'Comfort Is Largely a Social Construct': The Unsettled Design Ethos of the Chair

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Why do we sit? The answer depends on place and time, says designer Jonathan Olivares.

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An Italian Sgabello, a Rietveld chair, and an Aeron chair. (The Walters Museum / MoMA / Herman Miller)

It often seems as though we spend at least half our lives sitting. For some people, much more than that. Sitting, therefore, concerns designers as much if not more than any other physical activity. But that's no guarantee of comfort. I once took part in a museum acquisition meeting where a very well-known designer's custom chair, which was distinctive in every way, was rejected because it was also uncomfortable in every way. Similarly, the wooden Rietveld chair, which looks like a three-dimensional Mondrian painting, is a classic—but not for sitting.

Jonathan Olivares thinks about sitting a lot. An industrial designer whose Jonathan Olivares Design Research (JODR) has designed furniture for Danese Milano and Knoll, he produced four-year investigation of office chairs funded by Knoll that culminated in the book A Taxonomy of Office Chairs (Phaidon Press, 2011). I recently emailed with him about the interplay between sitting and design.


To write your book, you obviously considered the various ways by which people sit. But what did you learn about where people sit?

Sitting means different things in different places, but generally in the office it reinforces a sense of belonging, purpose, and in certain contexts authority. Where you sit often determines how you want to sit. For instance, having a seat at a bus stop means something entirely different from sitting in a conference room. The situation determines what is appropriate in terms of posture, duration, and comfort.

"What's really exciting for the designer is that every once in a while a single product will change society's definition of comfort."

Are there different ways to sit? And are there optimal ways to sit?

There are at least as many ways to sit as there are unique situations. Whenever I'm asked if I have a favorite chair, I then ask, for what context? A café is entirely different from an airport lounge. Within a café a hard surface keeps one alert to the environment and engaged in conversation, and the right amount of curvature in the seat can allow extended periods of seated comfort. Another thing that is crucial in a café is the ability to comfortably sit in a chair sideways, and shift around in it, while speaking with adjacent people, or getting a waiter's attention.

Sitting around a campfire with a group of friends is one of the most enjoyable ways to sit. There a simple, low folding chair does a stellar job. Another great way is on the beach, barefoot in the sand. In my own office chair, I tend to forego comfort in exchange for elegance, even though my back suffers a little more. Women do this all the time with their shoes, and I think it's a perfectly reasonable trade.

Chairs are not the only sitting devices. Is a chair the most efficient way to sit?

I guess I consider all sitting devices chairs. Peter Opsvik's Variable Balans chair balances the body's weight on the knees, shins, and rear. I know a few people who sit in one at work. There are slings, like Alejandro Aravena's Chairless, which you strap yourself into. This is quite efficient, but I tend to think people strapped into these look like seated hostages. People sit on the floor in airports all the time, either while they charge their mobile devices at poorly placed outlets, or because there are no available seats. This always makes me somewhat sad, because no one considered them.

In Asian cultures sitting on the floor cross legged was always part of the upbringing, though less so today, and people developed the flexibility and muscles to support themselves. Probably the most efficient way to sit upright is on a nicely shaped rock, where no human effort is exerted or resources used in the production of the chair. When Eames designed his steel wire chair, he was influenced by Buckminster Fuller's ideas on maximum structural effectiveness with minimum material usage, and this was highly efficient. Then there was the Blow chair by De Pas, D'Urbino, and Lomazzi, which was inflated with air. I could be wrong, but I think that's the closest we've come to sitting on thin air.

What must a designer know about designing one?

The seating situation and the possible resources for manufacturing form the backdrop to designing a chair. Know everything there is to know about these factors. The rest is largely what you do with this information when it meets the other inspirations you may have, which are what distinguish a functioning chair from a great work of design.

What is the definition of comfort regarding sitting?

Comfort is largely a social construct. We have seen the definition of comfort change immensely, within society, even as quickly as every 20 years. This definition is affected by shifting attitudes and behaviors, and changes in manufacturing technology. In the 1960s and '70s, declassified WWII research on the human body prompted the field of ergonomics, and meanwhile a wide and powerful social interest in worker and consumer safety was growing in society. These factors, coupled with the invention of molded polyurethane foam, created the first ergonomic office chairs, which redefined people's expectations of comfort in the workplace. What's really exciting for the designer is that every once in a while a single product will change society's definition of comfort. In 1994 the Aeron chair reshaped expectations of comfort, and now only 18 years after its release, I hear a lot of people saying how uncomfortable they think it is in comparison with some of the latest office chairs.

What is the difference between sitting in a stationary environment versus a moving one?

Chairs in airplanes and cars are developed to protect us. George Nelson called this "survival design," where the features of an object exist only for optimum performance, without any embellishments or superfluous details. If they don't work, our lives are jeopardized. While this is the case in fighter cockpits, spaceships, and racing cars, the seats in ordinary vehicles tend to be pretty mundane, conditioned by decades of manufacturing standardization and increasing safety regulations. The official name for a headrest in an automobile is a head restraint, and it is only there to protect the head against severe whiplash.

What do you know about sitting that the average sitter does not know?

I like to think about the front row of the Dionysus Theater, where back in the fourth century BCE, priests would sit on chairs carved from marble. VIPs have always had the best chairs. I also admire the Italian Sgabello of the 16th century, designed not so much for sitting as for being admired against a wall for its beauty.

One of my favorite seats is the archetypal park bench, developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, which expressed the idea, which was then new within European society, that people should convene in and enjoy public gardens. One of the best seated experiences I've ever had was an irresistible jet-lagged nap, taken early one morning in the Jardin du Palais Royal in Paris, while seated on a Luxembourg chair. I remember the temperature of the aluminum, which stayed cool in the April air. Most people couldn't tell you what chair they ate lunch on yesterday, which is part of a general lack of awareness concerning the manmade world.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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