The tale of the heavy chrome and vinyl parastatal chairs

You see a lot of crazy stuff when hunting for furniture from the fifties, sixties and seventies in South Africa. The thing is, you don’t just find this kind of furniture for a bargain in proper antique shops. And even the most chaotic antique shop is kind of predictable compared to the sort of places where you find mid-century and seventies stuff.

You find this kind of furniture in general second hand stores, at auctions of the sheriff of the court, all over the internet, rotting under verandas on the sides of houses. You find it in stores in the platteland but normally at the back since most of these stores sell newer, badly made beds, cupboards and fridges to poor people. They have no use for the faux Scandinavian mid-century stuff that inner city kids want.

Sometimes, in these joints, you stumble across a thing that you’ve never seen before and struggle to place. Like these two incredibly heavy vinyl chairs on a solid chrome base. Magriet saw them on Gumtree and just thought they had some significance. I agreed although none of us had any idea what they were. Look, I mean, they’re not pretty by any stretch of the imagination but they have a unique 20th century crudeness to them.

On the Gumtree picture they just looked like they were part of some post-war Eastern European branch of art deco. Or something. When you don’t know what a thing is and it has round corners, just call it art deco. That is also what the ad said.

Picture: Gumtree

They were in a huge loft in Paardeneiland with a Cape movie casting agency and they belonged to a slight and worldly lady who’s been casting hopeful young actors for advertisements and B-grade movies for decades. It was like she herself was cast to be in this roll of casting hopeful young actors for roles.

In real life we immediately recognised that they were state furniture or parastatal furniture (Is there such a thing?). How did we know it? I don’t know. You can almost smell it. It is something to do with the thickness of the vinyl, I guess. And they are damn heavy – 50 kg’s I would say. No normal chair is that heavy…

We were thinking Joburg General Hospital Main Waiting Area. Or Reserve Bank Foyer. Or Volkskas Headquarters. Or airport – Jan Smuts, DF Malan, whatever – some kind of grand apartheid flying station!

What threw me off initially in the search for the origin of these weird ass chairs, was a punched inscription on the one base that said ABL 1951, with the B the wrong way around. Now if you type those characters into Google, you immediately hit gold. Metal with the mark ABL 1951 is either a Belgian military pocket knife or a rifle from a Belgian factory – the FN Mauser 1951, which is a kind of great grandson of the Mauser that the Boers used to knock the shit out of the British in 1900.  The knife would be similar to the famous Victorinox Swiss army knives. ABL stands for Armée Belge Belgisch Leger (Belgian army) and the 1951 seems to be the date that it was made.

The punched inscription on the chrome base of the chair - ABL 1951.

The punched inscription - BL 1951 - on a Belgian army pocket knife. ABL stands for Armée Belge Belgisch Leger.

The punched inscription on a Mauser 30-06 caliber short rifle - ABL 1951.

For a while there I thought I was onto something, but the fact that these chairs had a clear seventies feel and just the general far-fetchedness of the idea that the chairs might be from a Belgian army factory saved me from going down that road.

Next a combination of keywords such as “seventies”, “solid chrome base”, “vinyl”, “airport”, “waiting”, “chair” and so on, brought me no luck. Nothing that even remotely looked like these chairs. I was about to give up when I chatted to my uncle who lives in India. We chat regularly on WhatsApp when I have a "quiet moment" at 05:00 in the morning. He knows a lot about the history of styles of furniture and architecture and all that kind of stuff. “Seventies Jan Smuts VIP lounge”, he speculated. This tied in with what I was thinking all the time, so I decided to try to find pictures of the interiors of South Africa’s airports in the seventies.

Don’t think it is very easy to just do that. There are many pictures of what was then the new brutalist façade of the whites only Jan Smuts airport. It seems that a new terminal building was built around 1971, and from what I can make out it caused quite an architectural stir at the time. And look at it. You can see why. A crazy building such as this must’ve blown the relatively conservative and largely rural white South Africans who came here’s minds. Why is it as if the highveld, apartheid, and hyper modernist architecture, seemed to have been such a natural fit? Just look at this terminal, the Rand Afrikaans University building, the State Theatre, the Reserve Bank, the Ponte tower… and on and on we can go.

The facade of Jan Smuts airport that was unveiled in 1970 - Pictures:

To find interior pictures of the terminals of the early seventies was not easy, as I said, but the moment I found the first one I knew we hit the jackpot. Luckily the artists who were commissioned to do the massive works that adorned the halls had taken pictures. In this case it was the famous wall panel with birds that the potter Esias Bosch did with more than 3000 tiles, that helped me out. There at the bottom of the picture that I found in an online archive, these same damn chairs are, or at least as far as I could make out. Judge for yourself.

Esias Bosch's wall panel of birds, with the chairs at the bottom. Picture: Art Archives SA

So I went on to find more of these pictures. The next one I could find was of a metal sculpture panel that Berrell Jensen did in the VIP lounge. And this time, unmistakeably, the chairs were in the bottom left corner. Do youself a favour and read a little more about Berrell Jensen – her story in itself is worth a movie.

Berrell Jensen's sculptural mural in the VIP lounge of Jan Smuts Airport in 1970. Check the white chairs at the bottom left. Picture: Art Archives SA

So I threw a few pictures of these chairs on Facebook and asked my friends if they recognised it, and as the story unfolded told them about it. One of my friends, an avid amateur pilot, found these pictures on a forum for aviation nuts – There the chairs were in the ticket lobby and also in the transit lounge. It seems like the ones in the VIP lounge were white and that the grey and blue chairs that we found were from some of the other lounges.

The transit lounge of Jan Smuts Airport in 1970.

The ticket lobby of Jan Smuts Airport in 1970. Pictures:

So that is what they are. Jan Smuts Airport lounge waiting chairs.

I chuckled.

I have no idea if anybody will see a use for them, but I’m sure somebody will find them irresistible. They are things with a history.

- Ali van Wyk

Click to buy the two chairs here


  • Kim Davies

    Very interesting reading. I too remember these seats in Jan Smuts Airport, Joburg in the 1970s. My family arrived in SA 1974 and we spent many a time at the airport flying back and forth to the UK, picking up visiting relatives etc. The seats were very much of their time, 1970s ultra modern minimalist. The last time I sat on one of those seats was in the departure lounge awaiting my flight to London in 1984, I haven’t returned to Joburg since – great memories, thanks for sharing

  • Abrie Van Wyk

    Klink na n kort spanningsverhaal!

  • Abrie Van Wyk

    Klink na n kort spanningsverhaal!

  • Erika Theron

    Lekker storie!

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