The collector: Tom Giannini, Architect, London (UK)
The collection: Miniature Chairs
The story behind the collection...
Years ago (around 1996) I visited an old school friend in LA who had an amazing Tonka truck collection. I thought to myself then that it would be fun to have a collection of my own and in the back of mind I was thinking of the Vitra miniatures. Vitra had only started the Miniatures Collection four years earlier and I thought that might make for a good collection. It’s fun to have a miniature of something that I have owned or do own. The miniature chairs really strike a cord with me.
Dining room display
I think the key word for me is miniature (rather than model). Whether it is the Queen’s dollhouse collection, or Legoland, or miniature chairs, if it is a perfect likeness in miniature, it captures my imagination.
As a boy I was an avid Lego builder. I can remember visiting my grandparents in Florida in 1959 (I was five) and taking my Lego blocks with me and entertaining myself the entire holiday building houses and furniture. I knew from a very early age that I was going to be an architect. As a young boy I played in the back garden for hours on end with my Lego bricks, my Tonka trucks and my Matchbox cars and let my imagination run wild.
Growing up in 1950/60s Los Angeles I was influenced (by osmosis) by the “optimistic” designs of Eames/Neutra/Lautner and their disciples. Later, I attended Arizona State University in Phoenix and was massively influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, where his school Taliesin West is located. He designed 25 buildings in California and 12 in Arizona and I visited everyone of them. Since moving to England I have come to appreciate the machined look of the Bauhaus designs, but I will always lean towards the more organic designs of Southern California. I have seven Frank Lloyd Wright chairs and 41 Eames chairs in my collection.
Coray Landistuhl and Risom No 654 miniature chairs
Patrick Jouen C1 and C2 miniatures chairs
New technology and new materials influences chair design. The trend now seems to be using recycled materials – recycled wood; recycled iron and rubber; recycled felt; recycled cork; recycled plastic “Coke” bottles. CAD is also influencing chair design - as a tool to help designers visualise their product and later to sell their designs to the client. It speeds up the process. French architect Patrick Jouen designed a series of very interesting chairs using CAD that would not have been possible to design 50 or 60 years ago. Architecturally, our practice relies on CAD for 3-D modelling. I don’t think it is a bad thing (or cheating).
Miniature chairs by Eames, Wright, Aalto, Herbst, Jacobsen, Bätzner, Gehry, Wanders & Dubriel
Most of the great 20th Century classic chairs were designed by architects to complement their projects. Sadly, now most chairs are designed by furniture designers for manufacturers.
Many people have encouraged me to design my own chairs but I have never been interested. My original goal was to have the best miniature chair collection in England, which I am pretty sure I accomplished years ago. There are still so many miniature chairs to add to the collection that I suppose there are still ten miniatures from the current Vitra collection to buy (I usually buy one a month but have been side tracked the last few months). I will continue for the time being, although I am out of shelf space, as I will always need another fix.
There is a miniature chair collector named George Beylerian and his collection is made up of “arts and crafts” miniatures. He has several beautiful pre-modernist chairs in his collection but to collect those would really take my collection in a different direction. At the moment, I just buy what I like. However Vitra do make a few pre-modernist designs. I have a 7-8 Post Modern pieces in my collection but it’s really not my thing. I think I am probably the wrong era to really appreciate them. I have miniatures of some of the pieces that Dennis Zanone has full-scale in his collection.
Prototype Thonet no.18, Shaker Ladder-back and prototype Hofman miniature chairs
At last count my collection totalled 265. My luckiest find was meeting Dirk Dowald, who has the premier miniature chair collection in Europe. He lives in Germany, which is the hub of miniature chairs. Through his connections, he has helped me find very rare chairs for my collection. Recently, I received a message on my blog from Max Melerski, whose father Mirek Melerski started Vitra’s Miniature Workshop in Poland. As a result, I bought 25 rare special editions and prototype miniatures from Mr Melerski’s collection in November 2011. I have subsequently bought another 27 rare miniatures from him this month.
Ptototype Maple and dark Yanagi Butterfly, Noguchi short and tall rocking and Morrison cork miniature stools
My collection is a great talking point with clients, vendors, friends and other architects. It’s fascinating because someone will see the collection and look at the chairs and then the next time I see them they will say “I saw the full-scale version of that chair” or “I saw a miniature chair and I thought of you”.
The miniature chairs are exquisitely made and really a joy to behold. I have seen a video on the making of miniature chairs and it is fascinating to see the “tricks of the trade”.
In the 1980s, when I was living in Houston, TX, we were hired to design a furniture showroom for Haworth. As part of the assignment we flew to Haworth’s plant in Holland Michigan. I have also been to Knoll’s plant just outside of Milan, and Vitra in Weil Am Rhein of course too.
Prototype Rossi Parigi chair and Maly Zyklus miniature chairs
Most of the chair designers represented in Vitra’s Miniature Collection are no longer living. In the mid 1980s, I did two architectural projects with Florence Knoll, which was an amazing opportunity. I have had e-mail correspondence with Gregg Fleishman (an American from LA), a chair designer whose miniature chair I bought from the Melerski Collection. The cork base for the miniature cork stools by Jasper Morrison are signed on the back.
Wewerka Bi chair, Venturi Queen Anne chair and prototype Stam S34 armchair
Recently I attended the exhibit of British Design from 1948 to 2012 (from Olympics to Olympics). It was very interesting because the first two halls were dedicated to British design in the 1950s to 1980s. The last hall covered 1990s to the 2012 Olympics. There was a section devoted to design associated with the Olympics (graphics, buildings, logos etc). I left the exhibition feeling that most of the work in that hall wouldn’t stand the test of time, while I felt that most of the work in the first two halls had. I think it’s necessary to have some distance and perspective on design before putting it in a museum. I believe Vitra have a policy to wait at least ten years before adding a piece to their Collection.
Having said that, I think some of Ron Arad’s work for Moroso is worthy of a miniature – especially the Victoria and Albert Collection; Konstantin Grcic’s Chair One; perhaps Tom Dixon’s Pylon chair and the Tip Ton chair by Barber Osgerby.
Harry Bertoia's Diamond chair, Kuramata's How High the Moon armchair and Jasper Morrison's Thinking Man's miniature chair
I research every chair I buy so I understand the design rationale. Obviously I am much more knowledgeable about furniture now than I was before I started collecting miniature chairs. It has really influenced what we propose for our projects, which then influences the architecture too.
Visit Tom's Miniature Chair Man website here
All images © Tom Giannini and used with kind permission.