Airborne is one of France's most successful and influential design companies of the modernist era.
Launched in 1951 by Charles Bernard (1904-1994), Airborne's first product was the AA Chair, originally designed in 1938 by Spanish-Argentinian collective Grupo Austral (Juan Kurchan, Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy, and Antonio Bonet). Knoll had produced Grupo Austral's original Butterfly Chair into the 1940s. After the war, however, Bernard's friend André Bloc informed him that Knoll no longer held the license. Bernard acquired the rights and, in Bloc's honor, renamed the new Airborne seat by taking the initials of Bloc’s magazine L’architecture d’Aujourd’hui. The AA Chair was a bestseller, and the profits generated by its sales allowed Airborne to collaborate with the most renowned French designers and compete with the biggest French producers.
Not content with merely reproducing licensed designs, Bernard was eager for Airborne to create original works with the design talents of the day. The company's first collaboration was with leading French designer Pierre Guariche, a partnership that led to the Prefacto series (1951-53), a complete suite of furniture comprised of curved tubular steel frames and wooden surfaces. Guariche also designed a successful collection of lounge chairs, sofas, and armchairs for Airborne. Other major designers to work with Airborne in the midcentury include René-Jean Caillette, Jacqueline Lecoq, Joseph-André Motte, and Antoine Philippon.
Airborne’s most innovative collaboration occurred when young designer Olivier Mourgue approached Bernard with his black leather Joker Easy Chair (1959). Bernard liked it and agreed to produce it. It was the beginning of a successful relationship that lasted over a decade and contributed to Airborne’s reputation taking off in France and abroad. Mourgue’s undulating Djinn Chair (1965) embodies the futuristic "Space Age" aesthetic of the 1960s and has firmly taken its place in design history. Thanks to an appearance on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 1967 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Djinn Chairs and Sofas, which are no longer in production, have become true collector's items and 20th-century design icons.
Unfortunately, the iconic status of the Djinn Chair was conferred retroactively. Despite enthusiastic critical reception, Airborne had a tough time selling the Djinn Chairs to retailers and customers at the time, who deemed the avant-garde design as “obscene.” To contend with response, Airborne reinvested in their retail network and, in 1962, decided to split the company in order to better reach their target markets: Airborne Résidence for the domestic market and Airborne Collectivité for commercial interests.
Airborne perfected the technique of covering injected foam rubber with a synthetic knit jersey fabric. The company's international fame spread in no small part due to their provocative publicity campaigns. Produced by Hautefille, the 1968 advertisement “Tout est là” provoked outrage due to its depiction of 50 curvaceous bottoms, a metaphor for the pliability and comfort of Airborne’s seats.
Despite its bold campaigns and innovative designs, Airborne didn’t survive the 1974 oil crisis and has been resold several times since, never regaining the confidence that defined the company at its peak in the 1960s.