Deckchair design: from ocean liner to Modernist villa

Eileen Gray's iconic lounge chair, 'Fauteuil Transatlantique', was inspired by the practical reclining chairs used on the decks of ocean liners. Named after the great vessels that crossed the Atlantic Ocean – sometimes called 'transatlantiques' in French – this Modernist design evokes the romance of long journeys at sea.

On the early passenger liners of the 1850s, there was no furniture specifically designed for sitting on deck. Passengers would resort to taking furniture from the interior of the ship outside onto the deck. However, as the healthy properties of sea air became more widely recognised, practical deckchairs, which could be folded and stored, were designed to meet the new demand for outdoor lounging.

'Deck of an Ocean Steamer', one of 12 trade cards issued by the biscuit manufacturers Huntley and Palmers, about 1890 – 99. Museum no. E.1824-1983, Given by M. J. Franklin. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Passengers in folding deckchairs taking tea on the Aquitania. Photograph by Dana B. Merrill, New York, February 1928. Courtesy of the University of Liverpool Library, Cunard Archive: D42/PR2/1/17/G8

A wooden deckchair recovered from the wreck of the Titanic is typical of the form that developed. Often used on the Promenade deck, these deckchairs could be reserved for the length of the journey, along with a padded covering and a thick wool blanket (now-missing) to guard against the Atlantic chill. The passenger's name was written on a card and inserted in the metal holder on the back of the chair. On cold mornings, stewards served a warming broth or tea and biscuits to passengers resting on deckchairs.

Deckchair from Titanic, made by R. Holman & Co. Boston, MA, United-States, about 1912. © R. Holman & Co. Museum of the City of New York

In the 1920s and '30s, shipping lines were quick to respond to the trend for outdoor activities, like swimming and sunbathing, and the cult of the healthy body. The Italian Line – which followed a southern, warmer route across the Atlantic – and the Orient Line which sailed through sunnier seas to Australia, both promoted the enjoyment of outdoor decks for games and lounging.

The deck of an Italian liner from 'Sports e giuochi a bordo' (Sports and games on board), brochure produced by Navigazione Generale Italiana, 1930 – 5. Museum no. 38041800870073. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Italian Line … has done everything to make this ideal route serve the health, pleasure and comfort of the ocean traveller. ...on the topmost part of the ship… a broad and long expanse of deck… surrounding a large brightly tiled pool filled with crystal sea water. Around it gay loungers in bathing suits and beach pajamas… Life at the Lido, at Palm Beach or Deauville never offered more.

Brochure for the Italian Line, early 1930s
Deck activities on Augustus, Augustus Navigazione Generale Italiana, brochure, printed by Richter & C., Naples, Italy, 1927. Howard galvin steamship ephemera collection, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum

The deckchair became a feature of liner design, with many lines creating their own deckchairs to reflect their ships' interiors, materials and identity. In the 1950s, fearing catastrophic fires on board, the United States Line specified that no combustible materials could be used in the fitting out of its great superliner, the SS United States. Just like the other furniture on board, the SS United States' deckchairs were made of modern materials: aluminium and nylon strapping.

Folding deck chair from SS United States, attributed to Troy Sunshade Company, about 1952. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

Also in the 1950s, the director of the British Orient Line, Sir Colin Anderson, commissioned a modern reinterpretation of the Victorian deckchair. Anderson was a great patron of modern art and asked the industrial designer Ernest Race to design a deckchair for the Orient Line's post-war ships. Race devised an ingenious and cost-effective solution for a foldable deckchair. The 'Neptune' chair required only two moulds to make its pre-formed plywood components – one for the seat and back, and the other for the legs. The original covering was made of Tygan, a woven plastic fabric, created by Margaret Leischner, the Bauhaus textile designer who was also researching new textiles for cars and aeroplanes. When the Orient Line merged with P&O, the Neptune deckchairs were used on board the Canberra – one of the last great British ocean liners.

Neptune Chair, lounger designed for P&O, Ernest Race, England, 1960s. © Ernest Race. Image courtesy of Collection, The Target Gallery, London

On land, the liner deckchair spawned many reinterpretations among Modernist architects and designers. They were inspired both by the typical deckchair associated with leisure, and the chaise longue or reclining chair which, since the 19th century, had become central to the treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis – a deadly diasease for which doctors recommended reclining in fresh air and sunlight.

Eileen Gray was a successful furniture designer when she created the 'Fauteuil Transatlantique' chair for her own Modernist villa. The house, designed between 1925 and 1929, overlooked the Côte d’Azur and was intended to spur the imagination and evoke travel:

The furnishings – chairs, screens and pile carpets, the warm leather colours, low metallic lustre, and depth of the cushions – all contribute to an atmosphere of intimacy. A marine chart, lit at night, brings an ingenious note, evoking distant voyages and encouraging daydreams. Even the carpets are reminiscent of marine horizons, through their colour and form.

Eileen Gray
Three views of the Fauteuil Transatlantique chair, Eileen Gray, 1925 – 30, reupholstered in the 1960s, France. Museum no. Circ.578-1971. Given by the designer. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Named after the transatlantic liners, the chair is formed of a suspended panel of leather-upholstered material which recalls the simple textile and wood deckchairs. A photograph taken in the late 1920s shows the armchair on the villa's balcony, overlooking the Mediterranean, as if on the deck of a liner.

Left: The balcony beyond the living room looking out on the harbour of Monte Carlo showing the 'Fauteuil Transatlantique'. Photograph from L’Architecture vivante, winter 1929, Institut national d’histoire de l’art, bibliothèque, Paris. Right: Design for Fauteuil Transatlantique Chair, side elevation and plan, Eileen Gray, 1927. Museum no. E.1130-1983. Given by Prunella Clough. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Although Gray was inspired by a practical piece of furniture, she turned the 'Fauteuil Transatlantique' into an armchair made of beautiful materials: sycamore wood with chromium-plated mounts and leather upholstery. She went on to produce several variants in different materials.

Eileen Gray was not alone in looking to deck and reclining chairs for inspiration. From Josef Hoffmann in the early 1900s, to Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Jean Prouvé in the 1920s, as well as Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe in the 1930s, many designers interpreted the form. Reflecting two crucial Modernist concerns – leisure and health – the reclining chair became a 20th-century design classic, both on land and at sea.

Long Chair, designed by Marcel Breuer, manufactured by Isokon Furniture Company, 1936, England. Museum no. Circ.83:1-1975. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Discover more about Modernism in our collections.