Architect, designer, sculptor, painter, graphic designer: all were titles applied to the prolific creative spirit Gunnar Aagaard Andersen during his lifetime. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 1946, Aagaard Andersen’s approach involved a deep and thorough knowledge of materials and their behaviour, the fullest use of which should be the aim and responsibility of an artist, he later claimed (Gunnar Aagaard Andersen, ‘Furniture Reconsidered’,Mobilia, 1980, no. 296-97). An active exponent of the Parisian Art Concrete movement, which he joined in 1951, materiality and its potential was a central fascination which he revisited throughout his entire career, and later in his teachings at the Academy between 1972 and 1981. Indeed, his multidisciplinary, subversive and experimental attitude towards design served to distinguish him from his contemporaries, in an almost provocative way.
Arguably his most celebrated work, Portrait of My Mother’s Chesterfield was first conceived in 1963 when Aagaard Andersen was invited by the Designmuseum Denmark, Copenhagen, to participate in the upcoming ‘Reality’ exhibition. For the project Andersen chose to explore the potential of plastic — specifically the capacities of polyurethane foam to create useable furniture without the need for a mould or any type of inner structural frame — a ground-breaking concept. Using the facilities and experience of Dansk Polyether Industri, Aagaard Andersen’s experiments evolved a method of production whereby the polyurethane was poured directly on the floor and, after letting the foam expand, repeatedly built up layers of foam until the chair reached his desired size and volume. The expansion of the foam after being poured could not be controlled, a feature Aagaard Andersen fully embraced, and so the very few armchairs produced each have unique variations of scale, surface and personality.
The production of the chairs lasted only a short time, initially using pure white foam and then white foam which he then spray-painted black, before the designer further explored production possibilities by using pre-tinted black liquid polyurethane. For the 1965 exhibition Aagaard Andersen submitted two white foam armchairs and a sofa. The current lot is an early example produced using the initial experimental spray-painted method. Of the eleven armchairs and two sofas Aagaard Andersen made, one sofa was destroyed shortly after manufacture. Of the armchairs, seven are now in major international museum and institution collections. The present work was one of two armchairs retained by the designer, one which was used daily, whereas the current lot was deliberately stored unused by the designer in his private collection.
Portrait of My Mother’s Chesterfield created a significant amount of international interest. Due to the complex and involved production method, the design never attained mass-production and the overwhelming majority of the few examples eventually produced are now preserved in museum collections, underlining the rarity of the present lot now offered at auction. With tremendous foresight, an example of the armchair was acquired in 1966 by The Museum of Modern Art in New York under the aegis of Arthur Drexler, Director of its Department of Architecture and Design. An enthusiastic supporter of Aagaard Andersen, Drexler made repeated remarks on the importance of this particular work in relation to the progression of design and its place in design history. Under his direction MoMA had been expanding its collection on the basis of two criteria: quality and historical significance. Portrait of My Mother’s Chesterfield was repeatedly included in several of their exhibitions, includingThe Design Collection: Selected Objects of 1970, and was celebrated as one of the most significant purchases of the era the Department of Architecture and Design had secured.
Whilst clearly part of the Pop Art movement, with Portrait of My Mother’s Chesterfield Aagaard Andersen deliberately set out to blur all boundaries between design, art and sculpture. Despite its uncategorisable personality, the form remains a comfortable and functional armchair, whose name harkens back to the reassuringly traditional deep-buttoned leather Chesterfield settees of earlier generations. The familiar reassurances offered by the work’s title are challenged by the actual piece itself, with its volcanic impact, seemingly the product of a natural extrusion, created without the need of a designer – an inference delighted in by Aagard Andersen and noted by Drexler who called it an ‘Anti-Object’. The onlooker is again subverted when the piece is touched or sat on, with the visual impression of being hard and immovable countermanded by the inferred pliability of the use foam, and again further by its reality, having a resilience and tactility which is unexpected. Its sensory impact is as powerful today as it was in 1964.