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Four Centuries of Sitting: University of Oxford Announces its Winning Chair Design for the Bodleian Library

How two British designers created an exclusive chair for one of the world's most beautiful libraries.

By Stela Razzaque, Superscript October 24, 2013

The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, dating back to 1602. Its ornately detailed Gothic walls are home to a great archive of treasured literature and scholarly documents. As part of a grand renovation plan for the library, the University of Oxford launched a competition to design a new chair from which some of the world’s most gifted academics will experience the library space.

Barber Osgerby's winning chair pictured inside the Bodleian Library. © Jamie Smith / Bodleian Library

The Bodleian Libraries Chair Competition recently announced its winning design: an elegant oak seat by UK-based design studio Barber Osgerby (Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby), in collaboration with manufacturer Isokon Plus. The victorious chair will be only the third chair design to grace the historic 400-year-old reading room. The last chair iteration was designed in 1936.

The competition brief challenged designers to provide a contemporary response to the library chair with a strong sense of craft and sculptural form. “After spending a day at the library it became apparent there are some pretty unusual requirements for the readers at the Bodleian Libraries,” designers Barber and Osgerby told Co.Design. Readers may sit in the chair for hours on end, so comfort was very important. Another crucial factor was that the chair be completely silent—there is no place for squeaking furniture in Oxford’s prestigious reading rooms.

The winning chair design. © Barber Osgerby

The winning three-legged oak chair drew on extensive local knowledge of the library and its cultural setting. A strong, vertical timber spine forms one of the three legs and echoes the spines of books on shelves. This vertical element is attached to a horseshoe-shaped wooden base that effectively “reduced the vibration and improved the stability of the chair so that it is silent in use,” Barber and Osgerby explained. The frame’s spacious, circular form is echoed in the armrest and sled-like base, resulting in a robust, yet surprisingly lightweight, structure. The designers also identified the rear view of the chair to be especially significant, as this is the most common view of the chair by others when it is in use.

The winning chair will be installed in the newly refurbished library when it reopens in October 2014. The designers were chosen from a pool of 60 other competition entries, including those by Amanda Levete Architects with Herman Miller, and Matthew Hilton with SCP Ltd.

Special attention was paid to the design of the back of the chair. Left to right: Barber Osbergy's winning design, the chair by Amanda Levete Architects, and a design by Matthew Hilton. © Jamie Smith / Bodleian Library

The original library chair, left, the 1936 editions, center, and the three finalists, right (Matthew Hilton/SCP Ltd, Amanda Levete/Herman Miller, Barber Osgerby) on display at the V&A Museum. © Ben Bisek / Bodleian Library

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