Remember inflatable furniture? If you were a conneseur of the Delia*s catalog in the late 1990s, you definitely will (that stuff was plastered all over those pages). But those plastic sofas and chairs were not, in fact, an invention of the Britney Spears era. For the very first inflatable chair, we'll have to go back 30 years earlier than that, all the way to the 1960s.
It wasn't quite furniture yet, but the US military began experimenting with inflatable structures in the '40s. Engineer Walter Bird created a series of "radomes" (inflatable domes made from a fiberglass fabric), which protected the radar antennae that watched the skies over the Arctic, Canada and Alaska. Bird went on to create a line of air-supported structures for civilian use, including the pool enclosure pictured above.
By the '60s, inflatables had begun to take on a bit of a countercultural association: 1967 saw the founding of the Haus-Rucker-Co., an avant-garde architectural collective that challenged existing ideas of what buildings could be, often through the use of inflatable structures; 1967 also saw the introduction of Blow, the very first mass-produced inflatable chair.
The chair was created by Jonathan De Pas, Donato D'Urbino, Paolo Lomazzi, and Carla Scolari, four young designers within the Italian Anti-Design movement. Made by Italian manufacturer Zanotta, it was marketed as the perfect furniture for transients or city dwellers: easy to blow up, easy to transport, and easy to store, since it took up practically no space at all when not inflated.
Inflatables continued to be a fixation of designers throughout the '60s. The '68 exhibit Structures Gonflables in Paris featured all kinds of fantastical inflatable structures, including an inflatable pavilion filled with inflatable furniture. In that same year, Vietnam-born designer Quasar Khanh introduced a line of inflatable furniture called Aerospace, which included blow-up chairs, sofas, tables, and even lamps, all in groovy '60s designs.
In the '80s, IKEA tried to get into the inflatable furniture game, with sofas, daybeds, and armchairs made from inflatable plastic, outfitted with fabric covers to make them a bit more respectable. Sadly, IKEA ran into some issues that are probably all too familiar to anyone who's ever owned inflatable furniture: the furniture tended to deflate, and sitting in it just wasn't that comfortable.
"What was a comfy sofa on Monday was a shapeless piece of dusty fabric on Friday," writes Stina Holmberg in Democratic Design, her upcoming book about IKEA. "And to be honest, it wasn't even that comfy. And then there was the sound when you sat down, a sound of something not at all glamorous." The pieces were so light that they had a tendency to move around the room on their own. One person at the company described them as "a gathering of swollen hippos".
Inflatable furniture returned in the late '90s, which is probably the era that most readers of this blog recognize it from. Although it was, for a period of time, very hip, inflatable furniture in the '90s had the same problems that plagued the IKEA designers: saggy, uncomfortable, almost inconveniently lightweight.
This hasn't kept a new generation of designers from experimenting with inflatables. Tehila Guy's 'Anda' chair, which pairs inflatable cushions with a wooden frame, looks promising. Dutch company Blofield makes an inflatable Chesterfield sofa called Big Blo, although it's not so cheap — a two seater will set you back €687.
And then there's this $7,000 outdoor sofa, another gem from the Hammacher Schlemmer collection. It seats 30 people (or eight identical blond women) and includes stakes that can be driven into the ground so your sofa doesn't fly away. It is in instant party, and also it is proof (along with this thing, which on its own merits a whole other post) that inflatable furniture never ceases to delight and amaze. And maybe stick to your thighs a bit. But hey, that's the price you pay for innovation.