Photographed against a cement wall, Nissa Kinzhalina’s Urban Philosophy chair is almost invisible. The sleek, transparent design disappears into its surroundings, except for a hard black metal line around the edge. “I grew up on Japanese architecture and always admired the clean spaces, empty rooms, where there was only one detail,” the Russian designer told Dezeen. “But this detail has always been the most important. And in the design of these chairs I wanted to make them very simple at first glance, and deep enough on the second.”
The Urban Philosophy chair is just one example of modern transparent designs that warrants more than one glance. Catalan designer Eugeni Quitllet has created countless see-through objects of desire, ranging from polycarbonate lampshades and chairs to office items such as a desktop organizer and adhesive tape dispenser. “These objects are microarchitectures,” Quitllet wrote on his website, “small crystalline, colorful and transparent landscapes to cast an eye upon, then dream, work and think more clearly.” For her Shimmer collection, Spanish architect and designer Patricia Urquiola added an iridescent multi-colored finish to her transparent design tables, mirrors and shelves. The finish reacts to angles of light, and the furniture changes color, depending on the viewer’s perspective. “I’m not interested in the old meanings of what a bed, a sofa, or a bath is,” Urquiola told Elle Decor. “I am only concerned with new and more sophisticated ways of living.”
Though transparent furniture appears modernistic—and, at times, futuristic—it is rooted in the past. DuPont developed Lucite in 1931, and Rohm & Haas developed Plexiglas in 1933, and these durable materials were used during WWII for airplane windshields and nose cones, as well as for submarine periscopes. But, following the war, factories had to find new uses for these materials, and so they were introduced to the automobile industry—in 1939, Pontiac built a transparent car from Plexiglas, and the material was later used for taillight lenses.
In the 1960s, Lucite became a popular material for furniture. Erwine and Estelle Laverne released their Invisible Group in 1957, a series of see-through chairs, named the Lily, Jonquil, Buttercup and Daffodil, which were transparent takes on Saarinen’s classic Tulip chair. In a 1958 article, design writer Rita Reif wrote in The New York Times, “I knew immediately what it was, how innovative: it was the first time we saw a full-fledged modern design in acrylic. Helena Rubinstein had clear plastic furniture in the 30s, but it was more traditional. This was so light and airy. Dreamlike. And so amusing. Really the most important thing they ever did.” The 1960s also gave us spiraling Lucite snail tables by Vladamir Kagan, and a Lucite canopy bed by Charles Hollis Jones, among many other transparent gems.
But it wasn’t until 45 years later, in 2002, that transparent furniture gained widespread appeal. That year, iconic French designer Philippe Starck introduced the Louis Ghost Chair, an elegant Louis XV-style armchair made out of transparent polycarbonate. “I think the Ghost is the most important chair of the last 20 years,” Kartell president Claudio Luti told the Financial Times. “It has become a symbol of what is possible with transparent materials. In the past, when you talked about transparent or plastic furniture, people doubted the quality, but now I think everyone understands that, when used in the right way, transparency is fantastic.” Since its introduction, more than 2-million Ghost Chairs have been sold, and the chair is credited with the modern revival of transparent design.
Present-day architects and designers have further raised the bar on transparent design—it’s not just for tables or chairs anymore, but entire structures are being conceptualized and built in see-through materials. Kanner Architects designed the Long Island House, a 5,500 square-foot transparent home that features a glass lobby, staircase, pool “portal,” and sits on glass legs, which elevate the house above sea level.
And on a residential side street in Tokyo, Japan, House NA is made up of staggered birch platforms and white steel supports, but its walls are totally transparent. Without walls, the “house acts as both a single room and a collection of rooms,” Sou Fujimoto Architects described.
And Italian designer Carlo Santambrogio, also known for his transparent range of furniture, has conceptualized two glass houses, The House of the Woos and The House of the Sea. “The house on the sea lives the landscape,” Santambrogio wrote on his website. “It bears witness to the succession of natural phenomena, responsive to their contrasts, reflecting and integrating into its transparencies the anger and peace of the elements.”
So what is next for transparent design? If the designers behind the Photon Project have their way, we will all be living and working in tiny, transparent pods in the future. Their Photon Space is a 145-square-foot all-glass structure that is intended to increase our daily interaction with light and our overall wellbeing. “As a group of top experts in glass innovation, ophthalmology, neuroscience and architecture specializing in the area of intelligent glass,” says Charlie Sharman, CEO and director of the Photon Project, “we wanted to envision a more dynamic environment that could make a difference and improve how we live and enjoy our lives.”