Seat success

The perfect garden chair is beautiful, comfortable and hard-wearing. No wonder it’s become the holy grail for design engineers

A bench by John Bielenberg based on a painting by Neil Shawcross. Photograph: Richard Johnston

A bench by John Bielenberg based on a painting by Neil Shawcross. Photograph: Richard Johnston


What a wonderful summer it’s been for sitting outdoors, savouring the almost forgotten feeling of warm sunlight on our faces. But the next time you settle down into your favourite garden seat, consider for a moment the words of the famous German-American architect Mies van der Rohe, who said of the challenges of design that “a chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier.”

Nowhere is this truer than of the humble garden chair or bench. The very best are not only beautiful, comfortable and hard-wearing but also inviting, making us not only want to sit down but to stay sitting down. They are nostalgic objects too, conjuring up memories of hazy, lazy summer days, of great parties and good conversations. But as for the worst – well, everyone has at some point experienced the discomfort of a badly designed garden seat. They might be rickety or unstable, with dangerous and undignified results (a garden bench collapsing under someone’s weight is as painful to the ego as the backside). Or they’re poorly finished, using wood that easily chips, metal fittings that snag on clothing, or paint finishes that quickly peel and flake. Or they’re just downright ugly, always the death knell when it comes to the ambience of any garden.

So it’s not difficult to understand why the perfect garden seat has become something of a holy grail for design engineers. Among them is John Bielenberg (son of the author Christabel Bielenberg) a retired design engineer living in Lucan. A few years ago Bielenberg was browsing this newspaper’s arts pages when a photograph of a painting by the Northern Irish artist Neil Shawcross caught his eye. More specifically, a painting of a garden bench. “For some reason, it completely smote me – I was besotted by the shape of it, the purity of its design. So I decided to build one just like it.”

Which is what he did, beginning with a series of technical drawings based on the shape and proportions of the bench shown in the Shawcross painting. After that came a ‘jig’, or model, where Bielenberg fine-tuned its exact proportions. “The true art of design comes in making something in such a way that it looks exactly right. Things that look right are also nearly always right from an engineering point of view.”

Bielenberg’s finished bench is elegant and airy, its slender curving bars of powder-coated steel almost swanlike in their gracefulness. It’s already caught the notice of some of Ireland’s best-known gardeners and garden designers, including Oliver Schurmann and June Blake (Blake has several of them in her Wicklow garden).

Another person who’ll soon receive one as a gift from Bielenberg is the artist whose work inspired its creation. Soon after he made his first bench, Bielenberg contacted Shawcross to ask him the location of the garden – and the bench – that had been the subject of his enigmatic painting. But all that the artist could remember was that it was a garden somewhere in north Co Dublin, perhaps in Donabate. “I’d love to know its story, its provenance, perhaps even the name of the person who made it,” Bielenberg says. “That, for me, would be the final piece of the puzzle.” Who knows, perhaps someone reading this paper has the answer . . .

For details and to order the
Bielenberg bench, priced
€250, tel: 087-740 9318

Five other classic
garden seats
Lutyens’ Thakeham seat: Designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens over a century ago, this elegant timber bench is better known simply as “the Lutyens”. (
Richard Schulz 1966 Lounge Chair: Part of the collection designer Richard Schulz made for Florence Knoll in 1966 and now considered a modern classic.
Fermob’s Luxembourg chair: Inspired by the park seating of the Jardin du Luxembourg of the 1920s, this lightweight, stackable, graceful chair is still made by French firm Fermob for the city’s public gardens
The Adirondack: An American classic that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century (also known as the Westport/ Muskoka), this high-backed timber chair is credited to Thomas Lee, who wanted sturdy but comfortable seating for his cottage garden in the Adirondack mountains.
The Turner seat at Woodstock Gardens in Kilkenny: A once-off, this intricately-detailed wrought-iron bench was designed by Irish engineer Richard Turner.

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