Legendary “Monobloc“ chairs allowed again on Basel’s streets
They entered the world suddenly and popped up everywhere: these days, it is hard to imagine a time when the standard white plastic “Monobloc” chairs did not exist – even though until now have been banned from Basel city centre. As a preparation for their return, here is a short history of the plastic chair.
They say that a history of furniture is always a history of chairs as well – apart from one singular model: No chair was ever so featureless as the equally loved and hated “Monobloc” chair. It is a white, simple thing with the nickname “Gartenstuhl” (lawn chair). For more than fourty years, it has haunted world history without ever changing. Social theoretician Ethan Zuckerman argues that the Monobloc is one of the few objects without any specific context. Having this white plastic chair in a photograph hardly adds any information to it. You cannot really tell when and where you were when the Monobloc is present: the photo could have been taken in Africa, Greenland, or Italy.
Without a doubt, the Monobloc is the most ordinary chair on earth, and no other model was produced in such large numbers. The fact that it is practically indestructible only makes things worse. No matter where you go, the white plastic chairs are waiting – whether you like them or not.
Jens Thiel explains the history of Monobloc
There is currently a small exhibition of such chairs on at the Schaudepot of the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein. Even if this display hardly justifies its name as an “exhibition”, it was opened with a lecture by Jens Thiel - possibly the only true expert on the Monobloc chair.
The Monobloc as we know and hate (or love) today saw the first light of day in Oyonnax, a French city known as the plastic equivalent of Silicon Valley. Engineer Henry Massonet is regarded as the father of the Monobloc as well as the obviously related plastic deckchairs that litter every beach in the hundreds and can stick to your body if you just lie down on them carelessly. Both products come from the Oyonnax-based company “Stamp”.
The history of this company is a rollercoaster ride. It had its successes, but was always struggling. One of its first chair models, the “Tam Tam” stool, did not find any buyers at first until it appeared as Brigitte Bardot’s ashtray in the “Paris Match” magazine. All of a sudden, everyone wanted one – and just as quickly, the hype died down again.
Likewise, the Monobloc was not a success story at first: Massonet had to sell his company after several setbacks in 1988. An unfortunate move, since the market for the white chairs exploded shortly afterwards. Everyone produced Monoblocs, and everyone used the casting moulds by Stamp.
The chair was named thusly because it was produced in one moulding. It was the first of its kind and produced in 1973, it is stated. This claim may not be entirely true: Joe Colombo invented the first chair produced exclusively from plastic, Vico Magistretti the first chair in one piece – both of them in the mid-1960s. In his lecture, Mr Thiel mentioned several similar-looking experiments all over the world as of 1930. “I am not completely certain about this,” the man who has been dealing with the topic for 15 years stated.
But the explosion of sales in the late 1980s resulted in bankruptcies and overcapacities in the 1990s. Many producers tried to save their last profits by producing the chair in a cheaper manner, i.e. with less plastic. The former indestructibility crumbled and the Monobloc quickly gained a bad reputation. Nonetheless, it was already everywhere.
Mr Thiel observed that the chair is associated with dirt and marginalisation nowadays. In the German TV crime series “Tatort”, for example, the chair always turns up when danger is looming - a white plastic chair instead of suspense music.
Basel banned the Monobloc – the only city in the world to do so
This image was probably also the reason why the chairs could not be found in Basel for a long time. In 2008, the popular plastic chairs were banned from the streets of Basel – it was the only city in the world to do so! However, they can now be used again. Nobody can oppose the humble king of seating opportunities! It is a king of the masses, of the common people, of practical usability.
Since the 2000s, the Monobloc has also become a subject of research. It is regarded as an anthropological prime example, even a design classic, and certainly by Mr Thiel. He advocates that people see the humour in its dreadfulness.
For most people, the Monobloc remains a piece of furniture for garden plots and street cafes, something purely innocent, a peculiar tastelessness. Somehow, we have to like this thing after all. No other seating furniture has been as loyal to humanity as the Monobloc. Let us welcome it once again!