Revered designer Peter Ghyczy — and his legendary Cold War "Egg" chair — gets a solo exhibition at the Brussels Design Museum that celebrates function over form.
Peter Ghyczy never thought he would become a furniture designer, let alone one famous for creating a trendy design icon. Resembling a futuristic clam shell — or perhaps a UFO — the Garden Egg Chair has been the most publically lauded creation of the 77-year-old designer's career.
Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, the chair will appear as part of a special exhibition "Peter Ghyczy: 50 Years of Functionalism,” opening February 7 at the ADAM-Brussels Design Museum. But as the exhibition shows, the iconic Egg chair is only part of the reason the German-trained furniture designer left his mark on late 20th century design.
Drawing on Germany's rich design heritage
The early 20th century was an eventful time in German design history, beginning with the founding of the German Werkbund in 1907 by a collective of artists, designers, architects and companies that reinvigorated industrial design. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, Werkbund members created high quality household products and imbued them with attractive form.
One of the leading figures in Germany's modernist design movement was seminal designer and architect Peter Behrens, who took Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius under his wing as well as fellow modernists Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe.
The Bauhaus school, which operated between 1919 and 1933, was led by now well-known names such as furniture designer Marcel Breuer, and artists Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. By merging art and industrial design, the Bauhaus left a legacy of timeless modernist architecture and product design that Peter Ghyczy inherited when he arrived in postwar Germany.
Read more: The Future is Now! 100 Years of Bauhaus
Fleeing his native Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Ghyczy moved to Aachen in West Germany and began studying engineering and architecture. As a student, he began a fascination with function over form that continues to this day. "I don't like illusions,” the designer recently told DW. "Whatever I do has a structure that is obvious.”
Upon graduation, Ghyczy was offered a job at Elastogran/Reuter, a company in West Germany where he led the design department from 1968 until 1972 and soon began designing products with an exciting new material: polyurethane—aka plastic.
His pioneering plastic experimentation fused a functionalist approach that won him fame in 1968 with his iconic fold-out Garden Egg Chair. Although the public celebrated the object for its form, Ghyczy's motivation was pragmatic — he simply wanted a piece of outdoor furniture with cushions that would stay dry when it rained.
"Most people are disappointed because it was not the form I was looking at, but rather the technical solution,” he explains.
Interestingly, the chair's story also belongs to Cold War-era history. Reuter decided to manufacture the chair in East Germany due to lower production costs. Eventually, the license to produce the chair was sold to a company in the city of Senftenberg near Dresden, where the chair was renamed the "Senftenberg Egg” and was mass produced for both the West German and GDR markets.
The East German public could purchase the chair for the extraordinary price of 430 Deutsche Marks — nearly an entire month's wages for the average worker in the GDR, according to the Victoria & Albert museum, where the chair is on display. When it became a collector's item in the 1990s, many falsely believed that the original design originated in the GDR.
Read more: How East Germany influenced design
But while the egg chair was all the rage in the east, by the early 70s environmental concerns caused plastic to go out of fashion in western Europe.
Ghyczy moved to the Netherlands in 1972, founding his own company where today pieces are made in small quantities by a team of local artisans. For Ghyczy, plastics are more or less a thing of the past, yet his interest in a technical approach to furniture design remains.
A new message
Many Ghyczy designs feature geometrical forms that harken back to Bauhaus and Art Deco styles. Yet the designer is quick to eschew specific inspirations and direct links with the past. Designers should look forward, not only back, he asserts. This insistence can be linked to his experience of fleeing Hungary in his youth.
Such tubular steel furniture classics by Bauhaus designers Marcel Breuer und Ludwig Mies van der Rohe only partly influenced Ghyczy's futuristic design vision
"Migration can be tragic on the one hand, but on the other it gives you a new start,” says Ghyczy. "The person leaving is free to choose a new direction. Perhaps this is also characteristic of my work.”
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This might be why his designs has long been considered "different,” he notes — which has been to the delight of some producers and the ire of others.
While the Garden Egg Chair will be celebrated in Brussels, so will some of the difficult-to-place pieces from the last 50 years of Ghyczy's career. As such, the exhibition is a celebration of the designer's commitment to innovation.
"In the best cases, we are making products that do not already exist,” says Ghyczy. "They say you should only write a book if you have a new message — it's the same with design.”