would have been a tremendously expensive endeavor. That’s why this chair would have been quite costly to produce. When we think about modernity in the mid-20th century, we often think of International Style architecture, these great glass-and-steel skyscrapers which were full of plate glass. That’s a little bit later than this chair and in this chair, we’re still seeing that older manufacturing process where things were still hand-ground.
Emily: [4:32] At the same time though, visitors to the Fair would have been familiar with skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building. That was one of the first skyscrapers that shows a real exorbitant use of plate glass.
Dr. Zucker: [4:43] This is not a building, this is something that you sit in, and the coolness and the cleanness of this glass, it inserts itself into our lived experience in a very direct way.
Emily: [4:54] One of the ways the 1939 New York World’s Fair advertised to consumers that industrial materials such as plate glass could have had applications to the home is through the setting up of the Town of Tomorrow.
Dr. Zucker: [5:06] These were private homes. They were an expression of the new suburbia that was just developing in the United States that would really take off after the Second World War.
Emily: [5:15] A number of the other model homes showed off other industrial materials, heating technologies, insulation, but The House of Glass certainly had that element of elegance that the other houses lacked. It was also in International Style.
Dr. Zucker: [5:27] That was a style of modern architecture that had been imported from Europe in the years before the Second World War. We really see it expressed in this chair. We see it in its refusal to hide its industrial nature, in its elegance, and in this idea that we can completely reinvent the traditions that both architecture and furnishings had been based on.
Emily: [5:50] The House of Glass included two bedrooms, a living room, and a large recreation area, making it an open and a more casual space for living. This chair appeared in the bedroom.
Dr. Zucker: [5:59] We also see it around a dining room table in the Glass Center pavilion. But we’re seeing this chair in a museum. It’s in pristine condition, but I wonder how this chair would actually stand up to real use. The chair functions as a kind of ideal, and it might not have existed in the practical world quite as well.
Emily: [6:20] One of the things that interests me most about this chair is that it’s full of contradiction. It’s at once appearing weightless due to its transparent quality, but in fact, this chair is very heavy. I think that practical limitation is one of the reasons why this chair did not fully go into production.
[6:35] There’s a sleekness to modern design that is very much tied to materials. Materials such as glass give the impression as being easy to clean. This at a practical level wouldn’t have needed much dusting. It didn’t have nooks and crannies of the carved wood furniture of the late 19th century.
Dr. Zucker: [6:49] So here’s my question, is this a chair you want to sit in?
Emily: [6:52] It’s a chair that I’m scared to sit in. [laughs]