Furniture Without Pity

Recently, a friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn visited her rich in-laws’ house outside Boston, which had been freshly furnished with pieces by some of today’s most cutting-edge designers. The dining chairs—“ridiculously, horribly uncomfortable,” she said—were by Tom Dixon: his “S” model, which has a narrow spine poised to prod one gently in the kidneys throughout a meal. The dining-room table, a custom-made number by the architects Tsao & McKown, had an automotive-paint finish that scratches if one rests a hand on it, and slices if one leans into it.

“Sitting at their table,” my friend shuddered, “feels dangerous.”

The in-laws’ sofa is the Boa model, by Edra, an Italian company, and it looks like a nest of soft snakes piled on the ground. “It’s impossible to conduct any kind of formal or even informal interview on it, or even drink a cup of tea,” my friend reported, “and if a high-school date came in to meet the parents, it could pose problems. How do you sit in it? Or get up?”

As New York’s design cognoscenti trundle off to Milan for the annual Salone di Mobile (a.k.a. the Chair Fair), and as Berlin prepares for a highly anticipated art exhibition on pain (Schmerz), is it a coincidence that much of today’s au courant furniture looks masterminded by someone who really, really hates it when their guests stay too long?

At the Soho store Moss, Dutch daredevil designer Maarten Baas has done a charred version of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s famous, puritanically rigid Argyle chair for $12,000, part of the store’s new “Extreme Seating” category. At Phurniture on Bond Street, a crushed-aluminum Shlomo Harush chair recently sold to a Manhattan couple for $15,000 (Dolce & Gabbana bought several others).

Such “art furniture” attempts to collapse the borders between art and design, which means functionality can sometimes get short shrift. “It’s not supposed to be comfortable,” snapped my friend’s father-in-law, while shopping for a sofa even more punishing than the Boa. “It’s art.”

Take the Sweetheart Chair, by Forrest Myers, a Williamsburg artist—or maybe pull it out for a much-despised ex instead: It looks like a old-fashioned ice-cream-parlor chair that’s had its seat cushion ripped off and survived a nuclear holocaust. “That piece is really more sculpture,” said Barry Friedman, Mr. Myers’ dealer and one of the leading figures in the contemporary art-furniture world. “This is very, very high-quality stuff. Museums collect it.”

Mr. Friedman took another of Mr. Myers’ chairs, the Parker, to Design Miami, the design show at Art Basel Miami. This chair, at one point  named the Aviary, resembles a human-sized bird’s nest—if a bird’s nest were shaped like an easy chair and the twigs were skin-pinching steel wires. “It’s not an implement of destruction,” said Mr. Friedman, who had to perch on the Parker during the show because of a health problem that kept him from standing for long periods. “If I had a three-and-a-half-hour movie to watch and I had to choose between that and a sofa, I’d choose a sofa,” he admitted. “But it wasn’t so bad.”

Mr. Myers, part of the 1970’s and early-80’s avant-garde, works in a Williamsburg loft across the street from The Future Perfect, a brave young home store that sells daring, difficult work by several new-wave designer-artists. Mr. Friedman, along with his young partner, Marc Benda, is planning to move his uptown gallery to an 18,000-square-foot space in Chelsea, the ground floor of which will be partially devoted to art furniture.

The Benda-Friedman space is near Larry Gagosian’s downtown gallery, where Aussie design darling Marc Newson had a solo exhibit earlier this year, featuring one-of-a-kind seating in marble—not the most yielding substance, but it does cunningly suggest unaffordable luxury-condo kitchen-counter sex fantasies and Caligula’s orgies. (The Romans didn’t need chair backs!) People bought it: Even with item prices in the six figures, the show came close to selling out.

Mr. Newson’s most famous piece, Lockheed Lounge, made in an edition of 10 in 1985, can be viewed around the corner at Sebastian + Barquet: a rounded hollow chaise constructed of patchwork airplane metal, with a ladylike single club foot at the front. The unpretentious Mexican dealer Ramis Barquet might even let you have a test lie-down. Freud surely would’ve liked to place his more windbaggy clients on it.

“No, you would not sit on it for very long,” said Mr. Barquet, but the chair brings him immense pleasure. He got it for $950,000 at Sotheby’s in spring 2006, the most ever paid for a contemporary furniture piece.  (In 2000, a Lockheed Lounge sold for $105,000. If only you’d known then that you wanted a chaise that would double as a block on which to practice karate chops so you could be like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill II!) “You would spend millions for an important painting,” Mr. Barquet said. “I got a deal.”

He also noted a practical point of the Lockheed: “It’s metal, so it’s cool in the summer.”

Meanwhile, Joris Laarman, a rising Dutch designer, has created a fantastically beautiful—and potentially perilous—radiator of curlicues that creep up your wall, as well as the less exuberant Freedom of Beech: a backless chair that consists of a seat-level plank with two front legs and two back legs that extend beyond the seat to shoulder height but have nothing between them. Excellent for yoga back bends! Mr. Laarman isn’t interested in “the luxury of comfortable living,” he wrote on his Web site, but “with the luxury of uncertainty and imagination.”

Such a philosophy makes perfect sense to the director and designer Robert Wilson—“I have many chairs and seldom sit on any of them,” he remarked in an e-mail—and to the Miami- and New York–based real-estate developer and collector Craig Robins. “For some people, looking at something beautiful and important does something to their psyche that’s more important than comfort,” Mr. Robins said. “Sitting surrounded by radical design that’s beautiful and important makes me feel much better than staying in some fake decorator lobby in some five-star hotel chain that says, ‘I paid a lot of money to be here.’”

Mr. Robins conceded that when his children were toddlers, he put his more aggressive collectibles in storage. “Some of it was dangerous,” he said. But now that they’re in grade school, he’s shifted toward the metal and Corian, favoring Zaha Hadids, Ron Arads and Newsons.

According to Ken Ames, a professor at the Bard Graduate School of Design, challenging chairs are nothing new. “Furniture was originally about power and prestige,” he said. “Comfort only comes into play in the 18th century, probably in France, and carries on through the Victorian era with the rise of upholstery.”

Though his colleague, Pat Kirkham, believes the desire for comfort is ancient. “One assumes the Egyptians were after it,” she said. “Some of their stools have contours to cradle each buttock.”

Avant-garde furniture’s reputation for sadism was cemented with the Bauhaus’ mania for sharp angles and metal tubing. By the 1950’s, people were crying out against the modernist project, begging for a little cosseting (hence Eames’ famous 1956 padded lounge chair, not to mention a generation of suburban Barcaloungers). Even now, many hotels advertise themselves with phrases like �
��the perfect blend of modern and comfortable,” as though the two are opposed.

Comfortable furniture can be not only bourgeois, but also sinister. In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the susceptible young hero Hans Castorp first begins to fall prey to the indolent, lust-ridden world of the Swiss Alps sanatorium after reposing in one of the chairs created for the rest cures, “which had almost mysterious properties [he] found difficult to analyze …. It was terribly pleasant just to lie there … he could not remember ever having used a more comfortable lounge chair.” Castorp ends up leaving the world of progress for seven years in favor of illness and perversion.

“What is comfort, really?” asked Constantine Boym, the witty Russian genius behind miniature touristy sculptures of edifices like the World Trade Center and the New Orleans Superdome.

For the Soho store Moss’ booth in Miami, Mr. Boym custom-made one-off “Art Furniture”: stretching ready-made replicas of Renaissance paintings over wooden frames. “The form-follows-function formula was pronounced in the early 20th century,” he said. “Ninety years have passed; it’s been absorbed by design culture, and people have moved on. It’s exciting to sit on a chair that has a different sensation. When you go to a restaurant, you don’t always order brisket or another comfort food. Sometimes you order escargot or steak tartare.”

In the living room of his Lower East Side apartment, Mr. Boym excites guests with two Strap chairs made from polypropylene bands. “Probably not the most comfortable, especially if you’re in a short skirt, but it’s O.K., it’s interesting,” he said. “Comfort is psychological. If you have a pretty girl on your lap, any chair would be the most comfortable in the world.”


Toni Schlesinger is on vacation. Furniture Without Pity