Norman Kelley – an architecture and design collaborative based in Chicago and New York City – recently produced a collection of 'Wrong Chairs'. The project re-thinks the Windsor Chair – one of the everyday icons of American design – ‘through the foggy lens of error’. Unexpected detailing in these seemingly ordinary objects compels the viewer to question their ideas about 'correctness' as well as the psychosocial implications of 'right' and 'wrong' in design.
There is a long tradition of architects synthesising their design philosophies in chair design – Mies’ Barcelona Chair, Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair and Le Corbusier’s Chaise Longue are well-known examples – what do the Wrong Chairs say about Norman Kelley?
NK: Hopefully that we are not furniture designers. On a more serious note, it is important to recognise that each of those examples was the first of its kind, born from an autonomous formal-material vocabulary. And while we value a model of starting small to go big, we are not convinced that invention is the only answer – we prefer a model that recontextualises the familiar. In doing so it allows us to sidestep any egotism. Granted, the tone is seemingly postmodern or pop, but only at first glance. If you look more closely you will see that we are invested in themes which are not exclusive to those labels – like optics and mathematics.
There is a surreal aspect to the Wrong Chairs, something uncanny that challenges the safe conservatism of traditional Windsor chairs. What place do you think this unsettling element has in a domestic setting?
NK: If we were only after the surreal, we would have designed a chair that floats. Designing for that sort of magic seems too easy. Today, most traditions afford some slack or redefinition; in visual culture, however, traditional objects have only a slight tolerance. Each chair aims, through its own selfish means, to produce a visual paradox. As still lifes, they prey on the observer’s vigilance as objects of observation. As chairs, however, they are remarkably ordinary beyond, perhaps, a few tactile tricks. After all, once the observer becomes a seated occupant and obstructs the canvas, the subject of ‘wrong’ reverses itself back into a normal state of being just another chair. This sort of flip happens all the time in our homes where we are quick to give our things alter egos. For example, a Christmas tree is just another tree without all the tinsel and ornaments. Our domestic settings are abundant with these peculiar traditions that challenge what an object can and cannot be. And while at first they may appear seemingly ‘conservative’ they are actually quite unsettling, even violent (i.e. stuffing a turkey or carving a pumpkin).
You’ve mentioned you were interested in the Wrong Chairs’ ability to elicit double takes and second looks from passersby. The chairs demand audience participation and challenge people to reevaluate convention – do you think this makes them political objects?
NK: Our aim is to de-antagonise the wrong. This is an architecture that doesn’t knock the ‘rights’ of the world, but rather, one that reconsiders how to discipline a counterintuitive project. It is not a politics bent on opposition, but rather an ontology positioned within an alternate reality or a false history. Imagine laughing at a horror film or rehearsing improvisation – it is an architecture of curated oxymorons. That said, as much as ‘wrong’ architecture requires control, it also requires subtlety. So when looking for new audiences we are always careful about the sequence of participation. When your show opens with the expectation of ‘wrong’ every night, you aim to design more for delivery than you do artefact. In many ways we had to design, or at least predict, a sequence for how an audience might engage the chairs – one that didn't rely too heavily on any form of wow factor. The first step is trust. The American Windsor offered that immediately with its vintage status and typological range. Next came the sleight of hand, or the ability to have the ordinary do something extraordinary through anamorphosis, forced perspective, or near-symmetry. It is here where we meet the most resistance because the crowd is split across casual spectators and attentive observers. The trick is to aim for both heads. Finally, and most importantly, a chair is just a chair even after all the visual hoopla. Like a magician courting the same audience night after night, the chairs aim to maintain the audience’s attention span even after they have experienced the flaw because after all, once seated the crowd goes mute, and the sequence repeats itself. Like any politicised object or subject, our worry is that we will inevitably condition the audience to expect the wrong. In doing so, ‘wrong’ reverts to ‘trendy’ and reasserts itself into visual culture as a new normal. Full disclosure: the life expectancy of most objects is likely to be short-lived. That said, is it better for an object to burn out or to fade away?
Photographs courtesy of Volume Gallery