Design classic: The Butterfly chair

by Robin and Patricia Silver, The Home, Salts Mill, Saltaire,

Fashion styles come and go. What was adored by one generation is discarded by another. In a nutshell, this defines the ephemeral nature of fashion and there's no better example than the mini skirt.

We don't know who first brought the mini skirt to the early 1960s market. Some say Mary Quant who famously claimed that it was named after her much loved Mini car. Whoever is responsible doesn't really matter but a generation on, in the late 1970s, the maxi skirt took off (coincidentally at the same time as the Austin Maxi car), heavily promoted by Laura Ashley with her signature floral prints. Another generation later, the mini skirt was back as the “rara” skirt.

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Much the same happened in menswear. “Oxford Bags,” high waisted, loose fitting pleated trousers were the rage in the 1930s and reappeared in the 1970s and were much revered in Northern Soul clubs. Shell suits popped up in the 80s and fortunately haven't been resurrected.

Fashions in home furniture follow much the same pattern: just think of the black leather, chrome and glass tables and chais of the 1980s which harked back to the Art Deco designs of the 1930s. But some furniture designs transcend their time and become a permanent feature through many generations. These have become the “classics” - icons that remain features in our homes for decades. Amongst these are the Lounge Chair by Charles and Ray Eames, the Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen and the Windsor chair by Ercol but standing head and shoulders above these is the Butterfly Chair.

Look at any historical design photographs, magazine articles or films from the 1940s onwards and you'll see The Butterfly Chair on balconies and around swimming pools and in living rooms and bedrooms.

In 1937, three Spanish speaking young architects, Antonio Bonet (from Barcelona) and Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy (both from Buenos Aires) met whilst studying in Paris under Le Corbusier. They absorbed his ideas on modern urbanism and design. A year later, back in Argentina, they produced a re-worked version of the 1877 British Army folding travelling campaign chair. This chair now boasted a fixed tubular steel frame and removable canvas one piece seat. It was light, simple and practical with a sinuous organic loop-shaped frame and a very comfortable almost hammock like cocoon sling to sit in.

In 1940, the director of The Museum of Modern Art's Industrial Design Department, Edgar Kaufmann Junior, whose father had commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and Richard Neutra to design an amazing house in Los Angeles, insisted that The Butterfly Chair be included in the museum's permanent collection. After the war, the manufacturing rights were acquired by Knoll International who produced the chair up until 1951. Thereafter, a huge number of factories have made copies, a few good and some outrageously poor but today the original producer is back manufacturing The Butterfly in exactly the same measurements and proportions and to the same exacting standard of quality to celebrate its 80th Anniversary.

It may have taken a year to design this chair but after 80 years of press coverage and starring roles on television and in film and generations of adoring fans, it is undoubtedly a classic of modernity. Butterflies have a very short life but this chair certainly doesn't as it is loved and respected by generation after generation.