The Tulip Chair


January 20, 2016

When filming movies or television shows, set designers have to carefully consider what types of props and furniture to obtain for the film. Product placement can make a huge deal due to the exposure it gets, and includes all sorts of legal issues when including certain brands on a show or movie while excluding others. For example, the movie I, Robot contains over a dozen brands in just the first ten minutes of the movie. The movie Pitch Perfect heavily relied on Apple products. In some cases, shows or movies display a certain item or object rather than brands. For example, Star Trek made the tulip chair famous. Star Trek actually used a variation of tulip chairs, but few realized this, which made tulip chairs rise to popularity anyways.

Architect and designer Eero Saarinen developed the tulip chair for furniture giant Knoll in 1958, which holds the exclusive design and manufacturing rights, and the chair has since made its way into mainstream dining furniture sets. If the name does not stand out, perhaps the design does – its single pedestal leg makes it something else compared to traditional four-legged chairs. Saarinen desired an integrated whole piece, as opposed to important furniture of the past that always had a holistic structure. Saarinen’s formative training in sculpture helped him devise the tulip chair’s simple lines and curvaceousness. The tulip chair’s futuristic aesthetic has carried the tulip chair from its inception to today.

Designed primarily as a chair to match its complementary pedestal dining table, tulip chairs have smooth lines of modernism for its classic industrial design. Saarinen experimented with materials for its time, producing the chair as a one-piece unit made entirely of fiberglass. However, the material could not support the base, and prototypes broke easily. As a result, tulip chair bases now use rounded cast aluminum with a rilsan-coated finish to match the upper shell, giving the appearance of a single unit. Molded fiberglass comprises the upper shell with a reinforced plastic bonded finish. The upholstered foam cushion attaches to the chair via velcro fastening.

Fiberglass allowed Saarinen to achieve the organic, expressive shape and allowed for flexibility. However, perhaps Saarinen intended too much flexibility because he originally hoped to construct the entire frame out of the fiberglass. As a result, the single leg did not have enough stability. Saarinen kept the seat shell made with fiberglass, but molded a round base of cast aluminum finished in a nylon coating. Thanks to the disconnect, the chair may come in a swivel base. As for other options, tulip chairs may come with arms or without. The arm chair’s integrated arms gently unfurl at the edges, just like a flower petal. Armless tulip chairs roll at the perimeter. The removable seat cushion usually comes in a solid colored vinyl pad, but some seat cushions may come in suede, leather, and fabric upholstery.

Other companies often imitate the tulip chair’s original design, but never can truly duplicate it. A Dallas company called Burke made something similar to tulip chairs in the 1960s. This similar chair sports the same seat shape and pedestal leg, but Burke’s chair has a four-sided star-shaped base instead of a round base. This imitation made its way onto the Star Trek set, not the original tulip chair. These Burke chairs appeared on the bridge set of the U.S.S. Enterprise and throughout the rest of the ship starting in the late 1960s. The bridge chairs featured plastic appliqués attached to their back panels. After the show ended, producers discarded most of the set furnishing into trash dumpsters. During the Profiles in History Hollywood Auction #17, an original Star Trek bridge Burke chair sold for $18,000.

Many replicas of the original tulip chair exist on the market today. As with any replica or knockoff, those manufacturers usually compromise quality, lines, or form. Each reproduction of the design sacrifices something that contributed to the original design in pursuit of form, such as proportions, materials, functionality, or quality. As such, only products stamped with Knoll represent the original tulip chair design. While the price tag of an original tulip chair may not suit the frugal, a much less pricey replica will lead to disappointment since they will not last as long or live up to its true standard. Hold out for a real deal by looking for authentic vintage tulip chairs.

Thanks to its universal design, tulip chairs can fit in just about anywhere. Saarinen’s inspiration to simplify the mass of unsightly legs led to tulip chairs functioning as dining chairs. A dining table setting can show off the clean lines of tulip chairs with anywhere from two to eight chairs. Tulip chairs also work well paired with a built-in banquette, especially if the chairs can swivel. Alternative eating areas, such as counters, can also accommodate tulip chairs. The universal design allows tulip chairs to mesh well with contemporary outdoor furniture, midcentury modern spaces, and traditional spaces.

The design of the tulip chair makes it easier to clean than conventional chairs. Clean the base, shell, and leg with any ordinary nonabrasive household soap or detergent – a spray bottle with glass cleaner or all-purpose cleaner will suffice. Never use steel wool or harsh abrasives, as that will damage the outer coating and shine. Vintage tulip chairs may have yellowed to some degree, and cleaning of any kind will not restore it back to white. Exposure to sunlight and salt in sea air could expedite yellowing, so keep them shielded from the elements.

Published by Schraff


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