The Chair Takes a Front Seat

Even the most humorless soul might appreciate the understated wit of Sergio Rodrigues's business card, which depicts the squat, mustachioed octogenarian dozing away blissfully in a well-padded reclining chair. After all, the 82-year-old architect and interior designer has built a lively career out of cheeky chairs. In September, Rodrigues unveiled his latest creation: the Chifruda, inspired by his 1962 design the Aspas, of which only two were produced. Named after the Brazilian Portuguese slang word for a woman with a philandering husband, the oversize armchair features an imbue-wood frame and a seat, back, and armrests made of cowhide, along with an inverted, crown-level arc that resembles horns. A total of 40 pieces have been manufactured by the Brazilian design firm Mendes-Hirth ($20,000; espasso.com).

More than any other article of furniture, the chair seems to be bucking the current climate of asceticism and frugality to take a boldly innovative stand. While some designers are content to ease their clients through the recessionary storm with sedate creations, a handful are seizing the opportunity to experiment with form and texture, hoping to encourage reluctant renovators to at least splurge for a splashy piece. "There are many ways to solve the problem of seating someone," says Cindy Trope of the product-design and decorative-arts department at the -Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. "Chairs are a particular challenge; they have to be functional, comfortable, and visually appealing. The form itself is interesting."

The most inventive designers imbue their wares with personal stamps of whimsy, wit, or grandeur. At the recent London Design Festival, Spanish-born designer Jaime Hayón and photographer Nienke Klunder unveiled the Rocking Hot Dog, a drooping, five-foot fiberglass sausage with a leather seat in the middle ($26,000; hayonstudio.com). Working with graffiti and Swarovski crystals, the London-based design firm Jimmie Martin creates edgier pieces with occasionally provocative messages. Along the back of a thronelike, glossy black armchair, stark white lettering reads GOD SAVE THE QUEEN ($2,800; jimmiemartin.co.uk). The Louis XVI–style Chess armchair features a gold-painted wooden frame and a canvas seat hand-painted to resemble a silver and black chessboard ($3,500). U.K.-based furniture and interior designer Lee Broom's Club Chair is a Chesterfield distinctively rendered in copper-colored leather with working lightbulbs where the buttons should be ($13,500; leebroom.com).

Fashion designers have taken notice, creating fabrics expressly for chairs. Partnering with Gainsborough Silks—which upholstered for the Titanic, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace—Paul Smith has released silk damasks in classic and quirky motifs for upholstering, and Loro Piana is making special upholstery cashmere from Hyrcus goats, which are native to the Himalayas.

Issey Miyake, on the other hand, ventured into stylish seating almost accidentally. Hoping to recycle the reams of garment paper that are discarded after pressing pleats into fabric, he challenged designers to incorporate the strips into a piece of furniture. The Japanese firm Nendo rolled the sheets into a cylinder and then peeled back each layer to form the aptly named Cabbage Chair. "It's almost elegant in its simplicity," says Trope. Earlier this year the company unveiled the Antler, a green cushion with a back that resembles the appendages atop a reindeer's head (nendo.jp).

Also paying homage to the animal kingdom, the Peacock, by Studio Dror, is crafted from three felt strips structured around a metal frame, with no sewing or upholstery ($6,000; cappellini.it).

Outré touches have a larger function than distinguishing pedestrian works from collectors' items. Over time, a clearly defined aesthetic establishes a designer's legacy. "A lot of designers cater to a trend, and when that trend is over, they are over," says Rodrigues. Reigning over the furniture kingdom requires crafting one's own throne.