When a chair is ‘super normal’

The story of a Vitra Original

The APC (All Plastic Chair) is an unassuming, well-proportioned chair that appears instantly familiar, as if it has been around forever. According to the British designer Jasper Morrison, who designed it together with Vitra, this very trait is its defining quality.

In 1988 Morrison presented his design principles in two exhibitions: ‘Some New Items for the Home, Part I’ at the DAAD gallery in Berlin, and one year later ‘Some New Items for the Home, Part II’, staged by Vitra at Galleria Fac-Simile in Milan. The goal was to create furnishings for these installations that would not merely be an assemblage of individual objects, but would evoke a certain atmosphere. In so doing, he sought to understand what lends character to a room and what does not ­ and to avoid designing things that might attract attention, but would not work in the intended context.
‘The products are making the atmosphere. I think that’s an important part of the job, to make a good atmosphere. Otherwise, we’re just messing it up.’
Jasper Morrison
The installation at the DAAD gallery was fabricated almost exclusively from plywood: using rough sheets on the walls and on the floor with layered, slightly curved and smoothed elements for the table and chairs. His Ply Chair was designed with the limited tools and materials available to him in Berlin – an electric jigsaw and several curve templates.

Soon thereafter, Vitra encouraged the designer to develop the Ply Chair for mass production. The chair distilled Morrison’s design approach in a product that resembles a sketch. His guiding principle of producing articles of daily life for everyone was expressed in his publications ‘Utilism, The Unimportance of Form’ and in 2007 in ‘Super Normal – Sensations of the Ordinary’.
Exploded view of "Ply Chair" by Jasper Morrison, 1988
Jasper Morrison
‘Super normal’ is not a design formula for Morrison: ‘It’s more of a long-term discovery of the quality of an object, which goes beyond the initial judgement and basic assessment that we make of things when we first notice them. Super Normal may belong more to everyday life than it does to design. Form is unimportant besides all the other issues involved. Super Normal has been around since the first clay pot, but no one had given it a name... The most successful objects, the ones which perform best, do so not because they look beautiful or valuable but because they have the essential code of being good at what they are, a good corkscrew, a good chair, a good pair of shoes.’

This same thinking shaped the development of the APC. The APC does not come across as radically new, yet at the same time it is unlike any other chair. It combines the accumulated knowledge of an experienced designer and the expertise of Vitra, but looks utterly familiar, as though it has always been around. In other words, echoing Jasper Morrison’s design approach: like a good chair.
Morrison’s exploration of this type of chair was partially inspired by Café Einstein Stammhaus in Berlin, located on the ground floor of the building in the Schöneberg district where one of the above-mentioned exhibitions, ‘Some New Items for the Home, Part I’, took place. Here guests sit on classic wooden café chairs, of the sort widely found throughout many countries in Europe - such as the Frankfurt Chair in Germany and the Sedia Milano, along with numerous other variations in Switzerland and Austria.
‘It’s in observing all the things that have happened before and trying to summarise all that history in an object that still looks fresh.’
Jasper Morrison
Jasper Morrison first investigated this chair type in 2008 when he joined with Vitra to create the Basel Chair. The goal was to preserve the spirit and basic shape of this typology while simultaneously improving on the chair’s functional properties. He fulfilled this aim with a decisive innovation – by producing the seat and backrest of the wood chair in plastic. Compared to all-wooden chairs, this combination of materials allows for a more pronounced organic shape, enhanced comfort and a fresh colour scheme.

The 2016 launch of the APC was driven by the same challenge as the Basel Chair: is it possible to further renew the café chair genre? Morrison: ‘Things don‘t need to be new so much as they need to be better.’ The APC took this next step with an innovative material: manufactured entirely out of plastic, it represents a major breakthrough in performance and appearance. Its seat geometry, the resilient plastic components and the construction of the backrest, which is connected to the frame by twin shafts cushioned with rubber buffers, provide flexible movement and comfort. Recyclable polypropylene is used for the frame as well as for the seat and backrest, but in two different material compositions, which is visually expressed in the nuanced colour tones of the different components.
The APC takes the form of a café chair, but – in keeping with the aims of its designer – is not merely a new version but one that has been carefully refined and improved.

Publication Date: 16.04.2018
Images: Marc Eggimann, Elena Mahugo, Jasper Morrison

Vitra originals and their stories in the Vitra Magazine

Invest in an original, for it will always retain its worth. An imitation will never be anything but a copy, a stolen idea. Appreciate the differences – not just the quality and more obvious variances but also the sensory and emotional appeal of the authentic product. An original is a lifelong companion and may well outlive you to be gratefully received by the next generation. But that’s a story for the future.