The Story of the Proust Chair

Alessandro Mendini, 2001

It started in 1976, when Francesco Binfaré and I had the idea to design a "Proust fabric" for Cassina. Together we went to visit the places of Marcel Proust's origins in order to gain stimulus for the project.
The thought was to develop an image of a surface and the shape of an object, starting from a literary point of view. After having read about and researched Proust's visual and material world, the idea came to me of designing a possible armchair of his, much in the same way I had imagined the "Giotto Chair" and the "Cézanne Table". In this case, I made references to Proust's descriptions of place and time on one hand, and the impressionist movement in painting on the other. I found an appropriate ready-made in the replica of an eighteenth century armchair, and chose a detail from a Signac painting for the pattern that covers the whole armchair, from its fabric to the wooden parts, desolving its shape into a kind of nebula. Besides the idea of obtaining a piece of design based on imput that is unusual in a normal design process, I also wanted to reach a different type of result, i.e. to make a culturally grounded object based on a false one, seeing that the redesign in this case has been performed on a piece of kitsch, a fake-antique armchair that is still being mass-poduced today. There was also the potential of a more generalized and vast working hypothesis that I later worked on in my "Interno di un interno" installation at the Dilmos gallery in Milan. For this project I elaborated on pointillistic patterns in order to create objects, architecture and paintings that are made up of particles and look unreal, almost like mirages that would be appropriate for some kind of meditative and immaterial surroundings.
The first "Poltrona di Proust" was made in 1978 as one of the elements for my "Sala del Secolo" ("Room of the Century"), which also included pieces constructed by Alchimia. The exhibition "Incontri ravvicinati di architettura" was held in Ferrara, in the Palazzo dei Diamanti, with Andrea Branzi and Ettore Sottsass Jr. Later that year, the room was brought to the Biennial of Venice. I bought the unfinished chair in Veneto and had it decorated by hand by Prospero Rasulo and Pier Antonio Volpini.
Purchased by Cinzia Ruggeri from Alchimia, this first armchair is now part of Guido Antonello's collection in Milan. After the first piece, the chair was included in the first  Alchimia Bau-Haus catalogue (1979). Soon Franco Migliaccio was hand-decorating the unfinished wood and white canvas of the chairs then bought in Lombardy using acrylic paints on a fabric paint base. From then until 1987 Alchimia made a certain number of the armchairs, but I am not sure how many, maybe fifteen, but possibly thirty or more - I did not keep track. The idea was, and still is, to keep making them without ever numbering them, but marking them with the date. From time to time I personally signed some of them on the wooden structure next to the front legs.
Alchimia sold them to different places at different prices, of which I am not sure either. I know that one is in Gent, Belgium at the Museum for Applied Arts, one is in the Groninger Museum in The Netherlands, one in the Kunstmuseum of Dusseldorf-im-Ehrenhof, one in the Vitra Design Museum of Weil-am-Rhein, one was bought by Sidney Lewis, an American art collector. The armchair was also bought by different art galleries, such as Rocca 6, Turin; Paola and Rossellla Colombari, Milan; Yves Gastou, Paris; Art & Industry, New York; Grace Design, Dallas; Kaess-Weiss, Stuttgart; and was presented at the Gallery Made In of Dusseldorf; in the Seibu department store of Tokyo; and on many other occasions.
In 1980 there was an exhibition in Florence called "Poltrona di Proust" at "Memorie e Luoghi del XX Secolo", showing the preparatory drawings and collages of the object as well as the fabric. I think I still have a series of sketches from those days in my house in the country. In 1981, with Alchimia, I designed  the installation "Robot sentimentale" for MIM, which was held in the Milan showroom. On that occasion three chairs were custom made. In 1984, Zabro (an Alchimia-Zanotta collaboration) made a few of the Proust chairs following my instructions, lacquered in faux bronze, with light and dark variants. At the beginning of 1988, I agreed with Alchimia that they would stop producing the chairs. I saw that without my personal supervision the chairs suffered excessive transformations of the general pattern, of the single brushstrokes and of the colors. Any possible armchairs made in Italy or abroad that look wrong, especially ones made after 1988, are to be considered fake.
In 1989 I took direct responsability for the production of the chair and made three new experimental chairs with Migliaccio and Dilmos. Two others (of which one was yellow and black) were made in the beginning of 1991, along with a long couch for "Interno di un interno". For this installation there was also a bronze version (made by Fonderia Artistica Corti) and a ceramic version (made by Paolo Bertozzi and Stefano Casoni), now property of the Groninger Museum. In October 2000 there will be 12 more ceramic chairs made (a total of 9, plus 4 proofs). For the installation many pieces of furniture, objects and fabrics were covered with pointillistic patterns.
Today, the "Proust Chairs" are still being made - only in my studio - and some are variants. Each chair is made under my direct supervision, signed and authenticated by a certificate.
A custom made Proust chair was made in 1999 for a Bob Wilson play (property of Bob Wilson), one was made in 1998. with a camouflage pattern for the Ecomimetico collection and one was made for the play entitled “La Lupa” held at the Franco Parenti theatre in Milan, one was named "Poltrona di Mozart" and made for a musical performance. These latest armchairs were decorated by Claudia Mendini.
The Cappellini company has a Poltrona di Proust in its catalogue since 1994, made with a printed cotton fabric.
Small versions of the armchair also exist in ceramics (multicolored, white and gold), and distributed by Vitra. In 2000, for the exhibition in Bonn called "Immagini dentro di me", about thirty small pointillistic objects were made. I have also used the pointillistic pattern in architecture on plastic laminate, and in mosaic. There is also a Swatch I designed with this pattern, called "Lots of Dots" (1992).