Italian architect Gaetano Pesce debuted his Up5 armchair and Up6 ottoman in 1969 at the Milan Furniture Fair. The response to the otherworldly object, manufactured by the furniture company B&B Italia (then known as C&B), was immense: Pesce’s stretch fabric-covered polyurethane seat—with its curves meant to represent a woman’s body and its attached ottoman a ball-and-chain—experimented with the period’s material of the moment. Vacuum-packed into a PVC envelope, the seat, once removed from its packaging, rose upward, inflating and assuming its shape thanks to a mixture of Freon gas in the polyurethane. It had no internal structure.
For the seat’s 50th anniversary, B&B Italia marked the occasion by introducing six hues—orange-red, navy blue, petrol green, emerald green, cardamom, and striped beige-and petrol-green—during this year’s Salone del Mobile design and furniture fair in the company’s Milan showroom. Over at the Piazza del Duomo, it simultaneously erected a monumental version of the chair; its nude-colored exterior was covered in 400 arrows, meant to reference violence toward women. “For me, this armchair was a way to express content other than advanced technology, new materials and product convenience,” Pesce said in a spring 2019 press release about his design. “In fact, people had only just started talking about the issue of male violence towards women. Back then, I thought that this serious sign of incivility, which was happening all over the world, would have lessened with time. Unfortunately, however, that was not the case.”
Despite his intended statement, protesters staged a demonstration during Milan design week, claiming that the design reduced a woman to a piece of furniture. One artist threw red paint onto the seat of the chair. When the anniversary collection made its way to B&B Italia’s New York showroom for NYCxDesign (sans flesh-toned installation), guests could sit on the revamped seat surrounded by female models wearing white bodysuits and curly white wigs—a reference to the models from the chair’s original campaign—for a selfie.
Given the circumstances, it felt a little out of touch. But Pesce stands by the chair’s message all the same. “This object, after 50 years, has maintained the same energy as it did in the beginning,” Pesce told GRAY. “Unfortunately, the reality that generated it has worsened. Its contemporaneity is at its maximum. In many countries, women continue to be victims of man, they’re prevented from going out on the street alone, they cannot drive a car, they are covered from head to toe, they cannot sit at a bar in public. In other countries, the jealousy of man fills them with violence, in others the same work is paid less than a man.”
None of this is news to women, and while the sentiment is appreciated (if not hollow), it’s going to take a lot more than a chair to move us forward.