That obscure object of desire: Steel rod furniture

B.K.F Chair by Austral Group, Buenos Aires c.1938

I don’t know what it is about steel rod furniture that I find so pleasing,
but it seems that during the 1950’s there was a global design trend that
involved the use of steel to produce countless homewares, lamps and furniture.
Overseas designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Alan Gould,
Harry Bertoia, Ernest Race, Robin Day and the Austral Group had
already made a splash on the design scene and it’s likely that some
Australian designers and members of the public were familiar with
these contemporary designs via the lifestyle/trade magazines of the period
such as Home Beautiful and Architecture and Arts.

Fler_shell chair
Fler Aluminium Shell chair c.1954

Steel furniture was modern, and really fit the design ethos of post-war design
whereby furniture was produced to have a light appearance which gave interior
space a less cluttered look and feel. In Australia, there are some great examples
of furniture made using steel rod, and it is perhaps the furniture of Clement Meadmore which is best known amongst collectors and post-war design enthusiasts. But Meadmore was not the only designer in Australia engaged in working with steel to produce design objects.

Roger Mc Lay’s Kone chair (1948) is an undisputed design icon. A cone of carefully pressed laminated plywood floating on slender steel rod legs.
A marriage of steel and timber resulting in a visually light and elegant design.
Also worth noting is the charming simplicity the steel chairs produced
by Fler during the 1950’s, such as the TVS chair (1957) or the unique construction
material and form of the incredibly rare Aluminium Shell chair (1954).

Screen shot 2013-02-18 at 4.00.03 PM
Raymond Wallis W-WP100 Lounge chair c.1958

One of my favourite chairs is a rare example of the innovative industrial
design practice of Australian painter Raymond Wallis who produced a
small collection of furniture during the 1950’s. The chair’s oversized
blondewood paddle arms, teamed with its sculptural tubular steel
construction strike the perfect balance, the result is a finely crafted
sitting machine that would be perfectly at home on a beachside verandah.

Ramler (1956) and Contempora (1955) advertisments.

Other Australian designers and companies offering interesting designs
in this modern medium include Ramler, Pandar and Contempora. Some
of the Ramler designs, such as the ‘corded magazine holder’ and the
‘standard lamp’, along with the corded chair and metal picture frame by
Contempora, are often mistaken for designs by Clement Meadmore.

Pandarfler_peoples chair
Panda (1956) and Fler (1956) advertisments

Steel rod furniture enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the 1950’s.
Companies keen to jump onto the design trend took inspiration from
overseas and each other. The ‘Calypso’ suite (1956) by Pandar (see above)
shares similarities with the ‘Peoples Chair’ (1956) designed and manufactured
by Fler, Melbourne. It was not uncommon for the home enthusiast to purchase
steel rod and weld his own D.I.Y modernist furniture in the back shed.

The award for the most unusual design would have to go to Gerard Doube for
his incredibly modern ‘Airframe’ lounge chair with air cushion. The strength of steel
juxtaposed with a whimsical lightweight cushion, what more could you want
in a chair.


The beauty of steel rod is that it can be bent to create a wide range
of interesting shapes, thus freeing designers to experiment with
new productions processes and the creation of new design forms.
The B.K.F Chair (1938), otherwise known as the ‘butterfly’ or
‘Hardoy’ chair is a perfect example of how steel can be used to create
fluid lines and a contemporary twist on the hammock. Metal can take
on a soft appearance, it can be visually light and durable, and most
importantly it can look beautiful too.


The Kone Chair: Form, function and sheer beauty.

The ‘Kone’ Chair by Roger McLay is undoubtedly one of the classic designs from the Australian post-war period. And what’s not to love about a single pre-cut sheet of plywood lovingly bent into a cone shape and delicately balanced on 4 japan-finished (black) steel rod legs.

The ‘Kone’ is in a class of its own, and not only is its design elegant and simple, it is also a wonderful example of how industrial designers made good use of the technical innovations brought about by the Second World War (1939-45). Advancements in glues and the laminating and/or bending of timber were fundamental in the production of war aircraft, but after the war industrial designers across the globe also saw the potential to exploit these advancements for the production of new and often radical furniture designs.

Charles and Ray Eames (U.S.) and Robin Day (U.K.) were quick to experiment with the new glues and processes, which enabled the mass production of chair designs which exploited such innovations. Take for example the floating wings of Robin Day’s 658 chair designed for the Festival of Britain in 1951 or the flowing curves of the Eames’ LCW chair.

658 Lounge Chair, 1951Walnut plywood, leather, brass
Design: Robin DayManufacturer: Hille

LCW (Lounge Chair Wood), 1945Moulded and bent birch-faced plywood,
Design: Charles and Ray EamesManufacturer: Herman Miller, US

It was also bent ply which gave Grant Featherston’s contour chairs their unique organic shape.
But I digress here and should get back to talking about the ‘Kone’ chair which has long been a favourite of mine. And as much as I love the simplicity of McLay’s design, it’s the story behind it’s early production and repurposing of surplus war materials that makes this chair so special.

According to the website ‘Designmatcher’:
“The final shape of Kone relies on the durable resiliency of an Australian-made coachwood plywood originally produced by the Roseberry Veneer Company, Sydney for the DeHaviland ‘Mosquito’ aircraft during the 1939-45 War. To assemble the chair, the plywood sheet is bent, lapped, then glued. Simple J-clips were first used to hold the cone-shaped seat to the 4-legged base; in 1948, the legs were finished off with a rubber crutch tip”.


The ‘Kone’ chair was available in two shapes, one a circular form and the other a more elongated version with steel or timber legs (see pic above). McLay also designed a ‘Kone’ table which is extremely rare as it is thought to have been produced in small quantities. Its worth noting that although the ‘Kone’ chair was originally made by the Roseberry Veneer Company, it was re-isuued by Descon in the early fifties and appears to have enjoyed a great deal of popularity. Descon issued a number of variations, including colour stains, upholstery, and even a version with a circular fluffy cover which was sold as ‘The Poodle Chair’ (see pic below). The chair was also later produced in the 1990’s by Norman + Quaine (often painted White) and by FY2K in the 2000’s.

What to consider when buying a ‘Kone’ chair

Plywood can become brittle and fragile with age, so when buying a ‘Kone’ chair’ always consider the condition and look for signs of de-lamination (layers of ply separating), splits, cracks and dodgy repairs. If the chair is missing J-clips which hold the seat in place, these can often be easily made by a professional. The most important thing is to know what your buying. If you are wanting an original 1950’s version, look for an original ‘Kone’ sticker on the back of the chair. And remember, provenance is everything, so ask the seller about the history of the piece you are buying so that you can ascertain when it was made.

If you want to know much more about McLay’s ‘Kone’ chair, then check out the fantastic article by Graeme Hindmarsh at the archived Modern/Postmodern website. There are also a few interesting facts about re-issues at the Homelife website. Continue reading