Art on Chairs: Supporting growth through innovative design

A creative design project has helped to breathe new life into a long-established sector of the Portuguese regional economy.

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The Art on Chairs project has breathed new life into the Portuguese furniture industry The Art on Chairs project has breathed new life into the Portuguese furniture industry

The furniture industry has for years been one of the most important industrial activities in the northern Portuguese city of Paredes. The city has the highest concentration of chair factories in Europe and accounts for 65 % of national furniture production. But although the industry was highly productive its image was old-fashioned and conservative. It was to capitalise on the region’s expertise in furniture construction and to stimulate creativity in the industry that the Art on Chairs project was devised.

The project culminated in an international exhibition being held at Paredes which aimed to be the largest ever global event focussed on chairs, art and design.

The chair was chosen as an emblem for the project as it is an everyday object but also an icon of the furniture industry. Aside from the international exhibition, the Art on Chairs project also included a wide variety of related activities designed to boost creativity in the furniture manufacturing sector and to stimulate cooperation between individual furniture designers and small- to medium-sized manufacturing businesses.

Exhibitions and competitions

As part of the project, nine separate exhibitions were organised, in addition to other events such as workshops, concerts, guided tours, book presentations and four design competitions. The Art on Chairs International Design Competition received 449 applications from 37 countries and led to nine winning entries being prototyped by the local furniture industry. The winning projects were selected by an international jury and some of the prototypes were put into commercial production.

Meanwhile, the More Design, More Industry international competition provided grants to nine Portuguese and foreign designers for residencies with local furniture companies.

Another high-profile competition was based on dialogues between designers and celebrity personalities - such as the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, the football manager José Mourinho and the businessman Luciano Benetton. The result was the design of eleven chairs which reflected the cultural heritage and life experience of the celebrity personality. In association with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the chairs were auctioned off and raised EUR 112 000, which was used to support educational projects in Africa. The participation of celebrities attracted international media attention and created a massive buzz around the project.

Transferring knowledge and expertise

The Art on Chairs project involved the whole community, from chambers of commerce to businesses, municipal authorities, universities and schools. The educational aspect to the project was designed to stimulate interest in furniture design among pupils and students and, potentially, the next generation of furniture manufacturers. The project also aimed to transfer knowledge and expertise from local universities to the furniture industry.

In total, 136 furniture products were designed over the course of the project. The publicity given to the project’s various events and the discussion they generated within the community has helped to transform attitudes within the furniture industry and has led to the successful launch of several new furniture products, some of which are being exported internationally. Many of the new products are premium-price designer chairs but new furniture lines are also in production.

Thirty-eight small to medium-sized enterprises in the region were actively involved in the project and 75 have registered their interest in being involved in the 2014 edition of the project. Seventy-seven designers were involved in the project, 54 000 visitors and participants attended project activities and 3 000 students from local schools and colleges took part in workshops and related activities.

“The Art on Chairs seeks to combine art, design and creativity with the promotion of a sector (furniture) that is vital to the social, economic and cultural development of Paredes and to northern Portugal, via a structured set of initiatives of an artistic and creative nature. Why the chair? Because it’s a familiar object in our day-to-day living and a recurring icon in arts and design throughout history. In Paredes, the chair is also the main symbol of its more representative industry.”

  • Celso Ferreira, Mayor of Paredes Municipality, North Region of Portugal.

Total investment and EU funding

Total investment for the project “Art on Chairs” was EUR 1 095 535 of which the EU’s European Regional Development Fund contributed EUR 931 205 from the Operational Programme “Norte” 2007-2013.

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