The Ekstrem Chair Isn’t for Everyone, but It’s More Comfortable Than You Think

It took a dozen years for Norwegian designer Terje Ekstrøm to find a manufacturer who wanted to produce his now iconic Ekstrem chair. It was understandable—the bizarre design had a winding, exoskeleton-like frame that appeared made from monstrous pipe cleaners. Ekstrøm completed the official prototype in 1972, years before the rip-roaring aesthetics of postmodernism had fully arrived in Scandinavia. The arthouse weirdos of the Memphis Group wouldn’t form their highly influential collective until 1980. Ekstrøm was, perhaps, too early.

Then, in 1984, Ekstrøm finally struck a deal with the Norwegian manufacturer Hjellegjerde to send his peculiar Ekstrem chair into production. Hjellegjerde still had doubts. How does one sell such an odd-looking chair? The earliest advertisements highlighted the unique silhouette as a feature, not a flaw. “Sit as you like…” read one of the taglines on an ad that showed 13 photos of the Ekstrem chair, with models showing off all the ways one could sit on each. To this day, the multipurpose, eccentrically ergonomic seating still gets touted as the chair’s hero function. Norwegian furniture company Varier, the current manufacturer, promises “a sitting experience that can only be described as out of the ordinary,” while American retailer Design Within Reach calls the Ekstrem “surprisingly comfortable.” A friend in Los Angeles who has one in her home used the exact phrase, assuring me that she visited a showroom to test the chair’s comfort before purchasing it.

To me, the Ekstrem chair immediately reads futuristic (it once appeared in an episode of Star Trek) and playful, but not necessarily cozy. However, legions of Ekstrem loyalists will attest: it is more comfortable than it looks. “Whenever we’ve had one for sale in the shop, people unfamiliar with them always comment on the peculiarities of the chair and ask to sit in it,” says Meghan Lavery, cofounder of Home Union, a popular Brooklyn vintage furniture store. “People are always shocked by how comfortable they are.”

Amsterdam architectural designer Babette van Faassen, who has a pine-green Ekstrem in her living room, offers a similar anecdote. “Everyone assumes it’s very uncomfortable,” she says. “But then they sit in it and are surprised.” (She bought hers from an elderly couple who had it for decades and chose it for its ergonomics, they told her.)

This unexpected comfort can likely be attributed to Ekstrøm’s rigorous prototyping process. The designer—who studied interior and furniture design at Norway’s National College of Art and Design, and trained as a cabinetmaker and upholsterer—would build crude models from wood and cardboard, testing them to determine how to refine them best. Because Danish modernism dominated the prior decades in Scandinavian countries, favoring elegant practicality over showy, unconventional design, Ekstrøm quickly carved out a name for himself and left a legacy as one of Norway’s first postmodern designers. He designed sofas and other chairs, but none skyrocketed quite like the Ekstrem. Scandinavia’s premier design magazine Bo Bedre awarded the chair top honors and said the designer “rebelled against his predecessors, unaffected by commercial considerations, on an uncompromising quest for originality.” While Ekstrøm designed numerous sofas and chairs, only the Ekstrem remains in production today—becoming the offbeat crown jewel of his legacy.

Contemporary productions of Ekstrøm’s chair have a rigid stainless-steel frame, padded with polyurethane foam for softness, and are hand-upholstered with a knitted wool-blend fabric. (Varier is the only manufacturer of Ekstrem worldwide; the chair is also assembled and upholstered in Europe.) The simple silhouette and materials create something sublime, if still off-kilter. “This chair has never been, nor will it ever be, the ‘it’ chair; it has a cult following because of how strange it is,” says Lavery, who guesses her shop has sold about 10 vintage Ekstrems since it opened in 2016. It does feel like an item destined to be feverishly loved by the more esoteric corners of the design world. Some 50 years later, the Ekstrem chair remains a true delight of Norwegian postmodernism—and it still makes for a surprisingly comfortable seat.  

Top photo courtesy of Varier.

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