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Those White Plastic Chairs – The Monobloc and the Context-Free Object

Ian Frazier, writing about the return of seals to the waters that surround New York City, offers this poetic observation about a white plastic chair:

On a higher part of the beach, a single patio chair of molded white plastic commanded a wide view. Someone might have put it there to enjoy a beer in, or for winter sunbathing. Then again, it might have been flotsam. I have seen this identical type of plastic chair in photos of the Lagos, Nigeria, city dumps in the Times. A photo of a memorial gathering for a slain Al Qaeda leader in Jordan showed a row of these same chairs in a tent. I own six of these chairs myself. I believe this type of white molded-plastic chair belongs to the growing category of the world’s ubiquitous objects.

His observation stuck with me, and I found myself searching through photos I’ve taken around the world in my travels, searching for the plastic chair. It is, indeed, ubiquitous.

Here’s my friend, Sarpei Nunoo, leaning on a particularly attractive version in a beer garden near central Accra. Some large percentage of my Ghanaian photos feature the white chair in the background, like this photo of my friend and former teacher, Bernard Woma, performing with his dancers in Nima, Accra. And they’re certainly not limited to that city. Here’s a stack of chairs, surrounded by cranes, in Arusha, Tanzania. Expand the color palette beyond white and I find examples in a dusty village in Rajastan, a quiet street in Palermo, Sicily, a roadside bar outside Jakarta.

In Abuja, Nigeria, they’re not just furniture – they’re key stage props for a dancer who balances plates, trays, tables and chairs on his body while executing full splits.

I started to think that perhaps I’d start collecting images of white plastic chairs, when I discovered that I’d been beaten to the punch… many, many times over.

There’s a Flickr group titled, “Those White Plastic Chairs” which features 930 images of white plastic chairs, taken in at least a dozen countries. (There’s a more inclusive, but slightly less impressive collection of multicolored plastic chairs on Flickr as well.)

One of the contributors to the Flickr group is Jens Thiel, from whom I learned the correct nomenclature for the chair in question. It’s a plastic Monobloc chair, named because it’s a single piece of polypropylene (mono-block), heated to to 220 degrees centigrade and extruded into a mold that can produce chairs every 70 seconds. Monoblocs are produced throughout the world, in China, Taiwan, the US, Israel, Mexico and elsewhere. At roughly $3 a piece, it’s easy to understand how they’ve become so pervasive.

Thiel maintains a website and a Facebook page dedicated to the Monobloc. The site features everything from an examination of creative ways the Monobloc is repaired in countries where it’s too expensive to replace, to numerous art pieces that feature the Monobloc. My favorite artistic interpretations include a beautifully morbid chair by pool called “souviens toi que tu vas mourir” and a fantastically subversive piece called “white billion chairs 33” by Tina Roeder. Roeder’s piece features a pile of chairs each perforated with up to 10,000 holes, rendering them beautiful but totally non-functional.

White Billion Chairs 33, Tina Roeder, detail

Artists and designers appear to have a love/hate relationship with the Monobloc. Some artists attempt to dress up the chair, melding it with other chairs, rendering it in wood, reupholstering it in leather. Others demand that we end discrimination against cheap furniture, like Martí Guixé’s Statement Chair. An art book by Arnd Friedrichs and Kerstin Finger titled “220C Virus Monobloc” sums up the tensions – it’s an object worthy of a book-length study as well as a virus, reproducing itself around the world and crowing out other designs for chairs.

I don’t have strong feelings about whether the Monobloc is an object of beauty or a target for derision… though I’d suggest that any design as successful as the Monobloc has proved its evolutionary worth. What I’m intrigued by is the idea that the Monobloc is a context-free object.

To explain what I mean:

Fifteen years ago, one of my jobs at Tripod was managing our abuse and legal teams. With several million webpages hosted on our service, some of them violated our terms of service and hosted pornography. That wasn’t a bit problem – we deleted pages that violated our TOS. But when we encountered pages that might be hosting child pornography, we had a more complicated procedure. We copied files to floppy disk (remember, it was 1996!) and mailed them to our regional FBI office, along with information on the IP address the user in question had signed up from.

One of the best guys on my team went to Boston for a week to train to become a “confidential informant”, so he could testify if we’d found evidence in a child pornography case that went to court. Curious guy that he was, he asked whether the information we were providing – the IP address signed up from – was helpful in building cases. Sure, he was told, but not as useful as the information in the photos. Almost every detail in a photo held information about the time and location the photo was taken. The shape of electrical outlets, labels on any consumer products, fabrics, clothing all were clues as to whether a photo was taken in the 1970s or last week, in Sweden or Schenectady.

Virtually every object suggests a time and place. The Monobloc is one of the few objects I can think of that is free of any specific context. Seeing a white plastic chair in a photograph offers you no clues about where or when you are. I have a hard time thinking of other objects that are equally independent of context. Asking friends to propose a similar object, most people suggest a Coke can… but I can tell you that Coke is presented very differently in different countries, in glass bottles as well as cans, with labels in local languages. The Monobloc offers no linguistic cues, no obvious signs that it’s been localized. Wherever you are, it’s at home.

For me, the Monobloc isn’t so much a glimpse of the future, where we suspect that mega-corporation will blur distinctions between Albania and Afghanistan. Even McDonalds, the avatar for global homogenization, makes heavy investments in localization. if it didn’t, it would be very hard to sell beef burgers in majority-Hindu India. It’s going to be a while before McChicken Tikka (an excellent sandwich, by the way) is so pervasive that its wrapper doesn’t reveal that you’re at an Indian McDonalds, not a Japanese one.

The Monobloc is a reminder that the world is still filled with the local, the unique, the distinctive. Globalization may be homogenizing the world, but most objects still offer some context. The few objects that defy localization deserve some special form of lionization. They’ve achieved a level of design perfection where they don’t require adaptation to be as successful in Africa as they are in suburban America. Dismiss them at your peril – context-free objects like the Monobloc have achieved a sort of global celebrity that few humans could ever hope for.

32 thoughts on “Those White Plastic Chairs – The Monobloc and the Context-Free Object”

  1. apropos, the text accompanying the pics of the roeder piece contains this extraordinary phrase:

    “a collection of old and rare monoblock chairs (2002-2009)”

  2. Ethan this is great.. as undergrad Anthropology major…the post makes me think the commonality around the world. Thanks

  3. Fascinating! Have you identified any other context-free objects?

    Aside: I would SO eat a Chicken McTikka sandwich if they were offered here.

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  5. The Monoblock on my porch have no roses like the one your friend is sitting on.

    I am sure there are Monoblock chairs in other parts of the world that have different ornaments.

  6. I’ve given this some thought and the classic black television set is the only other context-free object I can think of. I’ve seen it deep in the Himalaya (powered by a car battery, of course) and just about everywhere else you can think of. In fact, it seems that one is always nearby a group of monoblock chairs.

  7. Hanan, yes, there’s a variety in ornamentation. But I’ve seen both simple and fancy monoblocs in both poor and rich countries – I don’t know that there’s a tight correlation between design and place/

    Oso, I think the classic TV – and perhaps the battery powered transistor radio – might both qualify. The only other I’ve come up with is the mid-90s Toyota pickup truck… but even there, the difference between the Hilux and the Tacoma gives you some context.

  8. This chair caused an accident in our breakroom at work. trying to save money by putting them for us to sit on caused an associate to break his wrist and cost the company $5,000. Large people have a hard time with the woobily legs.

  9. What a weirdly insightful and delightful post this is!

    Love it.

    Also, Toyota Pickup trucks don’t exist much in India. People use Mahindra (I have seen quite a few Nissans also)

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  11. Ilona, I’m a large person myself, and a couple of times, I’ve had waiters seat me in a pair of monoblocs stacked together. At a beachfront bar in Accra a few months back, I got seated in a pair of chairs and my (yet larger) associate was given three stacked together. Again, the beauty of the monobloc is adaptability… :-)

    Rishabh, thanks for the observation on the Toyota truck – that’s a good point. Can you think of another object aside from the Monobloc, the low-end radio or TV that’s as pervasive in India as it is in the rest of the world?

  12. Will, the beer garden is on Cantonments Road, north of Danquah Circle. Might be called Felicia’s Spot? Cold beer and excellent kebab, if I remember correctly.

  13. On low-end radios and black-and-white television set: don’t they give some indication of placement on the class ladder? Or that its probably someone’s home or a small space rather than a place like a cafe?

    Either way, excellent post Ethan :)

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