The Hardoy chair, also known as the sling or butterfly chair, owes much of its renown as a midcentury Modernist icon to the perspicacious eye of a Rust Belt department-store scion, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. In 1940, three Argentine architects (members of an association known as Grupo Austral) presented the chair at a Buenos Aires exhibition. The design so impressed Kaufmann, then an industrial-design curator for the Museum of Modern Art, that he promptly imported one for his parents’ new weekend house, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. He imported another for the museum too.
The Hardoy design (named after the Grupo Austral member Jorge Ferrari Hardoy), however, was not entirely original. The butterfly drew upon the Tripolina chair, patented by Joseph Beverly Fenby, a British engineer, in 1877. The chair subsequently became a battlefield favorite because it was wooden and, crucially, it folded. And Fenby himself most likely drew on chairs from former eras, too. “I’m sure the Hardoy is hundreds of years old,” says Bruce Hannah, a chair designer and professor of industrial design at Pratt Institute.
Even so, when Knoll acquired the U.S. production rights in 1947, a phenomenon was born. The chair’s metal base and sack seat represented a rejection of what MoMA’s current design curator Juliet Kinchin calls “the hard-edged kind of machine aesthetic of modernism in the 1930s.” The Hardoy was also a rejection of good posture and formal clothing. “It’s an impossibly improper chair,” Hannah says. “Women have to have pants on to sit in it.” Young families bought it in droves. By Knoll’s estimate, more than five million copies were produced in the 1950s.
Appreciated by connoisseurs, hipsters and students alike, the butterfly also presaged the disposable-furniture onslaught a half-century later. “It appeared at a moment when there was such a demand for cheap furniture, but furniture that identified with a new aesthetic,” Kinchin says. “You’ve got this burst of color and fun really coming into midcentury modern interiors.” Today MoMA holds a Hardoy in its permanent collection, and Walmart sells one for $39. Somehow it all makes sense.“It’s so minimal,” Dror Benshetrit, designer of the well-regarded Peacock Chair, says of its high-low appeal. “It’s so effortless.”
Joe Cahn, self-proclaimed commissioner of tailgating and butterfly-chair enthusiast, has traveled to more than 850 events. Here, he reflects on the glory of the parking lot.
How do you select a butterfly chair?
First, I look at the sturdiness — the ones that [can support] at least 250 to 300 pounds. I’m going to buy ones that have a cupholder, the ones that have mesh rather than a solid fabric. In the rain, the solid fabric will just collect a pool, which is unpleasant to sit in.
Do you have any advice for tailgating?
If we’re sitting in our chairs, we’ve got to balance a plate on our laps. Trying to cut on that plate becomes a little difficult. If we’re going to do steak, my advice is kebabs.
By HILARY GREENBAUM and DANA RUBINSTEIN (New York Times)