Brassey Weddings Masthead

When a chair is more than a chair

Catherine Carter

“Chairs are architecture, sofas are bourgeois.”

These are the words of architect Le Corbusier, whose chrome-plated tubular furniture is arguably more influential than any building he ever designed. Haven’t heard of France’s Notre Dame du Haut or La Maison Blanche in Switzerland? Perhaps not, but few of us are yet to encounter a Le Corbusier swing chair.

Some of the best building designers understand the connection between the built form and what’s inside it, and many of the world’s most famous architects are also known for their furniture design. Think Frank Gehry’s rocking chaise, Eero Aarnio’s ball chair or Zaha Hadid’s Mesa glass table. More people could pick out Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Chair than recognise his Barcelona Pavilion, for example.

So why are so many spectacular buildings – and I can think of dozens in Canberra alone – such underwhelming interior experiences?

Architecture and furniture design are concerned with the human form, but just at different scales. Shelter from the storm is the priority of architecture, while with furniture it’s about nurturing more prosaic human needs of sitting, sleeping and storing our stuff. But both are essentially about human interaction – and both are aesthetic experiences.

But unfortunately, when building budgets must be trimmed, interior style is often the first thing to get the chop.

Niklavs Rubenis is a designer, maker and curator, as well as a lecturer at the School of Art & Design at the Australian National University. He says building interiors, and the pieces of furniture that inhabit them, are often lacklustre because “everything comes down to economic imperatives and saving dollars. Budgets get blown and the interior suffers because that’s always the last thing to happen.”

Niklavs Rubenis

But working with local designers is more than an economic transaction, Niklavs says. “Using local materials and production methods contributes to localised social, cultural and economic ecologies and further provides education by transmitting local knowledge.”

Niklavs says Canberra has a “plethora of world-class designers, artists and craftspeople that can be engaged to create memorable spaces”.

He points to the Shine Dome as an example of a place where “architecture and interior coalesce”, with “furniture touches” from classic designers Derek Wrigley and Fred Ward.

“I think it’s an amazing building, a beautiful space and a prime example of a time when such skills were valued and not seen as expendable.”

Chelsea Lemon is another designer who works across a range of mediums, from custom-made furniture and parquetry to poster design. She’d like to see Canberra designers and developers work more closely together – “to step outside our comfort zones to create places and spaces that are whimsical and exciting”.

Chelsea Lemon

We can afford to take bigger risks and be bolder with our buildings’ interiors. The cycle of furniture design – from the kernel of an idea to a completed piece – is fairly fast when compared to a building, and the lifespan of an interior is far shorter.

It’s also true that when it comes to furniture there is nowhere to hide. Much of the functionality of a building – the ugly and unsightly practicalities of air-conditioning, waste management and the like – can be hidden away. With a piece of furniture, it’s all on display.

Yasmin Masri is a multi-disciplinary designer and creative producer. She is also Molonglo Group’s Curator of Place and Program. Yasmin says it is often hard to point to just one feature of a beautiful piece of furniture or interior and understand why it works.

“Good spatial design is complex, curated and layered, and often requires multiple creative voices working in collaboration rather than a single ‘visionary’ architect.”

Yasmin Masri. Credit: Lee Grant.

Forging better links between built environment professionals, business owners and local designers and makers could have a catalytic impact in Canberra, something that Yasmin says is particularly exciting in a city with such a strong professional craft community.

“Furniture and furnishings are designed to specifically suit a place and working with designers and craftspeople helps us to tell stories about the other things we hold culturally dear,” she says.

So why are interiors so often overlooked? Chelsea thinks it’s because we tend to be focused on exterior presentations, and to forget about the functionality inside.

But when we get it right, the experience is enlightening, she says, and points to the interior of the National Arboretum, with its “beautiful exposed timber beams”.

“When you first walk in, there’s an inlay on the floor that shows tree ring growth that is to scale, so people can understand how big a tree can grow. I like how this functional education experience is also beautiful.”

And there you have it. Our interiors are an opportunity to explore materials, concepts and forms, and to see a physical shape emerge from the spark of an idea. But they are also chances to break away from the dull and dreary, to inspire and intrigue, and to uplift the spirit.

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Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author