Safari Chairs

There’s little doubt, some of the most iconic mid-century designs are lounge chairs. The LCI, Barcelona, Swan, Egg, Coconut, Womb, Eva, Chieftans, Pelican, Wegner’s Wing—it seems every designer had at least one comfortable chair in their portfolio. Perhaps it was the appeal of the ultimate challenge. The famous German architect, Mies van der Rohe once said, “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.” 

Of all these designs, the simplest, oldest and perhaps most refined is the safari or sling chair. Kaare Klint produced
his famous version in 1933 and his inspiration came directly from the original 19th century British officers’ Roorkhee campaign chair. You can still buy a Roorkhee or Cunningham safari chair today—built true to their Victorian and Indian roots—all elaborate rosewood, polished brass and ox hide. 

The inherent minimalism of the structure appealed directly to the modernist philosophy—a chair that’s almost nothing and yet almost everything. And so the mid sixties designers refined the safari concept—stripped away the elaborate décor of the campaign chairs and focused on clean lines and simple materials.  

Why Safari Chairs? Well, they are light. Made with good materials, they are virtually indestructible and so functional. The original concept was to create a structure that was easy (for your servant) to knock down and reassemble in the field with no tools. When you sit in a safari, the seat, arms and back, and the rope suspension all act under tension to keep the whole structure taut, stable and in place. It’s brilliant. The bit of ‘give’ solves the final design challenge—a chair that adapts to uneven ground.

There were dozens of mid-century variations on these chairs, most in luxurious heavy leathers and select hardwoods. The Victorian British officers’ knockdown field chair evolved into a prestige item. Rob remembers two from Trent University college libraries and common rooms in the 70s. Both were beautiful leather and hardwood, but two quite different chairs. One was more modern—low, sleek and crisp in light veg tan and oak. We’re calling our version the Champlain after the library they furnished. 

The other Trent safari was dark beech and black leather, certainly more elemental and closer to the original safari. Our version, coming soon, is the Rubidge. They were scattered throughout Trent University’s downtown colleges including the school’s first building, Rubidge Hall. 

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