Adjustable and rockable, this reclining chair exemplifies the fusion of form and function. The chair was designed by the Udinese-based firm, Società Anonima Antonio Volpe, around 1905. The firm specialized in the production of bentwood furniture for the Italian market. This type of furniture had been made popular by the Viennese firm Gebrüder Thonet, which had pioneered a modern, industrial process for bending wood in the middle of the nineteenth century. The expiration of Thonet’s patent in 1862, however spurred a number of competing firms to begin producing bentwood furniture. This included Società Anonima Antonio Volpe, which opened in 1884.[1]

The chair’s use of wooden rods and applied notched supports behind the chair back and at the front of the arm/rocker elements allowed for the back and footrest to be adjusted. While this aspect of the chair has a clear debt to Josef Hoffmann’s adjustable Sitzmaschine chair of the same period, the Volpe chair’s design also incorporated a number of innovative bentwood features.[2] For example, the bent beechwood frames of the woven cane seat and footrest have been curved to accommodate the sitter’s thighs. The footrest can also be folded underneath the seat to allow for a more upright seated position. Finally, the use of oval,  bentwood arm/rocker elements allowed for smooth rocking on a seamless curved form.

Reclining rocking chair with footrest extended

The chair’s novel forms, however, did not break from old traditions.  Reclining chairs grew in popularity in the nineteenth century as a rapidly expanding bourgeoisie throughout Europe sought refuge from the speed and strain of a modern, industrializing society. The reclining chair offered a place of comfort and ease. Within the boundaries of the domestic sphere, the form of leisure the reclined chair offered, however, was decidedly gendered male. Clive Edwards has succinctly described this dynamic, citing the social codes of rooms and their characteristic furniture, as well as women’s restrictive dress, as prohibitive cultural factors in the public use of the reclining chair by women.[3] Men, however, unrestricted by these norms were free to openly “put their feet up.”

Devon Zimmerman is a  graduate curatorial research fellow in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park.

[1] Alessandro Alverà, “Michael Thonet and the Development of Bent-wood Furniture: From Workshop to Factory Production,” in Bent Wood and Metal Furniture, 1850-1946, ed. Derek E. Ostergard (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987), 48.

[2] Graham Dry, “The Development of the Bent-wood Furniture Industry, 1869–1914,” in Bent Wood and Metal Furniture, 53.

[3] Clive Edwards, “Chairs Surveyed: Health, Comfort, and Fashion in Evolving Markets,” Studies in the Decorative Arts 6, no.1 (Fall-Winter 1998–1999): 32–67.

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