originally published January 18, 2012
This week, Americans took a day to commemorate one of the 20th century’s greatest humans. A man with a Dream.
This is the story of another man, one who had a very different but arguably equally influential dream. The dream of a chair.
Robin Day grew up in Buckinghamshire, England, surrounded by timber yards and cabinet-making workshops. He wasn’t that breed of dreamer who looked around and said, “I yearn to be free of these trappings!” No, he was the type who looked around and said, “I yearn to invent something that can drive as many of these wood-working bastards out of business as humanly possible! Screw everybody!”
Day could wield a pencil like a madman. His parents used to call him the Triptolemus of drawing, though they had no idea what this meant. They enrolled Robin as a day student at the High Wycombe Technical Institute (go HiWyTech Roosters!), where they felt he could learn how to design furniture, then rise up to hold dominion over all the furniture makers in Buckinghamshire. He could be a local God.
Robin went on to attend the Royal College of Art in 1934. He was disappointed with the program, as it wasn’t really set up for industrial design, and he was reportedly rather unhappy having to use his talents to draw “boobs and fruit and landscapes and stuff.” He developed a healthy obsession with architecture and design, and lurked around furniture showrooms. We assume he was checking out the furniture – he may have been stalking someone.
Excused from the war due to asthma (as well as an incurable case of destiny), Robin turned to teaching. In 1940 he met a young textile designer named Lucienne Conradi. The two discovered they had strong mutual passions for modern design and experimental sex (probably). They married in 1942 and had one daughter.
Paula, the aforementioned daughter, inherited her father’s love of hill-walking. Not making that up, they loved to walk up, and probably down hills.
After the war, Robin jumped around from profession to profession. He heard fate ring the doorbell, but had no idea where the door was, like a half-blind teenager swimming in his first crippling hangover. He tried interior design, exhibition design, even graphic design. He’d started working on an elaborate project to design the chest hair patterns on all swarthy British male citizens, when inspiration led him back to his roots: furniture.
In 1948 Robin won first prize in the International Low-Cost Furniture Competition in New York. He and his buddy Clive had designed the following piece of storage simplicity:
Day wasn’t about snazziness in his furniture; he praised simplicity, functionality and technology. As you can see, the unit has space to store all your glassware, your LP records, and the sporty carrying case for your sniper rifle.
The ILCFC prize cemented Day’s career in furniture design. He’d found the door, now he just had to turn that magical knob of inspiration and open the threshold of genius wide to fate’s jubilant greeting. I just realized, if my metaphors were furniture, Robin Day would hate them. He may have a point.
He came up with the Hillestak chair. You can still buy some of the original Hillestaks – here’s an excerpt from one online store’s description: “Truly that type of chairs (sic) which give the maximum comfort that is needed to enjoy every moment when seated on it.” And they say that writing copy is a lost art.
Robin got the gig designing chairs for the Royal Festival Hall in 1951. Check out this bad boy:
That’ s just the lounge chair. He also designed orchestra, restaurant and auditorium seats that took inspiration from the automotive industry, incorporating steel, chrome, airbags, AM/FM radios, and cup holders that are just a little too small to hold a goddamn Big Gulp.
Throughout the 50s, Day pioneered such furniture innovations as the use of rubber webbing and square section tubular steel. I don’t really know what impact this had, but from the stuff I’m reading it sounds like he was Elvis, the Beatles and the Bay City Rollers of furniture. He was the greatest thing to happen to furniture design until some Swedish guy devised a way to make us build and anthropomorphize our living room furniture.
One night in 1963, drunk on cinnamon schnapps and mulled wine, Robin Day had the brain-jolt that he (and the rest of the free world) had been waiting for. Plastic chairs had been around for years, but Robin made use of an injected moulding process using polypropylene and created a design so simple, so obvious, yet totally unique.
Priced at just under three pounds (I have no idea what that means in 1963 money), you could snag the new Polyprop Chair in either charcoal or flame-red. It was the low cost and stackability of the chairs that led to their explosion on the market. Everybody wanted these things – theaters, schools, airports, hospitals, the moon… anywhere where anybody would want to sit.
Robin would end up designing his own knock-offs: an armchair version came in 1967, a school-appropriate version with desk for writing, drawing, or carving ‘OZZY RULES’ into, came about in 1971. The polo chair, which features ventilation holes for people with sweaty ass-cracks, was released in 1975.
If they made a movie of the windshield-wiper guy, I’m sure they’ll make a movie about Robin Day. The guy liked to scale rock faces; he even suffered a near-fatal fall in 1963, right before the release of his most brilliant work. Come to think of it, that’s a better inspiration tale than my drunk-on-schnapps idea above.
The rest of Robin Day’s story reads the way one of these stories should after the big invention is released. He made a crap-ton of cash, then flew around the world to do what he loved: climb stuff. Not just hills, he scaled Mount Kenya when he was 76 years old. He remained married to Lucienne until they both died – not together necessarily, the article isn’t specific about that – in 2010.
So for those of you who want to follow your dreams and change the world, let Robin Day be an inspiration to you. For those of us who feel that our best days for making that kind of difference may be behind us, then let Robin Day make us feel a little lousier about ourselves.
Me, I’m going to walk up a hill and sulk.