For 20 years, Thierry Barbier-Mueller had a secret passion: chairs. Starting in the early 1990’s, he assembled one of the world’s largest private collections of chairs: no less than 650 chairs from the 1960’s to now, two thirds being unique pieces, prototypes or works of small limited editions, outside the usual niches of industrial design. Barbier-Mueller was fascinated by this object which embodies the tension between aesthetics and usage. The inexhaustible variety of formal and aesthetic projects as well as the process of creation guided his choice of acquisitions. The collection remained hidden until Barbier-Mueller decided to show it in a spectacular fashion. He asked Bob Wilson, one of the world’s greatest theater directors, to stage the collection at the MUDAC (Musée cantonal de design et d’arts appliqués contemporains), Lausanne’s design museum. He selected 211 chairs from 168 women and men artists, designers and architects. The creator of the iconic Deafman Glance and Einstein on the Beach (with Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs) in the early 1970’s, was inspired by his body of work at the crossroads of art and design, to imagine an immersive and spectacular set design.

Bob Wilson first met with his team at his Watermill center to plan the exhibition. “At our first team meeting, we talked about light,” explains Wilson. “I remembered what (architect) Louis Kahn used to say when I was at the architecture school: Students must start with the light. Light is not something you think about once the exhibition has been designed. It’s an integral part of the staging. This was my starting point. At the theater, people often made fun of me when I’d be starting production work with lighting. Light structures, it’s architecture, it’s the element that helps us see and hear.” 

The exhibition reads like an immense opera in four acts: The Bright Space where chairs which have a connection with one another  are grouped in small and spectacular islands as you enter the museum. Then, the Medium Space, calm, minimalism and geometry define this second act. The contrast between the bright space and the quiet space with a soft grey light is soothing and deeply attractive. The third space is the Dark Space. It is like a dark chamber which you enter through a small opening full of bright light before being blinded by darkness. Chairs all over - on the walls, up on the ceiling. You can sit and just reflect amidst these beautiful objects. 

Finally, the Kaleidoscopic space. You enter a tunnel like space and, through openings in the wall, you are faced with bright lights reflecting on silver chairs of all sorts. You exit the exhibition with a loud bang of light  ! A truly inspiring and thought provoking voyage through 30 years of creativity.  Jean-Sébastien Stehli

A Chair and You. Thierry Barbier-Mueller’s Collection, staged by Robert Wilson. Until 02.26.23. Mudac, Lausanne.

January 24, 2023 — Jean Sebastien Stehli