The SÉNAT chair is an example of unobtrusive design that continues to stand the test of time, existing as one with the metropolitan green spaces it calls home. Spend an afternoon with one, and you’ll know why it can’t be beat.
Take a seat in the 6th arrondissement’s Jardin du Luxembourg. It’s easy: the same chairs are everywhere — all a sagey, army green. Some are scattered but most remain in social formations, the physical vestiges of past gatherings and conversations.
This isn’t your typical park. That’s partially because it centers around a former palace constructed in the early 17th century by a widowed monarch, Catherine de’ Medici. Multiple political revolutions later and this Florentine-inspired residence is now home to the French Senate, its gardens the stomping grounds for Parisians from all walks of life. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, visitors can observe children taking their very first pony rides, white-clad tennis players scuffing dispersed courts, painters working en plein air, and small crowds gathering to watch smoking retirees play pétanque. At this varied playground there is room for everyone, and not just in terms of space but in terms of seating — those aforementioned green chairs really are everywhere. Grab a baguette, a bottle of rosé, and some herby cheese. Meet your friends. Pull up a chair. Sit down. It sounds cliché, but this is actually what the French seem to do — and especially here.
The crazy thing is: no one actually knows who designed the original SÉNAT green chair.
We know they were commissioned by the Sénat, created in the Paris parks department workshops, and arrived on the scene in 1923 — first at the Jardin du Luxembourg, from which they spread throughout the city. In the 1990s, the Sénat chose Fermob, a French outdoor furniture manufacturer, to produce 2,000 new chairs to distribute between three different Parisian jardins. And since the early 2000s, Fermob has had its own line of “Luxembourg” chairs — though technically they are not identical to the SÉNAT chair you’ll find in Parisian public parks, but a redesign by Frédéric Sofia. Sofia spent a year studying the various chairs of the future line’s namesake garden, ultimately adapting all three iconic chair designs (chair, bridge chair, and low armchair) to boost comfort and reduce weight for at-home use.
Emblematic of one of the world’s most admired cities, these chairs — which, apparently, due to a lack of records, seemed to arrive out of nowhere one day — have become as inextricably linked to Paris as plants are to the earth or clouds are to the sky. Their evolution seems to have felt as organic as anything truly natural in the city, especially since their definitive origin is unknown. Inadvertently, they became a seamlessly integrated part of the city’s environment, accomplishing what many well-known designers and architects attempt to do in a spirit of outward purposefulness — not in unknown, undocumented corners of ambiguous “parks department workshops.” This integration was, to reiterate, quasi-organic: place a mass of never-before-seen chairs in one Parisian green space (like a new species) and watch the placement and place become as one. Generally speaking, the environment chooses to accept or reject what has been introduced. And in the historic, cosmopolitan environment of Paris, these chairs were accepted.
The SÉNAT chair is an early and unexpected example of accidentally unobtrusive design. In its respective contexts, it’s there and it’s not there at the same time. And that’s precisely what makes it successful: it’s a tool and facilitator — never a physical, environmental, or figurative distraction.
The unobtrusive integration of SÉNAT furniture in Parisian green spaces feels especially remarkable in comparison with the myriad of “failed” artificial integrations the world has witnessed over the years. An unexpected and stereotypically more “natural” transatlantic counterpart is Southern California’s palm tree population — iconic as anything, this plant is actually not native to the area, but was introduced for the first time by Franciscan monks in the 18th century for religiously symbolic and ornamental purposes. As Los Angeles began to further establish itself as an exotic destination in the early 20th century, city planners leaned heavily into the exoticism of this particular tree, planting it along the city’s long streets and boulevards. As these original palms now begin to reach the end of their lifespans, the likelihood of their being replanted is extremely low — environmentally speaking, they require too much water and do not provide enough shade. By extension, these quintessentially SoCal palms will eventually fade out — their iconic status based on memories of the past; their presence a non-reality in the not so distant future.
This comparison serves to illustrate that the “unnatural” and man-made can be better accepted and integrated in a given environment, while the natural (even if not native) can be rejected either instantly or eventually.
Paris’ green chairs aren’t going anywhere — they weren’t even introduced for the sake of furthering the city’s romanticism (as juxtaposed with the palms’ role in furthering the “exoticism” of Los Angeles). In a sense they were accidentally iconic just as they were serendipitously unobtrusive — spontaneously developed to fulfill a real, urban need. Now they have, both physically and conceptually, withstood the test of an entire century — become as “natural” as the hundreds of chestnuts strewn alongside the Jardin du Luxembourg’s paths. Their presence has become synonymous first with “park,” and then with “Paris.” Today, it would be impossible to extricate the two from one another, nor would there be a reason to do so, because nothing about these chairs’ existence, or the existence of this park (at least now, a good 400+ years after its construction at the hands of ancien régime royalty) affects people or planet for the worse.
In all its apparent “manipulation,” a place like the Jardin du Luxembourg (unnaturally natural since its beginning) illustrates what can be natural and long-lasting about human intervention and activity. And the SÉNAT chair is a microcosm of this same idea.
Of course, the permanence of SÉNAT chairs has a lot to do with the fact that they are used, and used often. Every single day. And they withstand the elements, mold to a variety of seating arrangements and activities — lend themselves to the behaviors people have engaged in for centuries. They move and shift according to organic social currents, the result of something as natural as anything else: humans and their activity. Visit the Jardin du Luxembourg on a Thursday afternoon and return a week later: the chairs you left may be in the exact same position that you left them in, or they could be elsewhere — like the wind blowing piles of leaves around, or the sun affecting the exact position of plants. These chairs are always in flux, and for this reason, stand in stark contrast to more contemporary examples of urban design: things like steel chairs nailed to slabs of cement, or benches designed for the express purpose of fending off long-term guests.
Where is that line between benign or constructive human creation and human creation that is largely, if not obviously, deleterious? Where does the natural start, and where does it end? At the hands of whom and how and when, does something cease to be natural? It’s not everyday that a chair — or chairs — leads you to think about these sorts of questions, but when you sit in one and experience how nice it is (not specifically in terms of comfort but in terms of collective experience) you recognize how integral this furniture is to this communal space — a space that is equal parts traditional nature and traditional civilization. But, if everything on earth is somehow made up of something natural, or of something that existed before, where does this division begin and end?
As design and human “ingenuity” continue to somersault forward, these questions will only become more pertinent. It is strange that an old world garden chair could take us there now.
Made to spend.