A Good Chair
Getting Seated and Feeling Settled When Work-at-Home is the Only Option
I think everyone working from home has a chair story during these strange times. A story of finding that the seating options at hand are now having to do quadruple duty — used for dining, working, lounging and even exercising. Maybe just one or two household chairs have to do the work of multiple purposes.
As we move less and sit more, our household seating choices become even more important to our physical and mental health, something I continue to discover firsthand. Woefully unprepared, I sat the first three weeks of the stay-at-home mandate on a cushion-less, wooden dining room chair for hours and hours each day as I worked at my dining room table.
My lovely Naoto Fukasawa chair. For a design nerd (like me!) it is a stunner. Beautifully crafted wood forms, delicate curves, easy on the eyes. Simple. Elegant. But intended for a short duration over a meal.
Three weeks in, I had developed an inflamed sciatic nerve.
Good design is often about finding the balance between aesthetic beauty and practical use. It also understands that not all uses are universal or transferable. The Naoto chair was never intended to serve as desk furniture, something I knew but wasn’t paying attention to as I adjusted to working from home.
At the same time, the thought of bringing a conventional office chair into my open plan space felt like sacrilege. The plastic and rubber, ergonomic variety of seating belongs in the office, not my dining room.
I searched online and found a used Eames management chair in brown leather. A secret rendezvous during the “stay-in-place” order at a local second-hand design store to purchase this item felt a little like an illegal drug trade. Good design to the rescue. I could have my seat and enjoy it too!
But the pain shooting down my leg led me to thinking more about chairs.
Designing a chair is every industrial designer’s dream. Like designing a knife or bowl, a chair is one of the fundamental objects of human existence. It has every element to challenge a designer’s maturity, skill, and knowledge.
The object has a clear function: situate the body in a seated position at a height and posture that is ergonomically correct for the task at hand.
It has aesthetic properties: choices about material, shape, pattern, color, texture, and adornment inform both the chair’s use and the experience one has with it in relation to the environment in which it is placed. It also offers an aesthetic complement to the sitter, who completes the picture by being seated on the object in its environment. Just think about the picture of a person seated and you see that the object helps compose the image.
Lastly, a chair has meaning. Where the equation we hear about most is that form follows function, we know that it follows meaning, as well.
A throne is an expression and representation of power and authority. A farmer’s milking stool, while certainly designed for function, is somehow naturally expresses humility and simplicity. Think about the comforting touches on a rocking chair or the whimsy in the tasseled drapery of a hammock.
That recliner speaks to a kind of rugged individuality while the barstools at an elegant lounge may be designed for youthful vigor. In fact, the perfect bar stool is designed to feel stable enough to support a slightly tipsy sitter, delicate enough to allow for quick movements on and off the seat, and invisible enough to ensure that the sitter is the star of their own particular moment.
A Thomas Chippendale chair from England or a stately silhouette makes a French Louis XIV armchair a focal point wherever they are placed and a reflection of the owner’s status. By stark contrast, more modern chairs by Ray and Charles Eames, my favorite mid-century modern designers, explored new materials and manufacturing processes that led to completely new forms and new ways of seeing oneself as “modern.” The object signaled the owner’s attitude and philosophy toward cultural newness.
There are millions of chair designs that when well-designed tell stories about their place in history. At this moment, designers are challenged to produce new ideas for the chairs that tell the story of this time. For designers, difficulty is a catalyst for design so I feel certain that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of design prototypes underway to address the challenges of the seated position. So even as many designers are addressing the more acute complexities of this moment, designers should also feel empowered to go back to basics and design the next great chair for our times.
Personally, I’m looking forward the ruggedness of a barber’s chair, the spare utility of train seat, the hominess of a restaurant booth and the eagerness of a theater seat. Each one is designed — more or less perfectly — for its particular use. But I’m also crafting my own responses to this moment by sketching chairs and thinking about the possibilities for something we haven’t yet seen.
I’m sure it will tell the story of this time. I hope that it will allow sitters to feel comfortable and comforted in this time. That they will reflect the functional demands and aesthetic possibilities of this moment. I’m sure the story our new chairs tell will reflect this moment in our lives, as we spend long days at home making new stories for our time.