2001 Annual Design Review Furniture Best of Category

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ypsilon chair

“A system of skeleton and skin” was how Glassman described the willowy, almost insect-like Ypsilon chair, designed by Atelier Bellini for Vitra. “Lightness was clearly a metaphoric tool utilized in the design,” Glassman said.

Named for the simple y shape of its back, the chair maintains an airy elegance, given the sleek separation of its screen-like upholstery from the exoskeleton. “It’s a beautiful diagram that has become a beautiful chair,” Glassman observed, lauding the intentional exposure of the mechanical structuring. A translucent thermoplastic canvas, likened to cartilage, provides ample back and lumbar support without the need for bulky cushioning-although desk jockeys in need of an extra boost can specify an oval lumbar insert filled with the same transparent TechnoGel used in ski boots. The gel has a “memory” that reconforms to the shape of the lumbar area in different positions.

Noting the postmodern cultural blending of work, play and relaxation, the Bellinis sought to design a sinuous machine that could accommodate users of all shapes and sizes and float back to a nearly reclining position. Virtually all of the chair’s components are adjustable, from tilt tension to back height to seat depth to the lumbar curve. Armrests can slide up and down, forward and back, or drop down out of the way.

“It’s extremely difficult to make ergonomic furniture look visually exciting,” Dine said. “This has a strong synthesis of aesthetics and functionality. It has a long life ahead of it, and is probably going to give the Aeron chair competition in Europe.”

Here’s a design that utterly eliminates the superfluous. Were you going for the anti-chair? Rolf Fehlbaum: Marcel Breuer in 1926 arranged a sequence of images in the magazine Bauhaus to show the evolution of the chair. The final chair is one that doesn’t exist; the person is held in space by an airstream. This is the real challenge: a chair that disappears, or at least isn’t felt.

Where does Ypsilon draw on tradition and where does it break it?The seat is still linked to the traditional world of seating. It has to take the weight of the person and distribute it. The best solution for this task still is a comfortable, well-proportioned foam cushion in the right density. But the back of the seat has a different task. It’s just there to prevent the fatigue resulting from holding the upper part of the body in place. The back of the Ypsilon is closer to Breuer’s airstream than anything else in seating: a flexible sail spanning a y-shaped flexible mast. It supports the back while moving with the body freely. (Any back with a frame restricts the free movement of the body because hard areas are unconsciously avoided by the body.)

Some elements of the chair design were inspired by the wooden beaded mats used by cab drivers to foster ventilation. How does this chair breathe?The Ypsilon sail is textured with half balls that guarantee an airy contact between body and support. A woven net (or fabric cover, depending on specifications) forms another layer of breathing comfort.

client/company: Vitra International, Birsfelden, Switzerland: Rolf Fehlbaum consultant design: Atelier Bellini, Milan, Italy: Mario Bellini, principal; Claudio Bellini materials/fabrication: bthermoplastic canvas (or woven fabric) upholstery, TechnoGel lumbar support, translucent plastic castershardware/ software: Hewlett Packard Solid Designer, Matras Euclid Styler

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