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Glass Chair at the 1939 New York World's Fair

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(fast instrumental music) - [Dr. Steven] We are in the Cooper Hewitt in New York City and we are looking at one of my favorite design objects in the world, chairs. - [Emily] This chair originally debuted at the 1939 New York world's Fair. - [Dr. Steven] 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 this incredible expression of modern architecture and innovation and optimism. - [Emily] 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 on 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. - [Dr. Steven] 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. - [Emily] 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 it's roundness, in it's sleekness, it's transparency. - [Dr. Steven] So hold on you use the words arms, legs, feet. Those are the forms that we associate with a traditional chair. They are 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 upending those traditions must have been so powerful in 1939, I think they are still powerful today. It in essence 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 are looking at has a reupholstered seat cushion, originally we think that the seat cushion would have been fiber glass 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 brochure discusses the history of glass and this chair in someways then becomes the ultimate statement of what glass has now become. - [Emily] Glass is most definitely marketed as the material of the future. But as a visitor to the 1939 world's fair, you would've walked in to this glass center pavilion and seen jaggard of panels that depicted the history of the industry. Looms that would have woven fiber glass goods such as the textile that covers the seat of this chair. And a crew of skilled glass blowers at work and an enormous furnace of molten glass. - [Dr. Steven] But none of those techniques or 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 is 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 plate 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. - [Emily] 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. - [Dr. Steven] But because it was against a roller, it would have had a lot of surface imperfections. - [Emily] Exactly so then the surface would have been ground and polished by hand. This remarkable sheen that we see is actually evidence of the hand of the polisher and the grounder. - [Dr. Steven] 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 are 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. - [Emily] The same time though, visitors to the fair would have been familiar with skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building that was one of the first skyscrapers that shows a real exorbitant use of plate glass. - [Dr. Steven] 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. - [Emily] So one of the ways the 1939 New York world's fair advertised to consumers that industrial material such as plate glass could have had applications to the home is through the setting up of the Town of Tomorrow. - [Dr. Steven] 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. - [Emily] A number of the other model homes showed off other industrial materials. Heating technologies, insulation but the house of glass certainly had that element of elegance that the other houses lacked. It was also in the international style. - [Dr. Steven] 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 it's refusal to hide it's industrial nature, in it's elegance and in this idea that we can completely reinvent the traditions that both architecture and furnishings had been based on. - [Emily] The house of glass included two bedrooms, a living room and a large recreation area making it an open and a more casual space for living and this chair appeared in the bedroom. - [Dr. Steven] But we also see it around the dining room table in the glass center 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. - [Emily] One of the things that interest me most about this chair is that it's full of contradiction. It at once appearing weightless due to it's transparent quality but in fact this chair is very heavy and I think that practical imitation is one of the reasons why this chair did not fully go into production. There is a sleekness to modern design that is 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 current wood furniture of the late 19th Century. - [Dr. Steven] So here is my question, is this a chair you want to sit in? - [Emily] It's a chair that I'm scared to sit in. 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