Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.
What it is: The chair. Its metal body might be painted bright yellow, red, or pastel turquoise — often it’s left in its natural silver tone — but its sturdy, curved legs and indented back are unmistakable.
Where it is: Across the country, in airy coffee shops and dimly lit wine bars, at the local Pret a Manger and upscale Italian restaurants. You can buy a version for your home at Bob’s Discount Furniture or Urban Outfitters, among other retailers. Principally, though, this chair and its corresponding stool live in the public sphere as the seats of choice for all kinds of restaurants, bars, and cafes.
Why you’re seeing it everywhere: The chair is having a moment, definitely, but it’s deeply not new. The ones we see today are based on the Tolix “A Chair,” which the French designer Xavier Pauchard brought to market in 1934, according to the Tolix website. The company, bought out of bankruptcy in 2004, still sells the stackable style today.
The Vitra Design Museum in Germany says Pauchard’s galvanized steel chair was in fact a riff on an earlier design by another Frenchman, Joseph Mathieu, who created his stacking metal “Multipl’s” chair in the early 1920s. Design historian Charlotte Fiell, the co-author of several books on seating, says she’s seen other, similar chairs from that period and finds it impossible to say whether Mathieu’s version was the original.
“In those days and before, there wasn’t such strict design rights protection,” Fiell says. “If someone saw a chair that was doing well, they made their own homage to it or variant of it, so it’s pretty difficult to tell for sure who was the originator of it.”
It may not have been the first, but the Tolix has become the iconic version of the chair. More industrial and solid-looking than Mathieu’s, it is, in Fiell’s estimation, “a much more resolved design.”
The presence of the chair in restaurants today is consistent with its historical use. For the better part of a century, the style has been present in bistros and other public spaces.
“The metal chair was weatherproof, durable, and could be stored in small spaces,” reads the Vitra collection entry for Mathieu’s chair. “This meant that it was ideally suited to a wide range of applications and was especially useful for seating large numbers of people, such as in factories, auditoriums, sidewalk cafés, and parks in French spa towns.”
When modern-day restaurant owners talk about their reasons for buying Tolix-style chairs, they also focus on its functionality.
“They’re very simple, they’re stackable, they’re light,” says Adrian Bruyère, the co-owner of La Parisienne, a year-old cafe in lower Manhattan. “They’re very easy to maintain and clean.”
“I think we bought them because they’re kind of stylish, they’re relatively inexpensive, they are very easy to clean. They’re stackable, so they’re functional,” says Jordan Sachs, a partner at the V-Spot, a vegan restaurant with two locations in New York. “It sounds gross, but when you’re in New York City, sometimes wood things attract ...”
She trailed off: bugs, yes.
While a Tolix chair starts at nearly $300 from Design Within Reach, you can buy a similar seat for significantly less. (Bob’s Discount Furniture has sold them for as little as $20.) Bruyère says he got his white chairs on Amazon at $99 for a set of four, while Sachs estimates the cost at between $80 and $100 per chair.
This style of chair hasn’t gone out of fashion since its creation, per se, but it has experienced swells in popularity when its look has converged with bigger aesthetic trends. The 1970s brought about an “industrial heritage revival,” says Fiell, which in turn gave new life to the Tolix chair.
“Every self-respecting trendy cafe had one,” Fiell says of that period, which helped cement the chair’s current status as an iconic piece of design history.
Cut to 2019, same deal. The rise of the post-recession hipster industrial aesthetic — exposed brick, raw wood, etc. — has wrought another Tolix moment. It satisfies a variety of styles: While Sachs noted its “Brooklyn industrial appeal,” Bruyère, who is originally from the northwest of France, sought out the style for its French bistro connotations. The design team for El Cosmico hotel in Marfa, Texas, and Jo’s Coffee in Austin, both owned by Bunkhouse Group, deemed Design Within Reach’s Tolix chairs “the perfect fusion of West Texas and classic European metalwork.”
“El Cosmico and Jo’s both share a similar language of West Texas ranch, so we use material of that place in our design and construction — cedar, steel, aluminum … anything you’d actually find out there on the ranch,” explains a rep for Bunkhouse.
When I asked the Eater team for their thoughts on the style, which they’ve inevitably come across in their restaurant reporting, responses included “kind of like the chair version of the Edison bulb trend” and “I just anecdotally associate that look with gentrification.”
To capitalize on our thirst for all things industrial, furniture brands have jumped on the Tolix trend. Superior Seating, which caters specifically to the hospitality industry, started selling a version of it four or five years ago, currently priced at $53.95. It’s been “very, very popular,” says Superior Seating director of sales Jane Petrillo. Though the company accepts orders for custom colors, it focuses on selling the more classic bronze and distressed gray colorways due to space restrictions in its warehouse.
Bob’s Discount Furniture introduced a Tolix-style chair in 2017, which has “sold okay” relative to the rest of the “accent chair” category, vice president of merchandising Tracy Paccione writes in an email. (It’s no longer sold online, but is available in stores.) This may not be a game changer for Bob’s, which sells to individuals and not establishments like restaurants, but Paccione is well aware of how it dovetails with current tastes.
“It’s familiar and inviting with an industrial vibe for a retro-modern edge that’s on trend and very approachable,” she writes.
Despite its prevalence, this is not a perfect chair. “Ugly” and “not the prettiest” are descriptions that came up during the course of reporting this story. Fiell notes that cold metal isn’t especially inviting or comfortable (not necessarily a bad thing for restaurants that want to discourage customers from lingering). Both Petrillo and Bruyère mentioned that the chairs, which often have smaller seats, aren’t ideal for people of all sizes — one example of the ways design can send a message of exclusivity, intentionally or not.
Petrillo estimates the chair has another five years or so before it starts to dip in popularity; that’s assuming the industrial trend ever releases its iron grip on the design world. Should that day come, though, history suggests that the chair won’t disappear entirely.
Even during its less popular periods, Fiell says, “it’s always been there in the background.”