A Chair and You

The GRASSI Museum of Applied Arts is showing one of the world's most important private collections of chairs.

The chairs and seating objects on display in Leipzig were designed by over 100 artists and architects from the 1960s to the present day. This extraordinary show is one of the highlights of 2024, the year in which the museum celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Since the late 1990s, Geneva-based entrepreneur and collector Thierry Barbier-Mueller brought together a large number of innovative and unusual chairs with a sculptural character that goes far beyond the usual typology. The presentation of around 150 chairs was entrusted to the renown American artist, director and designer Robert Wilson. This exceptional scenography plunges the public into immersive worlds in which the chairs are treated as if they were the protagonists of a performing arts show. 

Director Robert Wilson stages chairs in the GRASSI Museum Leipzig like an opera in four acts. Here the Kaleidoscope Space. © Lucie Jansch.

In the so-called Dark Room, legendary design classics unfold their aura magically illuminated. © Lucie Jansch.

Sound, light and set design allow the public to discover this iconic design and its many variations in a unique way. Wilson critically engages with the objects and breathes life into them, giving them expressive autonomy. A Chair and You offers the visitor an “opera” in four acts and just as many stages – with a scenography in which the history of art and design from the 1960s to the present day is told through Thierry Barbier-Mueller’s unique collection.

The production corresponds to an opera in four acts. In the Kaleidoscope Space, the room remains closed. A cube whose interior is lined with mirrors serves as a showcase for the exhibits. Circular openings reveal the sculptural and metallic qualities of the chairs, which virtually melt into this reflective environment. The changing light intensifies the kaleidoscopic effect.

Through a low, backlit door, dazzled visitors enter the dark and hushed Dark Space. As if floating in darkness, the chairs are revealed in turn by changing lights that give them a star-like aura. Like in a planetarium, spotlights direct our gaze to the exhibits, which are among the most striking chairs in the collection. Calm, minimalism and geometry characterise the Medium Space. Straight, clean lines divide this monochrome landscape. Inspired by the formal language of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion (1929), the layout is structured by semi-transparent walls made of tulle. The open, soothing space is in dialogue with chairs that have strong architectural features. The soft and diffuse light contrasts with a metallic sound environment.

Tranquillity, minimalism and geometry define the Medium Space. The anniversary show at the GRASSI Museum of Applied Arts in Leipzig is dedicated to the seemingly inexhaustible design theme of chairs. © Lucie Jansch.

In Bright Space, islands made up of a dense network of some of the most colourful and eclectic chairs in the collection give visitors the illusion of getting lost in a forest from a fantasy world. Bright colours, surprising materials, and curves predominate in this light-flooded space. The chairs have been intuitively arranged according to affinities and grouped around themes such as the animalistic, the sculptural, a pop factor, humour, or technical sophistication.

Director Robert Wilson called these originally arranged chair creations Bright selection. © Lucie Jansch.

The Collection of Thierry Barbier-Mueller

The chair embodies an exciting combination between aesthetics and use, a form whose range of possibilities is infinite. In the 1990s, Thierry Barbier-Mueller became fascinated by the creativity, freshness and tremendous explosion of spontaneity of designers such as Ron Arad and Tom Dixon, especially in this field. His acquisitions grew spontaneously through new discoveries and encounters, resulting in a collection of over 650 chairs dating from the 1960s to the present day. Comprising about two-thirds unique pieces, prototypes, or works from limited editions, the collection reflects an interest in atypical objects, off the beaten track of industrial design. Far from wanting to put together an exhaustive and scientific corpus on the contemporary history of the chair, Barbier-Mueller was interested in everything that stood out as unique and innovative in the field. It was above all the object itself that captivated him. Its uniqueness, its plasticity, the humour it evokes, or its materiality. This collection brings together the work of internationally renowned creatives and more confidential positions, of various nationalities. It includes works by designers such as Ettore Sottsass, Isamu Noguchi, Martino Gamper and Maarten Baas as well as visual artists such as Donald Judd, Niki de Saint Phalle, Lawrence Weiner and Franz West. The book documenting the collection will be available at the museums’ bookshop: The Spirit of Chairs. The Chair Collection of Thierry Barbier-Mueller, October 2022, Lars Mueller Publishers, 384 pages, 927 illustrations, 22 x 30 cm, english/french.

  • GRASSI Museum
    Johannisplatz 5-11
    D-04103 Leipzig
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