Space-Age chairs

In the 1950s and 60s, humanity's fascination with the cosmos took on new urgency and significance as the 'Space Race' between the USA and Russia provoked political tension. It also inspired an age of exceptional innovation in the world of design.

From the launch of Sputnik (the first artificial Earth satellite) in 1957 to the Apollo missions and the moon landing in 1959, the possibilities introduced by space travel impacted on all areas of society and creativity. Conversations around how we might want to live tomorrow prompted a new language of design, from Alison and Peter Smithson's labour-saving house of the future, to the capabilities of new materials – stretch fabric and moulded plastic – provoking futuristic furniture and consumer products that seemed out-of-this-world.

Discover five iconic chairs from our collection that capture the spirit of the space age.

Ball chair
Pod-like furniture designs recurred throughout the 1960s, inspired by space capsules and the idea of futuristic cities populated by 'pod-like' dwellings. Eero Aarnio's Ball Chair became an icon of pop design, with its distinctly unnatural space-capsule-like character, strict geometry, and synthetic materials and colours all pointing to a man-made future. Designers had experimented with one-piece chair seats and backs since the 1950s, but Aarnio's design was the first to offer an all-encompassing micro-environment which isolated the sitter. Aarnio even installed telephones in some Ball Chairs, acknowledging that they were like small private rooms.

Ball chair, Eero Aarnio, 1963, Finland. Museum no. CIRC.12:1 to 3-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Garden Egg Chair
Peter Ghyczy's Garden Egg Chair is a pre-eminent example of futuristic post-war design, combining a UFO-like form, bright plastic lacquer and informal lounging quality. The chair was one of Ghyczy's very first designs in his role as Chief Designer for the Polyurethane factory Elastogran GmbH in Lemförde (West Germany), where he was responsible for setting up the Design department and developing model polyurethane products.

Garden Egg Chair, Peter Ghyczy, 1968, Germany. Museum no. W.8-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The story of the chair's mass-production reveals an interesting account of east-west German relations. The company in Lemförde produced only a couple of chairs while testing the new material polyurethane. But the lacquering process required substantial manual labour, making mass production too expensive. The chair was therefore mass-produced in East Germany, where production was much cheaper. Although such a decision was not unique, officially industrial exchange between capitalist West Germany and socialist East Germany was not acknowledged.

The production of the chair stopped after only two or three years as the lacquering remained problematic, yet the chair was seen as an iconic 'East' German product, due to its production and popularity there. It became a status symbol of Western consumption, and remains a collector's item throughout the world.

Contour Chair
In 1926 the modernist designer Marcel Breuer predicted that in the future it would be possible to sit on air – a prediction seemingly fulfilled by David Colwell's clear plastic Contour Chair in the late 60s. As a consultant for the Plastic Division at ICI (Britain's largest Chemical company), Colwell designed the Contour Chair to capitalise on the properties of acrylic – its bubble-like seat was produced by firing a pneumatic ram into a heated sheet of acrylic and allowing it to cool. Clear plastic was also used for inflatable furniture, the most famous example being the Blow Chair from Italy, which literally used air pressure to support its sitter. Such designs illustrate how developments in plastic manufacturing and its increasing affordability lead to experimentation and unusual furniture forms.

Contour Chair, designed by David Colwell, manufactured by William Jaycox, 1967 – 8, UK. Museum no. CIRC.64-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Panton chair
Revolutionary plastics were also instrumental in Verner Panton's cantilevered stacking chair (often referred to as the Panton Chair). This innovative design was the first to be made of a single piece of material. The choice of plastic, specifically fibre-glass-reinforced polyester, was a flexible, durable alternative to hand-crafting the design from plywood, which would have been prohibitively expensive. The sleek S-curve shape and shiny finish added a sense of otherwordliness to this post-war design classic.

Panton Chair, Verner Panton, 1960, Switzerland. Museum no. CIRC.73-1969 (left); CIRC.74-1969 (right). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Djinn chair
The Djinn Chair is an icon of 1960s futuristic design, thanks partly to its use in Stanley Kubrick's 1969 science-fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Djinn Chair's creator, 24-year-old Olivier Mourgue, wanted an organic form that appeared to have been cut and folded from a single piece of material. He envisioned a lightweight chair that exuded a sense of playfulness, and could be carried under one arm. 'Djinn', in Islamic legend, is a type of genie often capable of assuming human or animal form and exercising supernatural influence over people. The extremely low seat of the Djinn Chair certainly influence's the sitting position – encouraging the sitter to casually lounge and relax in an informal way.

Djinn Chair, Olivier Mourgue, 1963, France. Museum no. CIRC.202-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the early 1970s, the global oil crisis, coupled with increasing environmental awareness, impacted on the use of plastic in design and manufacture. For many designers, Cold War concerns brought the progressive, utopian visions of the Space Age back down to earth, ushering in another new era of furniture design.