A Sunday in Venice, Fall 1969. High on an early morning doubledose of espresso & freedom: from the parents, America, university, expectations. Strolling aimlessly with Kalle along una strada stretta…hey, lookathat! an egg-shaped leather seat. Whatsit called? Sacco?? Hmmm…wow, TOLL. Looks like giant bean bag.
We could make that.
And, we did.
Ditching our scenic Venice camping spot the next morning, we returned to that galleria caro at opening time to actually sit in & touch the free-form, luxuriously large red leather bag. The proprietor eyed us suspiciously: we didn’t fit his usual customer mold (..hmmm, best not to take measurements). Afterward, charged up with more sips of expresso, we sketched the remembered design at an outdoor cafe a few ponti away.
Following a couple more weeks of camping in torrential rain, desperately searching for a toilet along the beaches of Porto San Stefano, & being arrested in Nice with a colorful collection of other undesirable transient elements, Kalle (my German boyfriend) & I retreated to Wulfing’s ex-brother-in-law Ernst’s penthouse in Munich, broke & hungry. We hatched The Bean Bag Chair Enterprise together with recently-divorced Ernst & our mutual-friend Wulfing, who I’d met during freshman year at UCSC: they’d provide the capital & we’d provide the labor (…yup, an early but enduring lesson in how capitalism works).
We spent a month or so experimenting with the design & testing materials. To make the chair more affordable, we used an inexpensive, faux leather fabric called Vistram. We didn’t know what was inside the Sacco so had to track down something that provided both structure & flexibility: turned out they were disgustingly-clingy, totally-non-biodegradeable polystyrene beads. Once the design was deemed satisfactory, Kalle & I cut & sewed & bagged daily in the basement of Ernst’s Georgenstrasse apartment building; every evening, we climbed the stairs with teeny bits of white confetti clinging to every exposed surface.
As soon as we’d sewn & filled a rainbow of sample ‘chairs’, Ernst hosted a wildly-successful coming-out party for the Munich elite. It was thrilling that everyone loved die Sessel, but mostly I was overly-grateful for those guests who enjoyed practicing English mit der jungen Amerikanerin.
Turns out, our little basement company popularized bean bag chairs. Venice -> Munich ->> The World.
We called the company Sapporo Produkte in honor of the upcoming 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, & also, in anticipation of the (soon-to-be-disastrous) ’72 Summer Olympics in Munich. The city was digging a new U-bahn subway line along the nearby main street in anticipation of the Summer Games…grey memories of slogging along craggy sidewalks through mud & snow during that interminable winter, the first I’d experienced as a SoCal gal. It was bone-numbing f…ing freezing in that basement.
Ernst was a connected guy. His ex-wife, Wulfing’s sister Diemut, owned a downtown shop which became our main outlet. They had a young son – I was his nanny for a few months until I forgot to pick him up from school one day. After that I really missed speaking Deutsch with him…I was more conversant with 5-year olds in the local tongue than the university crowd we usually hung out with.
Demand for die Sessel grew. Affluent parents wanted these totally toll giant bean bags for both themselves und ihre Kinder: I designed & crafted large bean bag turtles, soccer balls, & soft grey mice (my favorite) to expand our line @ Diemut’s shop.
Eventually, winter melted into Fruhling: one fine morning, we collected my sister Nancy from her dorm on the other side of town & drove west to Teufen, Switzerland, to liberate our younger sister Sandy for a few hours from her ghastly boarding school: the housemothers were a-twitter but there was no overruling fast-talking Deutsch boys. We fervently hoped our parents, in Madrid at the time, wouldn’t get word of the Boarding School Security Breach.
In any event, by then other enterprising companies had adapted ‘our’ bean bag chair design & I was finally dreaming auf Deutsch. I wasn’t sad to leave the Georgenstrasse basement in the fall of 1970 to return to UCSC – I declared a German Literature major upon arrival in Santa Cruz, but that barely lasted one quarter: reading Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (“Death in Venice”) wasn’t nearly as fun as designing furniture on tiny Venetian serviettes.
The comfy bean bag chair revolution was a perfect complement to other social movements of the early 1970’s: women, anti-war, environmental protection, cultural & racial identity. Social change & Italian design triumphs aside, it’s a reflection of our human love of food that my happiest memories of that Munich year were being introduced to glorious gorgonzola at the local market, scarfing currywurst at ubiquitous sausage stands, & daintily picking pommes frites out of a paper cone, bitte, mit mayo.