Circle first to use 40/4 chairs
The fact that Circle Campus used the 40/4 (pronounced: “40 in four”) chairs when it opened might not seem like a big deal because this style of chair, or chairs inspired by them, are practically everywhere, from universities and schools to churches to corporate offices. They’re commonplace. But the 40/4 chair is far from common, and the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (UICC) had the first 17,000 chairs sold.
This chair is considered one of the most important designs of the 20th century and has been collected by the Louvre in Paris, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, The National Gallery and British Museum in London, and Copenhagen's Design Museum among others. The chair now on display in the Richard J. Daley Library’s Circle Reading Room is the last known remaining chair from that first order of 40/4 chairs. This chair still has its original paper label on the bottom from the General Fireproofing (GF) Company that includes designer David Rowland’s signature. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) agreed to buy the chairs from Rowland, which helped him license the chair to the GF.
Launched in 1964, the chairs get their name from the ability to stack 40 chairs in a height of just four feet. At the time, their ability to stack so quickly and compactly was revolutionary. Suddenly indoor spaces were much more versatile, as the chairs could be linked together in rows, filling up an auditorium, or could be cleared and stored away, creating open space.
The story of the 40/4 begins with World War II. Rowland served as a pilot in the United States Air Force and disliked how uncomfortable and cramped the seats were in the planes’ cockpits. He promised himself that if he survived the war, he would create a seat that was both ergonomically correct and comfortable. In the late 1950s, after the war, he began designing a chair that had a sleek wire frame and a contoured seat and back.
The chair’s slim design made Rowland’s search for a manufacturer long and difficult. Companies were not convinced that the chairs were durable because they looked so lightweight. But everything changed in 1964, when the architecture firm SOM ordered the 17,000 chairs on behalf of the University of Illinois. At the time, the firm was contracted by the University to build the school’s new Chicago campus, which opened the following year. Soon after the chairs were purchased for UICC, GF took the license to manufacture the product, and the chair's popularity skyrocketed. For his 40/4 chair, Rowland won the Grand Prize (Diploma di Gran Premio) at the prestigious 13th Triennale di Milano in 1964, the first award among many.
Today, over eight million 40/4 chairs have been sold and are currently licensed to HOWE a/s.
Many articles and David Rowland’s obituary, including in the New York Times, state that the 40/4 chairs were first ordered for the University of Chicago. However, in an interview David Rowland says (at 9:06), “His advice included going to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the great international architectural firm. I went there. They accepted the design with open arms, and they were going to put it in the University of Illinois Chicago campus for which they needed 17,000 chairs. This was my big opportunity.” Wikipedia seems to be the source for the inaccuracy, which has been corrected.
Thanks to Mariola Alarcon with Student Centers Administration for locating the 40/4 chair for display.
For more, see these sources:
- 40/4 by David Rowland » Howe
- Davids Rowland interview » Howe
- 1964. XIII Triennale International exhibition of decorative arts and modern industrial and modern architecture [Leisure] (Italian) » Triennale Design Museum, Tiennale di DMilano
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