The ‘Sling Chair’ by Clement Meadmore is arguably the best Australian chair ever. At least the cleverest design. This is the argument.
Clement Meadmore was born in Australia in 1929, his father a toy model salesman and mother an avid lover of modern art. He trained for 2 years as an aeronautical engineer at Melbourne Technical College (later RMIT) before swapping to the inaugural industrial design course.
He graduated in 1949 and he began designing furniture (in black steel and cord), lights (the ‘Calyx’ range) and interiors (Legend Espresso and Milk Bar) under the brand ‘Meadmore Originals’. He gained early recognition (the ‘Good Design Award’ in 1952), worked with rising artists of the time (Leonard French) and opened his own ‘Gallery A’ (with 2 friends) in 1955.
He worked in Melbourne throughout the 50’s, before leaving for Sydney in 1960 for a position as art director for the Condé Nast magazine Vogue Australia. In 1963 he designed the Sling Chair as his last creation before he left Australia to settle permanently in New York, eventually as a US citizen.
Steel chairs manufactured by Michael Hirst (courtesy Curve magazine)
He had a lifelong love of chairs, collected his favourites, made photos and measured drawings, which culminated in his writing one of the great furniture reference books: The Modern Chair: Classics in Production, published by VNR in 1975 (not 1974 or 1977 as often referenced– we checked our much worn first edition).
Included in the book is his own finest design: the Sling Chair, designed 12 years earlier, as homage to the chrome steel and leather chairs he had documented by Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, and those that form the bedrock of the book.
The Sling Chair of 1963 (image by +one)
The sling is made from 2 pieces of thick leather (usually brown) stitched together and slung between 2 frames made from 3 chromed steel pieces. Who better to describe the chair than Meadmore himself; this is the description of the chair taken from his book:
“The design of this chair grew out of an interest in the possibility of using the sling principle in an anatomically correct fashion and in a way which would intrinsically include armrests. The steel structure consists of three parts, the back brace and uprights welded into a single unit and the two front elements, each of which is attached with two screws thus locking the leather sling in place.
“The extended flat steel strips seamed into the leather swing at each side repeat the principle of the base and it is this construction method that distinguishes this chair from others using a similar base but supporting a conventionally upholstered seat and back. Because the leather is in a loose sling form seamed between the seat and back contact areas there is no stretching in use and no restriction of body movement, even though the sling is virtually form fitting. It is as comfortable as many more complex padded and upholstered chairs. Both functionally and aesthetically the metal and leather elements are sufficiently close integrated to form a unified whole.”
The Sling Chair of 1963 deconstructed for transport or cleaning (image by +one)
His appreciation of chairs in his book centres on elegance of idea, simplicity of execution and comfort. This last is unusual as most descriptions of chairs (as for most designed objects) are of the history or design characteristics and importance, not their success in use.
Every one of the chairs was seemingly personally tested over a period of time by made more before he wrote his piece. The description of all the classics from 1870 to 1975 included faithfully transcribed dimensions of every chair at 1/8th scale, providing details of the structure and proportions and, inter alia, the ergonomic performance of each chair.
1/8th scale drawing of the Sling Chair of 1963 from The Modern Chair book.
We regard the Sling Chair so highly as it embodies the desire for a design to be stripped back to the bare essentials, both out of need, given the scarcity of materials post WW2, and the desire to meet the aesthetics of the age of modernism.
The best Australian design from the fifties and sixties seems to cleverly make beauty from nothing more than a 4x2 and fencing wire. Here the chair has few parts and is held together with just 4 bolts, disassembled in a matter of minutes for cleaning, transport or repairs.
So good was his original reference book that it was republished by Dover some 22 years later, but interestingly, nine very unusual chairs at the end of the original are omitted: one shaped as a baseball glove called ‘Batting Joe’, and a large pair of sittable lips called ‘Marilyn’. Seats by different designers presumably celebrating star crossed lovers Joe Di Maggio and Marilyn Monroe.
The lesson here is that Meadmore was more inclusive and progressive in the 70’s, celebrating design variations that are the beginnings of postmodernism, than the conservative publishers 20 years later making a book for the rich person’s collectable passion.
After arriving in the USA in 1963 he concentrated his practice on large sculptures, particularly in the then novel pre-rusted steel called Cor-Ten. His interest in chairs waned, and he became known, and still is entirely known on the net, for his sculptures. Substantial and significant Meadmore sculptures can be found in art galleries around the world.
In 1970 the Australian National Gallery (the ANG as it was then and should still be known) in Canberra commissioned ‘Virginia’, a piece also found in the USA, although not in that named state, but in Detroit. Similar to many of Meadmore's sculptures it is a twisted cubical form, of massive proportions.
Virginia Sculpture by Clement Meadmore at the ANG. (image courtesy of the NGA)
Harry Howard, landscape architect of ANG’s garden, designed its siting as carefully as a master curator in an indoor gallery, thus contributing to Australia’s most beautiful made landscape. More subjective superlatives deserving of an argument.
In 1975 Meadmore published the book How to Make Furniture Without Tools, a guide that included tear out sheets to take to a lumber yard (we are in the USA) which could then be assembled to create chairs, wardrobes, bookshelves, bureaus and desks. The elegance and simplicity of these designs match the earlier work, like the sling chair, but how do these plywood and glue chairs turn out? That’s another episode of +one designs.
plus 1 / plus one / +one is a collective of designers and artists promoting sustainability and Australian design. You can contact them at [email protected]