Questions We All Ask Ourselves: Why Does the Beanbag Chair Even Exist?

published Jul 27, 2019
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Let’s be honest: Even reading the phrase beanbag chair makes every design-focused fiber of your body cringe. Sure, the plush chair might’ve been all the rage when you were younger—here’s looking at you, ’90s kids—but they’re often considered an eyesore by the design community. Not only are they a far cry from a polished accent chair, but they’re too plush. Have you ever tried to get up from the swallowing depths of a bean bag chair.

However, believe it or not, beanbags weren’t always a design faux pas. In fact, they were actually the “it” piece back in the 1960s. Want to learn more? We’re taking you to design school with the unique—and slightly bizarre—history of the beanbag chair.

Credit: Sophie Timothy

A Game-Changing Design

The year 1968 was full of revolutions. Women were marching in the streets for equality, the Civil Rights Movement was going full steam ahead, and the Space Race was underway. And at the end of the day, people didn’t want to return back home to the rigid antique chairs that their grandparents sat on. Times were a-changing. That’s where the Sacco came in—or, as we know it today, the beanbag chair. 

The shapeless bag was first thought up by three young Italian thinkers: Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini, and Franco Teodoro. They were part of the Italian Radical Design movement, which brought forth provocative designs like foam furniture and lip-shaped sofas. The three designers wanted to create a seat that could conform to any situation and mold around any body. It wasn’t a static piece of furniture, but one that adapted and changed with your needs.

The trio just finished the design when Macy’s called them to place an order for 10,000 chairs. The department store knew the shapeless seats would tap into the zeitgeist, so the trio turned to the manufacturer Zanotta to produce their boundary-pushing design. 

Credit: Morgan Schemel

Flower Power Fandom

Beanbag chairs appealed to the flower power generation, non-conformists who wanted seats that their parents wouldn’t be caught dead in. The beanbag was the right fit, and it contradicted the bourgeois tastes of the older generation.

While the beanbag chair is currently a staple for college dorm rooms and hostel common rooms, it was made with a luxurious leather cover in the 1960s. Chic and forward-thinking, it added a quirky touch to any household.  But seeing how folks would plop down with drinks and cigarettes in hand, the cover would easily get stained or burned, so the material had to eventually change. 

Credit: Nasozi Kakembo

A Polarizing Piece

While the Sacco was for the well-off hippie, knock-off versions made with cheaper, synthetic materials soon started taking over the market. While they helped the budget, the materials weren’t as sturdy and the beans became flat more quickly, making the sack lose its shape. Because of that, hilarious op-ed pieces started to spring up poking fun at the uselessness of the chair. 

“I bought it in a moment of impulse,” wrote one reporter for the Santa Ynez Valley News in 1972. “It was so young looking, so gay, so formless and unhibited. Besides, it was cheap and the chair we had in that spot looked like a refugee from the ’36 Oklahoma drought.”

But the reporter soon found there was a downside to the beanbag. She tried to fill the chair with more foam beads to make it stiffer, only for beads to flow out of the bag and take over her house.

“By the time I had pushed my way to the front door to safety, they were waist-high, and when I got the door opened, they cascaded out into the yard in pursuit of my escaping body, already covered completely with the little white beads,” she wrote.

Credit: Esteban Cortez

Buh-Bye, Beanbag?

The beanbag chair might’ve been the emblem of easy living in the 1970s, but just like lava lamps and beaded curtains, it received a one-way ticket to the design graveyard in the ’80s.

Will beanbag chairs make a comeback? It’s hard to say. Not only are they usually confined to kids’ rooms and college common spaces, we now have the ottoman as a well-appointed alternative. But as easy as it is to write off the beanbag chair for good, we have to give it props for being a game-changing design with a permanent spot in the counterculture revolution.

After all, who’s to say we would have our favorite plush ottomans were it not for the beanbag chair?