Here’s an oldie but goodie by a man who was a dead ringer for Sigmund Freud: the 3 legged chair by Hendrik Petrus Berlage was, like Freud, definitely ahead of its time. Inspiration for a number of modern and contemporary designers including Walter Papst and Droog’s Richard Hutten, the piece was recently on display as part of the 75 year anniversary of the Gemeentemuseum (designed by Architect Berlage) at the Hague. But back to Freud. Like that great thinker’s theories of the unconscious—Berlage’s chair begs for a deconstructive approach. The piece dallies in some perspectival gamesmanship: seen from the front, the chair back seems out of all proportion with the seat and legs; but when one looks at it from behind, the back fairly towers over the diminutive seat. Likewise in regards to its triangular construction—this tri-partite execution gives it a slightly unsettling feel. As the eye zips around each of the three sets of three points that constitute base, seat, and back, the mind experiences a slightly dizzying effect, as if, somehow, the chair never ends.
Three-Legged Chair. Designed by Hendrik Petrus Berlage.
Turn-of-the-Century Innovation from the Father of Dutch Modernism
Berlage’s 3 legged effort might seem a departure from the bulk of his life’s work. The architect and designer is widely known for bridging the gap between the Traditionalists and the Modernists, principally because he was among the first to reject the notion of decoration for decoration’s sake. He preferred—as did van der Rohe and Le Corbusier—to let the functional elements speak their own aesthetic lexicon. Thus, buildings like the Amsterdam Commodities Exchange showcase the unembellished beauty of pure materials like brick and steel.
It is said that Berlage held the same strictures in regards to the furniture he designed for his interiors, believing that they should employ materials “as they actually are,” rather than attempting to conceal structure. In view of this position, the 3 legged chair might seem anomalous because in some ways it lacks the balanced geometry of his architecture. Yet it remains a fine display of this ambitious designer’s synthesis of form and function. Its unorthodox conception might make it appear unsettling, but its palpable materiality, solid construction, and absence of embellishment make it signature Berlage.