The best-selling piece of furniture of all time: With “Monobloc”, Hauke Wendler has succeeded in making a great documentary that is much more than a film about design. He tracks down the controversial plastic chair all over the world and shows people who produce it, use it and dispose of it, without avoiding uncomfortable questions and gluing together irresolvable contradictions.
By Thomas Wagner
The film by Hauke Wendler is simply called “Monobloc”. It is about the best-selling piece of furniture of all time. There are said to be one billion copies of the stackable plastic chair, worldwide. In Germany it is often white. In a kind of prologue, the view falls on apartment blocks like those found in many cities. You hear a man calling for his dog and recognise the sign of a pub on the street: “Kleine Freiheit Nummer 3” (Little Freedom Number 3). Then the camera pans to a building in front with a glass block façade and an off-screen voice explains: “When you make films, you are constantly looking for stories, for great images and moving moments. If you stumble over a plastic chair, no one breaks out in cheers. Nobody thinks: wow! this is going to be a film! But in this life, very little is what it seems at first glance.” You should remember that sentence.
And there he stands, the main character: white like plastic flowers in front of a wall that looks like it has been freshly painted. Suddenly a dry bush blows into the picture, as if you were in a dusty western town. And to the sentence “This plastic chair is called Monobloc and is the best-selling piece of furniture in the world”, you see how the picture is staged, including rain from a garden hose. “And at this point”, the voice remarks, “it gets exciting, there just need to be a few more beautiful pictures, and off it goes, the incredible story”. The director calls out “And cut!”, the first shot is a wrap and everyone now knows that documenting also means staging.
One billion plastic chairs – how did it come to this?
The search that will take the film team halfway around the world begins on a cool autumn morning in northern Italy. Here, more than 50 years ago, three brothers built one of the first factories for plastic chairs. One of the chair factory’s founders, Camillo Proserpio, says the Monobloc hit the market because it was cheap and there was huge demand. “That was the time when plastic was booming.” He would have been lucky in life – “and two brothers who went along with it”. The three brothers sit there and talk: “Camillo,” says Carlo, “made the moulds for the chairs, Serafino took care of the production, and I was in sales and did a bit of everything.” Camillo was the leader, they were the errand boys: “We had to run, always following his ideas.”
A Monobloc every 50 to 55 seconds
In the factory, the polypropylene granulate trickles into the production line. The production of a Monobloc takes 50 to 55 seconds. The polypropylene, liquefied by heating, is injected into the empty mould. Once it has cooled, the mould opens and the chair is pulled out. Everything goes like clockwork. Monobloc means that the chair is made in one piece. The first company to make these chairs was a French one. Fortunately, the chair was never patented. So, according to Camillo, they changed a few little things so as not to get into trouble. They did not invent it, they could not claim that. They have sold 240 to 250 million copies of the chair that bears the name of its manufacturing process and does not need another. That must be unique. Finally, the whole family sits together for a group picture, on Monoblocs, of course. They haven’t lost their down-to-earthness, you can believe them.
In order to break the narrative and make it clear where one stands, one’s own actions are reflected on again and again in the film. A start has been made, but further financing is uncertain; the research also drags on. Yet the internet is full of images in which the Monobloc plays a role, albeit a marginal one: “A supporting actor on the world stage, an extra made of plastic”.
A high-quality lifestyle product
So where to go from here when you don’t even know who invented the chair? Chance helps. A monobloc enthusiast offers unpublished recordings he made 15 years ago of Henry Massonnet (1922 to 2005) shortly before his death. He invented it, there’s no doubt about it, Massonnet says in his recordings, where he gives a tour of his little museum. The first Monoblocs, as advertising brochures prove, were by no means cheap products, but lifestyle objects made from high-quality material and the latest technology. Massonnet was forgotten when he died. Now his chair is reappearing in an exhibition in the Vitra Schaulager. The nobilisation in the design museum is followed by banal reality: the chairs at the snack bar around the corner, the daughter’s chairs at the weekend cabin, the neighbour’s chairs at the weekend cabin, the chairs in front of the pub at the weekend cabin and in front of the surf station at the quarry pond just behind the weekend cabin.
Hauke Wendler tells story after story, but doesn’t just leaf through a chapter of industrial and design history in which well-known icons from Panton to the Bofinger chair to Magistretti’s “Selene” are brought into the field against the cheap product. In the improvised studio in a truck with the inscription “What do you think of plastic chairs?” everyone asks. “The chair definitely has a ‘cheap taste’ attached to it. As soon as you can buy something better, you buy something else,” says a woman. “Inexpensive, practical, stackable,” says a man, “you can do that, but they’re awful!“
Out of Europe
Anyone who is still worried that the subject does not carry over a feature length of 90 minutes will be disabused. The film is varied and touches on all aspects of the Monobloc, plastic chairs in general and much more. To move forward, it now goes out of Europe, to Africa, to Uganda. Annet Nnabulime’s legs have been paralysed for five years. She can no longer walk. And because she cannot walk, she cannot work and support her family. She cannot afford a wheelchair. But there is “this organisation that distributes wheelchairs!” In Africa, it is often a matter of living with what you have, says Francis Mugwanya, the head of a mission organisation. He is in a wheelchair himself due to polio at the age of three. The organisation distributes wheelchairs to people who cannot afford them. With a population of 40 million, five million people in Uganda live with a disability. Of these, one million need a wheelchair. There are different models of Free Wheelchair Mission. “Gen 1” was the first one developed by the organisation itself – with a seat made of a monobloc. “In Uganda,” Francis says, “a plastic chair is no joke. Plastic chairs are exactly what we need.” And he stresses that no one here is waiting for Europe or America: “We use what is available to us. And we are happy with it.”
Mobility provides new courage to face life
While trying to find out who developed the “Gen 1” wheelchair, the filmmakers end up in California with Don Schoendorfer. He tells them how it came about. But above all, that with such a wheelchair, mobility and the courage to live can be regained. Like with the man in Vietnam, whom his brother carried around every day for 35 years before one day someone came and helped him. In order to build the cheapest possible wheelchair, Schoendorfer says, the cost of materials had to come down. The Monobloc was available all over the world and cost only four dollars each when it went on sale. By 2019, the Free Wheelchair Mission had distributed a total of 1.1 million wheelchairs. By 2025, the goal is 2 million.
Just a cheap piece of seating furniture made of a discredited material?
By telling all these stories, the film turns the Monobloc into more than a cheap piece of seating furniture made of a discredited material. You see how Annet begins to live again because she no longer has to drag herself across the floor and you sense what freedom a simple sentence like this means: “Now I can go anywhere.” Wendler’s great documentary doesn’t just look at an object, it lets people and images speak in equal measure. In addition, cameraman Boris Mahlau takes pictures that show how it is. Without embellishing, but also without accusing; without falling into an advertising aesthetic that embellishes everything and anything; but also without slipping into an equally mendacious visual language of misery and accusation. His view of the events does not deny the distance created by the camera. But those who are willing to look are placed in the midst of people who tackle things, who live their lives, who do not give up. “Monobloc” is also a film that tries to catch up with its own prejudices. Wendler is a director who is willing to question his own scepticism about cheap plastic chairs as well as that of others: “The more people we meet whose lives are intertwined with the Monobloc,” it says after about an hour, “the less I understand my own reservations, and those of others.”
Be it Sanjeev Jain, vice president of the furniture division of Supreme Industries, one of the largest plastic producers in India (annual turnover 850 million dollars), who wants to give the Monobloc more stability and value again with a design version. Be it Harnek Singh, who is in charge of 12 machines in one of Supreme’s factories and considers the plastic chair necessary in India because it would destroy the entire vegetation to produce 50 to 60 per cent of the chairs from wood. Be it Maria Ilda de Andrade, who collects rubbish in Brazil (four kilograms of chairs bring four reais, 85 cents; in a month, Ilda has 200 to 300 reais, about 40 to 60 euros), and Musamara Mendes Pereira, who recycles materials in the Rosa Virginia association: the film tells many more stories. The people never become abstract figures in dubious statistics. Where numbers and data are mentioned, they protect nothing. Apart from the spontaneous interviews, everyone the team spoke to has a name, a face, a voice, a home.
When design is democratised, is a chair like the Monobloc the result? An extremely cheap chair made of plastic for everyone? A chair in which cultural differences show themselves almost only in use? A chair that reflects the light and dark sides of a global product and consumer culture trimmed to efficiency? A chair that raises economic, ecological, social and aesthetic questions that are not easy to answer? A chair that is accepted differently depending on the country and social status?
What design can do and what it causes
“Monobloc” is not a film about design, but about its social impact. It shows what design can do and what it causes. In a positive and negative sense; planned, but also unintentional. Even the pictures from the dirty recycling halls do not bode well. Wendler’s comment: “For me, recycling has always been one of those good words that make life better, cleaner and fairer. The longer we stand and film among the noise, stench and plastic splinters, the more I doubt that it is that simple. But perhaps this is also my most important lesson from this journey halfway around the world: there are no such things as good or bad words per se. Life is not black or white, life is an endless succession of shades of grey that we must always re-evaluate. And that also applies to plastic chairs, of course.”
Even more stories and pictures about the Monobloc and the film of the same name can be found in the book to be published in February by Hatje Cantz Verlag.
ein Film by Hauke Wendler
Germany 2021, 90 Minutes
The film (distributed by Salzgeber) will be shown in German cinemas from 27 January.
with Texten by Hauke Wendler, Layout by Rutger Fuchs
Paperback, 192 p., 120 illus.,
Publisher: Verlag Hatje Cantz
The Monobloc on the website of publisher Hatje Cantz Verlag GmbH
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