Sun or shade, solitary or sociable, upright or laid back; pick your chair and put it in the place that’s just right for you. The metal park chairs that have become a Paris design icon were first introduced in the Jardin du Luxembourg in 1923, replacing the folding chairs that had been available for hire since the mid nineteenth century.
The Jardin du Luxembourg has the peculiar distinction of being managed directly by the French Senate, housed in the adjoining Palais de Luxembourg since 1853. It was the nineteenth century senators who first decided that the park needed portable chairs, to supplement the upright, back to back benches, and who authorised the letting of a concession to supply and manage chairs in ‘la belle saison’. Through the upheavals and revolutions of the century, the rate for hire of garden chairs was fixed at ten centimes but from time to time the concessionaire petitioned for a reduction in his lease payments, because of the disruption caused by ‘political events’. ..
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The first chairs in the distinctive ‘Luxembourg’ style were produced in the workshops of the Paris parks department. Made of steel, with wooden arm rests on the armchairs, the chairs were sturdy but heavy and required regular repainting. In 1990 the Senate committee charged with management of the garden invited bids for the design and supply of an updated version of the chairs. The winning bid came from Fermob (makers of the classic Parisian bistro chair since 1814), who employed designer Frederic Sofia to reinterpret the time-honoured original in lightweight, low maintenance aluminum.
Since 1974 the chairs in the Jardin du Luxembourg have been available to visitors free of charge. Today, according to the Senate’s information leaflet, 4,500 moveable chairs are available in the garden in addition to 3,500 places on the fixed benches. Luxembourg chairs are also in use in the Jardin des Tuilleries and Palais Royal, bringing an air of nonchalant informality to these formal gardens in a stylishly understated way; a very Parisian compromise.
The ‘classic’ but modern chairs are increasingly in demand around the world. Half of Fermob’s turnover is generated by exports to other European countries, to the USA and to Japan. Exporting the unique ambiance of a Paris park may not be so easy.