Quietly elegant office chairs come home: An interview with Jeannette Altherr
Updated Mar 22; Posted Mar 2210
Special to The Oregonian
When Design Week Portland is hosting hundreds of free or low-cost events spotlighting design across all disciplines April 14-21, the world's most prestigious furniture fair, Salone del Mobile, will be going on in Milan, Italy. Portland design writer Damon Johnstun recaps some of the people he interviewed at the 2017 Milan fair. Watch for his coverage of furniture, lighting and kitchen design unveiled at this year's fair.
Quietly elegant designs
On a hectic day during Milan Design week 2017, I met with soft-spoken Jeannette Altherr, a successful designer best known for office chairs by Arper and as one of the founders of Lievore Altherr Molina and Lievore Altherr.
There is a quietness about Altherr's work, just as there is a quietness about her. She is calm despite being in the middle of the frenzy of showing at the world's most important furniture fair.
At the Arper booth in 2017, she revealed the Cila chair, which was inspired by the image of cloth draped on a body, as well as the Art Deco-influenced Arcos chairs and the Arcos Two Seats, with an aluminum base and invitingly simple cushions.
She was ahead of the unexpected trend by consumers to use contract furniture for residential projects, and vice versa. She attributes this to the changing way we work.
"Now an office can be anywhere you have a phone or a laptop," she said. "Offices are becoming softer with more open spaces. You sit where you can or you work from your home. As a result, the commercial spaces are not quite like home but very comfortable."
As the workplace has changed, less storage is needed. Tables have become slimmer.
"Gigantic, bulky office chairs started to look like dinosaurs," she said. "With the Kinesit chair, we wanted to do something more lightweight and friendlier while still responding to the (stringent) requirements for office chairs."
She then dispelled the rumor that her studio had developed the spare, but attractive and functional Kinesit aluminum chair for Apple. "It was not true, but it was interesting that people understood the shared [design ideas] so quickly," she said.
Born in Heidelberg, Germany in 1965, she says she found her country's design curriculum too abstract and conceptual, and lacking in sensuality. She considered moving to Italy, but felt there was little opportunity for her due to the abundance of great designers already working there.
When she heard the 1992 Summer Olympic Games would being staged in Barcelona, Altherr saw the Catalonia capital, renown for its art and architecture, as a magnet for design. Despite the language barrier, she moved there and felt at home immediately. The province resonated with her, she said, and the holistic education she received in the studio allowed her to think of every aspect of her projects.
In 1991, she founded Lievore Altherr Molina with Argentina architect Alberto Lievore and Spanish industrial designer Manel Molina. After many years together, Molina amicably split from the others to form his own company. The remaining partners renamed the firm Lievore Altherr.
In 1998, Claudio Feltrin, owner of then relatively unknown Italian furniture company Arper, met with Altherr and her team. Arper had a unique double expertise, in plastic, which was considered a low-budget method of producing furniture, and leather, a high-budget material.
The two companies' work evoked the intimacy and honesty of Scandinavian design and the collaborations were very successful. The structure of the seats is plastic and the covering is oftentimes leather.
The first big hit, Catifa chair, was introduced in Milan in 2000. Despite their tiny booth at Salone del Mobile, the team received lots of attention.
Architects responded to the products Lievore Altherr Molina designed because, as Altherr said, "although they are elegant, they are not loud, distracting from the whole."
She explains their work is a synthesis of essentials, not minimalistic. Their goal is to abstract the ideas while maintaining softness. And she wants the pieces to hold "a conversation."
In addition to designs for office furniture, her studio wanted to create a residential, wood chair that fit Arper's ideals of advance technology and lightness. This resulted in 2012 was the Saya chair, which has an Asian quality to its form.
When Altherr was looking at images from the first photo shoot, she was surprised the shape appeared much stronger than they intended. They had worked on the prototype in their office, but outside that context, the chair came across as very powerful.
"It gives such a different feel compared to Catifa chair," she said. Saya "is all about the iconic shape, while the Catifa is integrating, which allows play with other aspects of the chair, like the base, the finish or the color. That is why you need so many different kinds of chairs."
When deciding on how to work on projects within the office, Altherr describes a non-hierarchical environment. "The one who has the idea might start it. Language might be a deciding factor. We also understand our strengths and it flows from table to table," she said.
The use of color is integrated into the design. Altherr observed that there is still a tendency to reject color, but she thinks women are less afraid to use color in projects. She considers the desire to show off technology as more of a male characteristic. "I don't think I am scandalizing anyone with my observation," Altherr said.
In the past, people used to think about design as a discipline that only represents an ideology, but didn't take gender and alternative cultures into consideration. Globalization and a higher percentage of women in the field have changed the way we perceive objects and intentions.
For Altherr, design is about form giving, but it's also about asking questions. It is about questioning things we take for granted. She believes that design will become more interesting and important as it opens up to other perspectives.
As a successful woman in a heavily male-dominated field, she voiced concerns about the glass ceiling. "Women can grow to a certain level during the prime of their careers, [but] many pressures can derail it if you want a family," she said. "Even though it never stopped me, it must be addressed."
-- Damon Johnstun