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A Brief History of the Beanbag Chair

A Brief History of the Beanbag Chair

As the Earth trembled with social and political change fifty years ago, every aspect of the status quo seemed to be up for modification in Italy, including chairs. Pierre Restany, an art critic, described in an essay for the book “Zanotta: Design For Passion” in 1986 that people did not come back from assembly meetings or protest gatherings to sit firmly on a Louis XIV armchair. The bourgeoisie’s rigid sitting was being phased out in favor or radical innovation: ergonomics.

In the midst of what is now known as Italian Radical Design, three young visionaries – Cesare Paolini, Franco Teodoro, and Piero Gatti – developed an idea for a chair that could adapt to various physical structures and settings. They envisioned a snowdrift or a pool of water, both of which might shift shape in reaction to the human body.

Other Italians at the time had been thinking along the same lines, but with little success, as Gatti in a 1988 interview. Water beds were available back then, but they were excessively firm. There was a series of inflatables known as “pneus,” which meant “tires” in French, but the air generated a feel of stiffness that was never entirely comfortable. Then there came Gufram’s polyurethane foam, which was then popularized, but its response to the positioning of a human’s body was lacking.

In the end, Gatti, Paolini, and Teodoro were inspired by peasant mattresses packed with chestnut leaves. When you take a sack, load it with leaves or other similar materials, and it can mold itself to match a person’s body.

They reasoned that something tiny and spherical, such as balls or marbles, would act like a semi-fluid, conforming itself to the body. Buckshot appealed to them, but the lead was simply too heavy. Ping-pong balls were also prohibitively costly. Finally, they came upon a construction material: foam polystyrene, which is utilized for heat and sound insulation. They then ripped open an envelope and put the ball fillers into a vinyl bag (the initial samples were see-through): they were almost there.

They only just finished perfecting the prototype when they got a call from Macy’s. The American department retailer then wish to make a 10,000-piece order. The main problem was not inventing the chair, but mainly in finding a manufacturer willing enough to make them. Gatti was surprised by the request, and they speculated that Zanotta may have been the only one capable of carrying it out. Sure enough, their intuitions were correct.

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Aurelio Zanotta immediately had ten prototypes produced within 30 minutes of hearing their pitch. He then saw the potential right away and, with his trademark bravado and foresight, he brought to the market a product that was so far outside the box that would quickly become an uncontested design classic.

And the rest was history. The order was then delivered to Macy’s, and in January 1969, the Sacco – or better known now as the beanbag chair – made its official debut at the Paris Furniture Fair and has then brought comfort to many individuals around the globe.

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