The Butterfly Chair
Now a staple in dorm rooms and apartments, the Butterfly Chair hatched from its chrysalis nearly 100 years ago
Many of us have seen some version of the Butterfly chair over the years. The low, leather-and-iron chair is easy to move, easy to clean, and comfortable—until you try to rise out of it. Since you need to be agile to get in and out of it, copies of the chair have often appeared in college dorm rooms over the years. So where did the design come from? It all started in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1938 with a group of architects who previously worked at Le Corbusier’s studio: Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan, and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy. They formed the architectural collective Grupo Austral and designed the BFK (first letter of each of their last names) chair together for an apartment building in Buenos Aires.
The chair went on to be entered in a local design show. It was recognized at the show by Edgar Kaufmann Jr., who was the director of MoMA’s (Museum of Modern Art) Industrial Design Department in New York. Kaufmann predicted that this inexpensive chair would be a success back in the United States and sent three chairs back to the States. The first went to Fallingwater, Edgar Kaufmann Jr.’s home in Pennsylvania (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright); another went to MoMA; and the third, although unconfirmed, most likely went Clifford Pascoe of Artek-Pascoe in New York. In the early 1940s the chair was produced by Artek-Pascoe, although production was slow due to wartime shortages of metal. In 1947 Hans Knoll, who owned Knoll furniture along with his wife Florence Knoll, recognized the piece’s commercial potential and added it to the Knoll line. By Knoll’s estimate, more than five million copies were produced in the 1950s.
The design went against the modern hard-edged machine aesthetic popular in the 1930s; it also diverged from seating that supported proper posture since the sitter had to slouch. The problem was that the chair, being popular, was copied by various companies. Knoll unsuccessfully pursued legal action against unauthorized copies, which continue to be produced to this day. As for the original designers, they never saw much income from their idea: “We have received, in two years, the miserable sum of $11.37,” said Jorge Ferrari Hardoy two years after the chair went into production. Today the Swedish furniture brand Cuero manufactures new Butterfly chairs, but vintage models can be purchased on the secondary market.