Right off-the-bat, Torto Canga wants to make it clear that he isn’t Mr. Chair.
“In reality I came up with the name because it had dual meaning,” he says of the antique furniture dealership that he started with wife Meryll. “First, most of the major chair designers were male. Second, people may presume it’s me so they would be able to relate more to a person rather than a random brand name.”
The name stuck, and carried to a growing following for the couple’s astute selections. The passion project began with looking for their own furniture collection. This led the Cangas to meeting more people with the same interest. “Eventually, we would sell pieces to each other so we can upgrade the pieces we currently had. As our circle of friends grew, demand also grew. Hence, Mr. Chair,” Torto shares.
Despite the name, the couple also collects and sources lamps, tables and other pieces of vintage furniture. But Torto is particularly drawn to what he says is a mundane object we often take for granted. “Chairs are more complicated than we realize. A great chair is one of the most difficult pieces of furniture to design,” he explains. “The designer has to take into account the different materials, tensions and forces into his design. Not to mention the different body types and weight of people it has to carry. I read somewhere that if you can design a good chair then you can design a building. It’s no surprise that a lot of the chairs that have become iconic are also designed by individuals with an architecture background.”
Mr. Chair’s growth will be punctuated by a show at Vinyl on Vinyl this weekend. Dubbed “The Iconic Chair Reimagined,” the exhibit will showcase different interpretations of the Eames shell chair done by 19 artists—MM Yu, Mariano Ching, Jigger Cruz, Lynyrd Paras, Eveyrwhere We Shoot, and the promising Doktor Karayom among them. We chatted with Canga a couple of days before he and Meryll are set to open the show.
How did you get into collecting?
I had some experience working for a home and design magazine so I was able to familiarize myself with designer brands. One day Meryll, my then girlfriend, now my wife, made we watch the film The Architect and The Painter. After seeing it, I was so fascinated about the Eames couple that my love affair with chairs began. So technically my wife was the one who got me into appreciating design, which led to collecting chairs.
You came from publishing, was the transition to this industry difficult?
You can say that my exposure to the publishing world, planted that seed of interest in design. Also, having publishing experience for more than a decade developed my appreciation for graphic and functional design. I believe that we are all innately attracted to beauty so definitely looking at and being surrounded by beautifully designed objects do relieve stress.
What’s your favorite piece?
I have a lot for different reasons. Personally, I would say it would be the Eames Fiberglass Shell Chair. It’s just the overall package. It’s the most versatile with its interchangeable bases, wide variety of colors and different variations of textures. It can fit any kind of aesthetic and was used in so many applications. Schools, public libraries, government offices, stadiums, military facilities and yes designer homes. I was reading an issue of Wallpaper once and the article said that the magazine’s staff realized that all the issues they published up to that point always featured an Eames shell chair. Also, this chair has an amazing story, not to mention the larger than life creators, the Eames themselves. I can go on and on about this chair.
What were the challenges you faced?
It was really on communicating and building trust with our suppliers [abroad]. You see, some of these countries were not used to dealing with Filipinos. We felt that there was an initial stigma that we needed to break in-order to gain their trust. Also, we try our best to source out the best items for the least cost. So we have to do a lot of research. Finding collectible pieces of furniture is not difficult but you will have to pay a hefty price. We feel that most of these pieces were designed for the benefit of the ordinary man. So he can enjoy well made, beautiful furniture made with cheaper materials. So we really do our best to source out the best for the least prices. Like what Charles Eames said, “We want to make the best, for the most, for the least.”
How are you and your wife as project partners?
Me and my wife have so many similar interests. Interest in design is just one of them. We have the same vison for Mr. Chair, which makes everything fall in to place. I think in every partnership having a shared vision is crucial. It’s even more crucial for larger organizations. Once the vision becomes murky, then that’s when people start pulling or pushing in different directions. We also have our own strengths. This is how we separate our tasks: My wife is more sociable than I am so she has the soft skills: PR, talking to collectors. I, on the other hand, do the dirty work. Assembling the furniture, repair. Apart from that we both take turns doing the rest of the tasks.
Which acquisition will you never forget?
There was a bunch of chairs that I purchased from someone in Ohio. It was a bunch of Eames side chairs with maroon naugahyde upholstery. The guy I purchased it from told me in passing that a set designer had earlier bought a few pieces of the same chair that was to be used for a Hollywood movie set. He told me it was some sort of period film from the ’50s or ’60s. It was just a passing conversation so I didn’t make any importance of it. A few years later, I was watching Damien Chazelle’s First Man at the cinema. I noticed that he used a lot of Eames furniture in his set, which was consistent with that period. I suddenly recalled the conversation with the Ohio seller. So the entire movie I was on the lookout for the cousins of my chairs. It did not take long—about 10 minutes into the movie I saw it. It was just for a split second. Ryan Gosling, the main actor, was sitting on one of them. It’s a cool story. I posted in on the Mr. Chair IG account. It also thrilled the collectors who purchased that same model of chair from me.
In terms of what it offers in design, what are your most favorite cities in the world?
Copenhagen is a designer furniture haven. Me and my wife loved that city. The Danes produce some of the world’s best furniture. They are also known for taking their dwelling spaces seriously. Their liking for clean lines and the marriage of functionality and form is really evident in their spaces may it be a public space, a restaurant, or their homes. I remember riding the bus in the city and as I looked at the apartment complexes we were driving by, I could not help but notice the beautiful PH lamps, which I could see though their apartment windows. I quickly realized that it was commonplace for Danish apartments to have those lamps.
Copenhagen is also home to a lot of our favorite designers. We got to visit the homes of Finn Juhl, Arne Jacobsen and Room 606 of the Royal SAS hotel which is now called the Radisson Blue. The latter is a design capsule for all Arne Jacobsen fans. Oh by the way, the Design Museum is also in Copenhagen. But me talking about that would be another long story.
What is the first thing that strikes you about an item before you decide to acquire it?
Well, we stick to our favorite designers when acquiring pieces so we already know how they will look. The effect is more of being star struck when we see these items in person because normally, we would only see them in design books. There are a lot of details when seeing these objects in person. A lot of them are subtle. It can be as simple as the shape of the armrests, the placement screws, the mechanisms that make the object work. Because of all that attention to detail, these objects normally look good at any angle you look at them, be it the front, back, side, and the like. These are one of the ways to tell if something is well designed. Our benchmark is quite simple, if we would keep it in our own home, then it’s worth the purchase.
When it comes to furniture design, who are your favorites?
Wow. I can write an entire book based on that question alone. We love the Eameses, because who does not love them? We love them for their quirkiness and overall creativity. They were some of the most creative minds during their time. Maybe we’re not aware of it but our lives are in some way affected by the work of the Eames couple. We just love everything about them.
We also have a liking for the Bauhaus movement which brought about a totally new way of thinking when it came to functional design. They were a cross between artists, architects, designers and artisans. They basically paved the way for modern design. We love Danish designers like Arne Jacobsen, Paul Kjaerholm, Finn Juhl and Hans Wegner for their minimalist approach and sleekness of their designs.
Verner Panton is another Danish designer we love though he is the exact opposite of the other designers we mentioned. A handful of these designers namely Jacobsen and some members of the Bauhaus like Le Corbusier practiced what is called Gesamtkunstwerk—in German translates to “total work of art.” This was evident in the Royal SAS Hotel designed by Jacobsen, wherein he designed not only the building’s architecture but all its contents from the furniture, lighting down to the cutlery and curtains.
How would you describe your personal aesthetic?
We don’t really have a style. Some say its mid century but we also collect modern stuff like Magis. The pieces we have are so timeless they can match any aesthetic. We love well-designed pieces and it’s these pieces that make up our home from furniture, books, toys, artwork, whatever we find beautiful and inspires us we may keep.
What are your hopes for Mr Chair?
This is driven by our passion for design and how important it is for us to live better lives. We live by our motto “Better living through design, one object at a time.” So we will continue on this mission. To source the best designed objects from around the world and bring them to people’s homes, in effect improving the way people live. For us, Mr. Chair is really a passion project. We love it so much that the money we earn from it is just an added bonus.
The Iconic Chair Re-imagined will be held at Gallery Vinyl On Vinyl 2241 Pasillio 18, La Fuerza Compound 1, Chino Roces Ave. Makati. For more information on Mr. Chair, follow them on Facebook and Instagram.