Rhythm, light, order: String System and the architect's grid
String System shelves we use in our Amsterdam store have a curious quality: though the system is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the shelves seem like they could’ve been designed yesterday. Originally conceived as bookshelves by Nils and Kajsa Strinning for Swedish publishing giant Bonnier, the first String units did not look much different from the ones you find today. The essential formula remains unchanged: sturdy wooden planks which hook over the trellis-lines of two wire-frame panels, giving the planks the appearance of floating. In its proportions, in its functions, and in its materiality, String Furniture is rooted in the visual and conceptual tenets of modernist design: that is, light, rhythm and order.
The greatest invention of modernist design was not a building or a house but the invisible grid which holds everything together. Space on a grid is not so much drawn as it is suggested: one or two lines placed here or there is enough for you to know where the next square falls. In the String System, where the lines – the bold horizontals or the fine verticals – are placed is just as important was where they are not. String shelves are particularly elegant in wide proportions, the long sweep of a shelf can be interrupted by a slender stroke of a wire panel.
Eileen Grey’s modernist masterpiece, Villa E-1027. Photograph by Simon Watson.
String Furniture shelves
These wire panels are what give String Furniture its elegance. Though the system's flexibility is the most-talked about feature, the way they allow light to pass through is arguably their most important function. In northern Europe, where low grey skies and long winter nights make light an important resource to be managed in the dark half of the year. We use String System in our Amsterdam shop for just this reason. Our store is located in an Amsterdam School building, long and clever and not terribly blessed by good lighting (you can’t have it all, sadly). We have two large windows at the front, and when the sun is out the whole stored becomes radiant; but for the greyer three-quarters of the year, the back of the store is just a little dim. If we had selected shelves with solid sides, it would be even dimmer. In allowing light to pass from one end to the other, String shelves carve the wan Dutch sunlight, guiding it to fall where it is most needed.
Mural by Le Corbusier in E-1027, seen during a restoration. Photograph by Luc Castel
The bending of the light is traditionally thought of as an architect’s job – it’s certainly on an architect’s shoulders that the mismanagement of light falls – but the further north you head, the more designers of all stripes take light into consideration. The furniture that put Danish design on the map was often low-slung, kept off the ground by the spindliest little legs the designer could manage; its rich varnishes kept light and gloss moving above hip-height. Further north still, Norsemen and Swedes kept their houses in light, bright colours, which let light bounce around the walls, while Finnish designers of the 1960s were masters of the glass, textiles, and ceramics which filled their home lives with colour.
Light, the invisible stuff of the in-between, colours our lives. Even when we look at a blank wall, the simple act of looking means that we still have this – the light. Though a grid’s rhythm and order bring their own joys, in the String System, as in Piet Mondriaan’s primary-coloured experimental paintings and Massimo Vignelli’s fastidious posters and books, it is the light, the nothing which is everything, the thing which shows us the shape of life, which is the highest sort of joy. Not just the shelf, but the oddly-shaped vase and the 15 tatty paperbacks you half-finished that sit on top.
The way life and light fills up four walls is the chief reason why Eileen Grey’s Villa E-1027 remains endlessly compelling and lovable. Located on the French Riviera, the E-1027 is a testament to light and colour, and filled with both Gray’s stupendous murals and thoughtful furniture. The furniture often sported deft personal touches: in a guest room intended for her sister, for example, she had a breakfast-in-bed tray installed with a built-in crumb-catcher. E-1027 remained filled with light and life until one summer in 1938, when Le Corbusier spent the summer and covered its walls – as well as many of Gray’s murals – with his own work. When Gray discovered the desecration, she left E-1027 permanently. Corbusier’s own Villa Savoye, on the other hand, though far more famous and influential, was a white tomb: without consideration for the people who would live in it, it let little in, and remains today a chilly monument to not much at all.