Why You Need a Butterfly Chair
Call it the butterfly effect of modern design. The Butterfly chair has grown so popular that you could say this seat is an equal force of design. Nest Casa takes a look at this beloved chair’s journey from concept to classic.
The Butterfly Chair and La Tripolina
To understand the Butterfly chair, you must first acquaint yourself with the La Tripolina chair. In the late 19th century, an Englishman, Joseph Fenby, invented a wooden and Italian leather folding chair that was used for camping. Its original name in the 1880s was the Paragon chair and rechristened the Tripolina when before WWII it was manufactured in Tripoli, Libya. The humble chairs predated the folding aluminum and nylon strip chairs that soon eclipsed them as a camping or beach chair. However modest the Tripolina chair was, everyone enjoyed it, including Presidents and famous inventors such as Warren Harding, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison.
The History of the Butterfly Chair
This functional chair would be rechristened once more in 1938 when it became the first modern Butterfly chair. In 1938, three architects in Argentina—Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan, and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy—worked with Le Corbusier studio and formed the architectural collective Grupo Austral in Buenos Aires. It’s pertinent to point out the design scene was booming in late 1938 in this city known as the Paris of South America.
Specifically, the BKF Chair (the initials of the architects who created it), or Hardoy chair, was developed as a component of an apartment building the group designed in the capital city. The chair helped to set the building’s aesthetic mood they wished to convey, and existing furniture on the market didn’t suffice. Unlike the Tripolina, the BKF chair was made from a stationary metal frame with a large leather seat slung from the highest points and held in place by the lowest. The seat is affixed over four rounded steel rods with leather flaps that sip over the frame. While this chair was painted black with a fixed frame and leather seat, over time, variations evolved.
The Butterfly Chair Arrives in the US
Interestingly, only three armchairs were made by the trio. More curious is how they ended up in famous locations in the United States. In March of 1940, the chairs appeared in a trade publication called Retailing Daily captioned as a "newly invented Argentine easy-chair . . . for siesta sitting.” It also became an award-winning chair when the National Cultural Commission’s Salón de Artistas Decoradores exhibition in Argentina bestowed second place on the chair.
These two events caught the attention of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then-director of MoMA, Edgar Kauffman Jr., was intrigued and asked the designers to bequeath the chairs to the museum. Today, one chair still rests in MoMA while another resides in Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, which Kauffman owned. The third is believed to have ended up with Clifford Pascoe of Artek-Pascoe, a contemporary furniture design firm of the era who would determine its popularity.
How the Style Evolved Over Time
Artek-Pascoe’s chair went into production in New York, though slowly due to wartime shortages of metal. It’s here that the chair started to lose provenance as BKF had no control over rights—with Argentina so distant, it was harder to claim ownerships, especially if the patents weren’t filed when arriving in the States.
This explains why, in 1947, after Hans Knoll acquired the production rights, he later couldn’t fight legal cases when reproductions started popping up. The Butterfly chair was considered a copy of La Tripolina, furthering the issue.
Naming Butterfly Chairs
Post-war, these chairs were seen everywhere. There was a nagging issue that these chairs were often uncomfortable. The reason may have been how the overall height of people increased in the 20th century. A Swedish entrepreneur named Lars Kjerstadius sought to rectify this. His improvements included making the chair 30 percent larger and filling out the seat to cover a larger area, supporting the body more. Kjerstadius called his version the Mariposa, aka butterfly in Spanish, dubbing his company Cuero Design which Kjerstadius’s son and daughter-in-law now run.
How to Style a Butterfly Chair
Butterfly chairs can easily fit any decor, whether that be traditional, modern, or bohemian. With seat covers in a choice of leather, canvas, suede, or even shearling fur, chairs are customized to any color or decor detail. As they make a great spot to read in, placing near a lamp or window to allow for light is recommended. For example, if placing just one Butterfly chair, an open corner best shows its impressive design. Conversely, a set of Butterfly chairs can rest side-by-side and face a sofa with a coffee table placed in between to create a relaxing conversation area.