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Video transcript

we're in the cooper-hewitt in New York City and we're looking at one of my favorite design objects in the world chairs this chair originally debuted at the 1939 New York World's Fair that was this quintessential moment in New York history and I think in American history the World's Fairs were so important but the 1939 World's Fair was just incredible the expression of modern architecture and innovation and optimism the idea of progress of tomorrow is a sentiment that you see sprinkled throughout the exhibits at the fair this is why this object is in our collection here at the cooper-hewitt because it's a remarkable survival of the material culture of the 1939 New York World's Fair the chair is just amazing it is almost entirely made out of one piece of glass and when we think about glass we think about glazing for windows we think about perhaps something that we drink out of but we don't think about it and certainly in 1939 when this chair was first designed we certainly wouldn't think about it as the structural material for a chair to support our bodies here we have a single piece of glass that's making up the back the seat the arms the feet the legs it's a single streamlined form and this would have appealed to the modern home maker in its roundness and its sleekness its transparency so hold on you use the words arms legs feet those are the forms that we associate with the traditional chair there totally inappropriate here there are no feet there is no leg there is no arm so we see this material that is really trespassing into a completely new category and I think that notion of up ending those traditions must have been so powerful in 1939 I think they're still powerful today it in a sense almost disappears it is so clean and so perfect all of these are ideas that are so embedded in our understanding of the new of the modern that is moving away from the organic moving away from natural materials and in fact initially although the chair that we're looking at has a reupholstered seat cushion originally we think that the seat cushion have been fiberglass and we think that this might have been the very first time a lot of visitors to the World's Fair would ever have encountered that new material when we actually look at the catalog for the 1939 World's Fair specifically for the exhibit which is called the miracle of glass which was the glass Center where three large glass manufacturers came together to showcase their goods the very beginning of the brochures discusses the history of glass and this chair in some ways then becomes the ultimate statement of what glass has now become glass is most definitely marketed as the material of the future but as a visitor to the 1939 World's Fair you would have walked into this glass Center pavilion and seen jacquard of panels that depicted the history of the industry looms that would have woven fiberglass goods such as the textile that covers the seat of this chair and a crew of skilled glass blowers at work on an enormous furnace of molten glass but none of those techniques are the techniques that would have been used to create this chair to create large sheets of flat glass had always been a difficult process and if we go back to the pre-industrial era what people used to do was to blow glass spin it until it was flattened and then cut squares from a large round disk but it wouldn't be until the 1960s that we actually are able to manufacture play glass in the ways that we do now which is known as the float method where you actually have glass laid out on liquid tin in order to make this molten glass would have been poured into an iron casting table rolled smooth with a large iron roller and then cooled until it emerged as a sheet of hard glass of uniform thickness but because it was against a roller it would have had a lot of surface imperfections exactly so then the surface would have been ground and polished by hands this remarkable Sheen that we see is actually evidence of the hand of the polisher and the grounder but that would have been a tremendously expensive endeavor and that's why this chair would have been quite costly to produce so when we think about modernity in the mid 20th century we often think of international style architecture these great glass and steel skyscrapers which were full of plate glass but that's a little bit later than this chair and in this chair we're still seeing that older manufacturing process where things were still hand-ground the same time the visitors to the fair would have been familiar with skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building it was one of the first skyscrapers that shows a real exorbitant use of plate glass but this is not a building this is something that you sit in and the coolness and the cleanness of this glass it inserts itself into our lived experience in a very direct way so one of the ways that the 1939 New York World's Fair advertised to consumers that industrial materials such as plate glass could have had applications to the home is through the setting up of the town of tomorrow so these were private homes they were an expression of the new suburbia that was just developing in the United States that would really take off after the Second World War a number of the other model homes showed off other industrial materials heating technology as insulation but the house of glass certainly had that element of elegance that the other houses lacked it was also in the international style and that was a style of modern architecture that had been imported from Europe in the years before the Second World War and we really see it expressed in this chair we see it in its refusal to hide its industrial nature in its elegance and in this idea that we can completely reinvent the traditions that both architecture and furnishings had been based on the house of glass included two bedrooms a living room in a large recreation area I'm making it an open and more casual space for living and this share appeared in the bedroom but we also see it around a dining room table in the glass central pavilion but we're seeing this chair in a museum it's in pristine condition but I wonder how this chair would actually stand up to real use the chair functions as a kind of ideal and it might not have existed in the practical world quite as well one of the things that interests me most about this chair is that it's full of contradiction it's at ones appearing weightless due to its transparent quality but in fact this chair is very heavy and I think that practical limitation is one of the reasons why this chair did not fully go into production there's a sleekness to modern design that very much tied to materials and materials such as glass give the impression as being easy to clean this at a practical level wouldn't have needed much dusting it didn't have nooks and crannies of the card wood furniture of the late 19th century so here's my question is this a chair you want to sit in it's a chair that I'm scared to sit in