Butterfly stool thumbnail 1
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Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Design 1900 to Now, Room 74

Butterfly stool

Stool
1954 (designed), 1956 (manufactured)
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

The ‘Butterfly stool’ is one of the most recognised 20th-century furniture designs. In it the designer Sori Yanagi (1915-2011) uses the specifically western form of the stool, combining this with a shape that recalls Japanese architecture (such as the portals of Shinto shrines) and calligraphy. The shape of the stool evokes the wings of a butterfly in flight.

The stool’s very simple design reflects an inheritance from the Japanese Mingei movement of the early 20th century, of which Yanagi’s father was a leading proponent. Its use of moulded plywood also demonstrates an engagement with contemporary European and American design, particularly that of Charles and Ray Eames.


Object details

Category
Object type
TitleButterfly stool (assigned by artist)
Materials and techniques
Rosewood-faced 5-ply plywood with brass cross-bar and metal fittings
Brief description
'Butterfly stool', designed by Sori Yanagi and manufactured by Tendo Mokko, rosewood-faced 5-ply plywood with brass cross-bar and metal fittings, Tendo, Japan, designed 1954, manufactured late 1950s
Physical description
Stool of moulded 5-ply rosewood-faced plywood. The stool is made from two identical pieces of moulded plywood that are joined with a metal cross bar and metal fitting, so that each piece forms half of the seat and one of the legs.
Dimensions
  • Width: 44.2cm
  • Height: 39.4cm
  • Depth: 30.8cm
Marks and inscriptions
(Manufacturer's label adhere to inside of one of the legs)
Gallery label
  • Harnessing the power of military innovation Moulding plywood for aircraft during the Second World War pushed innovation in design. The chair shown here is one of the few prototypes Ray and Charles Eames created while experimenting with moulding plywood for the US Navy. Japanese designer Sori Yanagi developed the stool in collaboration with the Sendai Research Institute, which constructed aeroplane fuselages (the main body of the aircraft) from moulded plywood. Versions of both products went on sale after the war. Three-legged plywood chair Prototype DCW chair, about 1944–45 Designed by Ray and Charles Eames Made by Evans Products Company, Molded Plywood Division, USA Heat-moulded birch plywood, steel and rubber Museum no. W.10-1982 Plywood stool Butterfly, 1954 (manufactured 1956) Designed by Sori Yanagi in collaboration with the Sendai Research Institute Manufactured by Tendo Mokko, Japan Heat-moulded rosewood-faced plywood with brass cross-bar Museum no. W.5-2017 The object sits in the 'Crisis and Conflict' section of the Design 1900-Now gallery opened in June 2021. (2021)
  • Text from Plywood: Material of the Modern World (15 July-12 November 2017) BUTTERFLY STOOL Designed 1954 This stool’s striking and simple form is made by joining two identical sheets of moulded plywood, so that each sheet forms half of the seat and one leg. The design was first developed in collaboration with the Sendai Research Institute. Sendai had experience moulding plywood because of their wartime work constructing plywood aeroplane fuselages. Designed by Sori Yanagi (1915–2011) Manufactured late 1950s by Tendo Mokko Tendo, Japan Moulded rosewood-faced 5-ply plywood with brass cross-bar and metal fittings V&A: W.5–2017(2017)
Object history
Sori Yanagi (1915-2011) is one of Japan’s most important post-war designers. Born in Tokyo in 1915, Yanagi studied architecture and painting at Tokyo’s Academy of Fine Art, before working as Charlotte Perriand’s assistant while she travelled around Japan from 1940-42. Yanagi formed his own design studio in Tokyo in 1952. During his long career he designed a wide range of products, including ceramics, furniture, tableware, appliances and lighting.

Yanagi first developed the design for the 'Butterfly stool' in collaboration with the Sendai Research Institute (Miyagi-ken Sangyo Kogei Shikenjo). The Research Institute had equipment for moulding plywood due to their work constructing wooden airplane fuselages during the Second World War. In the mid-1950s the Director of the Institute was Kenmochi Isamu, another key Japanese designer of the post-war period. The Institute helped to make a prototype for Yanagi’s stool, which was then launched in 1956 at Tokyo’s Matsuya Department Store. It was after this point that Tendo Mokko took up its commercial manufacture.

Early prototypes of the stool are recognisable as their ‘feet’ sit completely flat on the ground (this was so that they would not damage the tatami mats which they sit on). Tendo Mokko versions of the stool (including this example) only touch the floor at two points on each leg. The stool was produced in relatively low quantities from the 1950s to the 1990s (c. 20-30 stools per year), at which point increasing international attention given to the work of designers such as Yanagi resulted in an increase of annual production to between 3000 and 4000 stools. In the 1990s Tendo Mokko also moved from moulding the stool parts in a wooden press, adopting instead a steel press which ensured a more standardised form. This stool can be dated as an early example in part from its form, which is that of the earlier wooden press, but also through its label – Tendo Mokko stopped labelling the stools in the 1960s.
Summary
The ‘Butterfly stool’ is one of the most recognised 20th-century furniture designs. In it the designer Sori Yanagi (1915-2011) uses the specifically western form of the stool, combining this with a shape that recalls Japanese architecture (such as the portals of Shinto shrines) and calligraphy. The shape of the stool evokes the wings of a butterfly in flight.

The stool’s very simple design reflects an inheritance from the Japanese Mingei movement of the early 20th century, of which Yanagi’s father was a leading proponent. Its use of moulded plywood also demonstrates an engagement with contemporary European and American design, particularly that of Charles and Ray Eames.
Bibliographic reference
Wilk, Christopher. Plywood: A Material Story. London: Thames & Hudson / V&A, 2017
Collection
Accession number
W.5-2017

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Record createdOctober 18, 2016
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