The 25 Most Defining Pieces of Furniture From the Last 100 Years

How do we define furniture? It might seem like a silly question, but it’s one that kept coming up in October of last year, when, in a conference room on the 15th floor of The New York Times building, six experts — the architects and interior designers Rafael de Cárdenas and Daniel Romualdez; the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of architecture and design, Paola Antonelli; the actress and avid furniture collector Julianne Moore; the artist and sculptor Katie Stout; and T’s design and interiors director, Tom Delavan — gathered for nearly three hours to make a list of the most influential chairs, sofas and tables, as well as some less obvious household objects, from the past century.

The goal was to land on a wide range of offerings, but there were parameters: To qualify, each piece was required to have been fabricated, even if just as a prototype, within the past 100 years. It also needed to be at least slightly functional. (The Japanese architect Oki Sato’s 2007 Cabbage chair, a treatise on sustainability constructed entirely from a roll of disused paper, isn’t the sturdiest place to sit; nonetheless, it was nominated.) Lighting was excluded from the debate — “which is nuts,” said de Cárdenas, a former men’s wear designer who started his firm in 2006 — unless it was attached to, say, a desk. (The Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass’s illuminated Ultrafragola mirror, which presaged selfie culture by decades, made the cut.) There were no limits placed on provenance, and a piece didn’t need to have been designed by a known name, or even attributable. The jurors were determined to avoid what Antonelli described as “the usual collectors’ items by white German, French and Italian males with a smattering of women, no Latin American or Black — and very little Asian — representation.” While the final list, presented below in roughly the order it was discussed, and not reflecting any kind of hierarchy, does include an icon or two (to omit Charles and Ray Eames or Le Corbusier, the group decided, would be a mistake), diversity of maker (and of materials, styles, processes and prices) was a consideration. In each case, the objects represented more than comfort or utility; every innovation is, in its own way, a historical artifact — a response to the prosperity or unrest into which it was born or a proposal for a more efficient world, maybe a better one.

From left: Paola Antonelli, Julianne Moore, Nick Haramis, Daniel Romualdez, Tom Delavan, Rafael de Cárdenas and Katie Stout, photographed at The New York Times on Oct. 12, 2023.Credit…DeSean McClinton-Holland

The participants were asked to submit a list of 10 suggestions beforehand, revealing their own unique tastes and interests. Stout, who curated a show in 2020 with the Shaker Museum in Chatham, N.Y., argued that a bonnet is a slipcover for the head and should count as furniture. (She was voted down.) Moore, an avowed minimalist, petitioned to include austere creations in marble or wood by Poul Kjaerholm and Donald Judd. Romualdez’s more classical choices — among them a daybed by the mid-20th-century French designer Marc du Plantier and a patinated bronze table by the Swiss sculptor Diego Giacometti from the 1980s — were influenced by the luxurious interiors he saw in American magazines while growing up in Manila in the Philippines, long before he’d work for the architects Thierry Despont and Robert A.M. Stern and later open a firm of his own. As Delavan said, “Daniel’s were the chicest. Julianne’s were the purest. Katie’s were the wackiest. Rafael’s were the campiest. And mine were the dullest.” Antonelli’s were, perhaps, the most comprehensive: She created three separate lists to accommodate her top picks, runners-up and wild cards. “I just want us to express an idea of design that excites the world,” she said. As the members of the group settled into the room’s upholstered cantilever chairs — imitations of a Bauhaus style popularized in the 1920s by the Hungarian German Modernist Marcel Breuer — they nodded and offered words of encouragement. And then they got down to business. — Nick Haramis

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

1. Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini and Franco Teodoro, Sacco Chair, 1968

A prototype of the Sacco chair, designed in 1968 by Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini and Franco Teodoro for Zanotta.Credit…Courtesy of Zanotta SpA – Italy
A symbol of anticonformist design throughout the 1970s, the Sacco, also known as the beanbag chair, has been produced in countless iterations.Credit…Courtesy of Zanotta SpA – Italy

Considered the original beanbag, the Sacco chair is the rare design object to become an instant classic in both rec rooms and museum collections. It was included in MoMA’s seminal 1972 show “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” which presented furnishings that looked beyond aesthetics and function toward sociocultural shifts, including the rejection of bourgeois propriety. “Imagine trying to be stuffy while slouching in a beanbag chair,” said the show’s curator, the architect and industrial designer Emilio Ambasz. Indeed, the vaguely pear-shaped blob of stitched vinyl filled with polystyrene beads — the transparent prototype was partially inspired by piles of snow — molded to the body of the sitter and encouraged lounging of the highest order; the hard part was getting out of it. Now that we better understand the environmental impact of polystyrene, the Italian furniture company Zanotta, which has produced the piece from the start and continues to call it the “anatomical easy-chair,” has experimented with a version stuffed with bioplastic derived from sugar cane. — Kate Guadagnino

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