Back in the fifties the standard requirement from most design firms was for new designer employees to sign away all patentable rights for a dollar.
Refuse to sign, as David Rowland chose to do, and you would be frozen out of the job.
Since a chair takes at least six months to build, the costs were tough on anyone going it alone, so producers had designers over a barrel.
Suffer the financial consequences in design Siberia, or sign away your rights to your best graduation ideas.
After serving as a pilot in the United States Air Force in the Second World War, where he made twenty-two combat missions over Nazi occupied territory while stationed in England.
Rowland, a lifelong Christian Scientist with a motto ‘do the most with the least’ came up with his guest chair.
‘At that time, there were beastly uncomfortable seats in the cockpits of the planes we flew. And during the many campaigns I was on, some lasting up to twelve hours, I promised myself that if I survived I would dedicate my life to the creation of comfortable and ergonomically correct seating’.
‘Once the war was over, I started my own peaceful mission. After years of research, sketches and prototypes, I finally had the light, strong and super-ergonomic chair, which is now known around the world as the stacking chair 40/4.’
At first none of the architectural practices he approached would make concessions for this Cranbrook Academy student who kick-started his love of design on a summer course in basic Bauhaus design with Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy at the tender age of sixteen.
But he eventually found an industrial engineer who didn’t need him to sign away his rights, Norman Bel Geddes. While he created architectural renderings for the theatrical and industrial designer, he honed and perfected the wafer-thin stackable chair with its sculpted ply seat and back, until it was not only ergonomically correct and beautiful to look at from every angle, but could also be stacked up to forty chairs high in the space of 4 feet in a very short amount of time,hence the name.
Following rejection after rejection from people who remained unconvinced that such a lightweight chair would hold out, a friend got him an interview with Davis Allen, one of the senior designers in the interiors section of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Unbeknown to Rowland or his friend, this respected architectural firm in New York had won a commission for a university campus in Chicago that needed 17,000 chairs.
Allen put Rowland on to General Fireproofing Co. in Youngstown, Ohio, and they signed a fair licence agreement which would see the manufacturer invest money and engineering talent into the creation of the 40/4 in both plywood and steel and plastic and steel.
After years of rebuffs, the chair became an overnight sensation in the US and abroad. It snapped up the Grand Prix at the Milan Triennale in 1964, a Gold Medal for Furniture from the Austrian government, and the American Institute of Interior Designers First Prize.
Everyone wanted the 40/4, from the Pompidou Centre to St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where it was used for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
It is still the go-to stacking chair for large interior events, museums and cultural centres around the world.
Unsurpassed in terms of engineering, the chair has been in continuous production since Skidmore, Owings & Merrill first took the plunge, selling millions around the world over five decades.
Now produced by Howe, the 40/4 chair family expanded before Rowland’s death in 2010 to include an outdoor chair, armchair, lounge chair, bar stool, counter chair and chair with a swivel base. Long may this king of stackers reign.