Missing the Points

Missing the Points

Missing the Points

Awards for Chairs

WIGGLESIDE CHAIR  – “innovative, playful and surprising….”  demonstrates that even an architect of Frank Gehry’s stature fails to employ a sense of human proportion in the realm of furniture. Each of the chairs sketched in this article has won an award for design, regardless of its being at best uncomfortable and at worst impossible to sit on.  I question therefore the aptness of the criteria by which they are judged to be fine examples of their category – whether utilitarian objects shouldn’t have usefulness as a foundation of their composition.       Would a door that was hard to squeeze through be other than regarded as a joke?   Would a wardrobe, however elegant, that was so tall as to impede reaching for one’s clothes, win an award? Would a table with a tilted top be considered appropriately designed?   These are all common items whose practical aspects are acknowledged as primary.     S-CHAIR   Could this prize-winning design at any stretch be construed as comfortable?     How did our chairs, therefore, come to deviate so far from their essential function as objects for sitting on?   Shoes that can barely be walked in fall into a related category of fashion which, although often harmful, is usually transitory and so can be disregarded. Nonetheless, whether humorously or in a genuine desire to save us from ourselves, extreme creations elicit comment. In a section on fashion, in his book “At Home”, Bill Bryson writes: “For anyone of a rational disposition, fashion is often nearly impossible to fathom.  Throughout many periods of history….. it can seem as if the whole impulse of fashion has been to look maximally ridiculous.  If one could be maximally uncomfortable as well, the triumph was all the greater.” And on the subject of wigs that came into fashion for males around the mid-seventeenth century in Europe, he mentions that Samuel Pepys was concerned that “the hair of wigs might come from plague victims.”  And, “Perhaps nothing says more about the power of fashion than that he continued wearing wigs even while wondering if they might kill him.” It would be hard to prove that a badly-designed chair might kill us with the promptness of a plague virus.  Yet, as a piece of furniture that will make a handsome contribution to musculo-skeletal disorders and poor physiological function, it is supreme. We spend a lot of time sitting, developing aches and pains by means of which our bodies do their best  to let us know that something is wrong.  We categorise these assorted torments and discomforts – stiff neck, sore shoulders, upper back pain, lumber ache and the ever-present RSI – as “workplace ailments” that, according to promotional literature, can be dispelled by a piece of furniture that has been “ergonomically designed”. Ergonomic seating, often described as having been “shaped to the human form” leaves too much unexplained, especially as the “forms” a human can assume or develop are manifold. Which particular posture or pose or acquired shape therefore does the ergonomist select as her standard?  The person with an opened out trunk with his head balancing freely on the end of his spine?  Why not take as our standard “human form” the contortionist?  What kind of office chair, for instance, should we design for her?   Or for the normal crumpled twenty-first century office worker whose ribcage burrows into her pelvis as she orients herself awkwardly at her desk?  Not such a cynical question when you look closely at a normally poor sitter collapsed down onto herself.     Alternatively we could look at a baby freshly practiced in sitting, as an example of what we want in the way of support at low energy expenditure, lightness, ease, springing and comfort, leaving her arms free to explore everything she can get her hands, eyes and tongue on.     Blame is constantly directed at the computer, although the distinction between sitting in relation to desk and pen, or typewriter or monitor is of little significance.  By not looking at how we are sitting and what we are sitting on, we miss two crucial points.  Rarely do we question the deadly combination of deploying our bodies in poor postures on chairs that take no account of what is required to properly support the human frame. Design aims to contrive an harmonic relation between the disposition of an object’s structural constituents and its purpose or function.  In plainer language, we want our things to both look good and to be useful. A bridge can express grace and aspiration while simultaneously being secured against the threat of collapse. There’s not a lot of point in producing food that looks good if it offends our health, or tastes bad. Integral to the design of a utilitarian object must be its function.  Otherwise it is art. This is not to say that things designed for use may not also have aesthetic features that are inessential or extraneous to their purpose –  pointless features that nonetheless captivate with their beauty:  the soft needless curve,  the affecting but useless light green;  a frill here, a knob there, features that delight us with their secret conversations with our subconscious.  But when  the loveliness of a design disregards the underlying purpose of the object, then what exactly is the prize we give it for? How can a utilitarian object that serves no good purpose be a winner – unless it is art, and not design?  Can we in good conscience bestow awards on comely chairs while they cannot be comfortably and safely sat upon?   THE WASSILY CHAIR drives the legs into the pelvis causing discomfort from pressure while preventing  the sitting bones from finding any kind of purchase on its sloped and insubstantial seat.             LOUNGE CHAIR WOOD             ANTELOPE       Their differences are superficial, since both offer varying degrees of backward cant for the pelvis, forcing the sitter to flex  to  remain upright. In addressing the functional aspect of the chair,  we need to consider the shape and disposition of its parts in a way that encourages good posture in the sitter.  How are we helped to sit well? A good sitting posture is fundamental to comfortable and harm-free deployment of the hands, which is surely why we sit at all.  There is less sway of the trunk when it is not balanced atop a pair of spindly mobile legs.  We are more stable when cut down to half our height, enabling us to reliably perform delicate work with our fingers.  But we also need to ensure that we can bring ourselves to half height in accordance with our natural design, with good springing and lightness, and with all parts deployed in such a way as to not need to hold ourselves rigidly at our tasks, overworking neck muscles, for instance, that were never intended to be used for the heavy job of preventing an unsprung torso from flopping to the floor. Nature gave us plenty to choose from but we still needed to use our discrimination when selecting a suitable log or rock to balance the trunk on.  The ischeal tuberosities – the two pointy bones set close to one another at the base of the pelvis – need to find a perch that enables the pelvis to sit upright below the thorax in supporting the trunk and head on a lengthened spine.  When you look at the structure of the pelvis you see that a fine balancing act is required to maintain the volume and weight of the trunk on the two bony protuberances at its base.  The notion that we sit on a pair of cushioning buttocks is a false one.  In sitting, the buttocks are stretched over the hind areas of the perpendicular pelvis and the horizontal upper leg bone, thereby losing their round plump shapes.  This means that the concept of sitting in a bowl – which many contemporary chair seats display – is nonsensical. Not only is it absurd but it is also harmful, as it is difficult to balance the sitting bones in a bowl, and therefore impossible for the pelvis to be kept upright on such a surface without undue gripping and distortion of the trunk.     The PANTON CHAIR delineates lovely swirling shapes like long skirts swishing about, but as a compilation of receptacles for rounded thoracic spine and imaginary buttocks, it delineates perfectly the collapsed  “human form” it would present. The other non-starter when it comes to appropriate chair design is the canted seat.  Again, it prevents the head from balancing freely on the chest and shoulders. For a fuller description of the effects of the canted seat, see my paper Sit Happens on www.ate.org.au.  Suffice it here to note that every one of these chairs that has been awarded a prize for design has either or both a bowl-shaped and/or a canted seat!   MODEL 3107 described as having a “spare yet sensual design” are used to good effect in restaurants and cafes as customers won’t want to sit on them for long.  Christine Keeler was famously photographed in the sixties on a chair like this.  She was supposedly naked so sat on it back to front concealing her vital areas.  But maybe she had instinctively discovered that its canted seat was less uncomfortable that way round? We have not recognised how badly our inherent sitting skill has been affected by modern furniture. The damage it causes is sad enough, but coupled with the training required to recover a good human  shape for general use in adulthood it is woeful, costing many hours and dollars in re-education to restore to health. We are not taking care of our children when we allow them to sit on poorly designed furniture that contributes so powerfully to the deterioration of their bodies from early in what will be their increasingly long lives. There is a stirring of change in our world of affluence and fatness to  re-evaluate the quality of our food.  We know that without good nutrition good health will elude us.  It is another fact that without good furniture, so will the good posture that keeps us comfortable and happy – even in front of a screen. We are now saying No to junk foods. Let’s also say No to junk furniture! But take heed: if you’ve lost your natural ability to balance on your ischeal tuberosities – those two pointy bones at the bottom of your pelvis – no piece of furniture alone will restore it for you.   Natural good posture cannot be achieved by a simple injunction to straighten up.  Sitting is a skill that we take around 6 months to master in babyhood, and a lifetime of continuous good habits of use to maintain. My plea is that in the process of undertaking re-education to restore a natural upright posture, we should not nullify the process by using contradictory artifacts.  We need all the help we can get. In questioning the criteria by which these pieces of furniture are assessed as paragons of design, I wonder whether the judges have ventured to sit on them?  Like the pair of shoes that seem just fine in the shop but which start talking to your feet after you’ve gone half an hour on your way,  sitting in one of these chairs won’t take long to get you shifting your bottom every which way in the search for relief. You will lean back, lean forward, try to support the weight of your head on a hand…and finally you’ll feel very glad the talk or the meal or the meeting is done.     Here’s POLYPROP or Chair Normal that we are required to dispose ourselves on during all public functions.  No wonder we all ‘sit’ there longing for it to be over. The spinal disorders collateral with office work and said to be “caused by the computer”, are in fact determined by how we sit at the disparaged piece of equipment, together with what we sit on whose design  prevents sitting in a balanced way. Blaming the screen for this is as mis-directed as blaming the supermarket for giving us the opportunity to select fattening foods when healthier products are there for the taking.  We must take another look at our everyday furniture, whether public – park benches, bus seats, car seats, cinema seats, and so on – or for private or professional use.  With good seats we might even enjoy air travel!    
  A degree in physics is not needed to grasp that if the ground moves underneath a mobile structure it will topple. The mammalian body has a responsive muscular wrapping to prevent this by instantly stiffening.  We find office chairs and stools constructed on the theory that since the springing in our bodies has deteriorated then we must benefit by putting springs or wheels on our furniture. This is faulty deduction, not based on  observation. Try it and discover what the designers who put wheels on office chairs didn’t. You’ll find that sitting on an unstable seat will make you stiffen and you will soon tire. You will ‘straighten’, but not in a way that  promotes the ease that balance brings.   THE AERON CHAIR         alias SCOURGE OF THE OFFICE, it looks more like something to be executed in than to sit on at your screen. The wheels and the springy base make it unstable;  the seat is a canted basin to receive the sitter’s non-existent buttocks;  it has wrongly placed insubstantial support for  the back. What all could better ensure the  growth and development of “workplace ailments”?   The body’s best chance of relaxed balanced sitting is not on a bouncy ball but rather on a firm horizontal surface. Only infants and those rare adults who have not lost their natural good use, and professional balancers such as  tightrope walkers and teachers of the Alexander Technique are trained to respond to the ground moving beneath them by opening out the trunk.   UP 5 DONNA also looks like it might soften life’s hardships, but in fact it’s hard to breathe when the human frame is so collapsed in on itself in such a constricted space.  It would be more sensible to lie flat.  Its caption reads “..the curvaceous forms enfold the sitter in a womb-like embrace.”  But once out of the womb, do we ever need to be squashed up again like a foetus?   BIRILLO At last!  A flat seat.  But are the legs to be hitched up under that bar; or  would they dangle? And its description reads “…the moon is referenced in the white disc-like backrest?”  But could the inappropriate placement of such a small disc conceivably support your back?  
TRANSAT – whose “..sleek luxurious form evokes the sun-drenched pleasure of ocean-going travel.”  Fine for flopping into.  But not for long as the body  will begin to protest pretty quickly, and will get you shifting about to ease the pressure points.


  Not one of the nine award-winning chairs selected here provides the support the body requires to get purchase for comfortable balanced sitting.  If the pelvis is tilted the trunk and head cannot dispose themselves in a relationship that will stimulate the postural maintenance musculature to straighten the spine and arrange the torso in an opened-out shape. A balanced sitting posture will not be the uncomfortable rigid holding that results from pushing the chest upwards or holding the shoulders back.  Good  trunk shaping is achieved reflexly by acts involving the whole body. Provided they follow their own principle that form follows function designers can harmlessly enrich our environments with their fabulous collations of pleasing arabesques and sculptural curves, or with refreshing clean lines devoid of flourishes.  They can give us chairs with multiple legs or a single pillar, and employ any number of  aesthetic attributes in the way of ornamentation, semiotics, colour,  and cultural narrative so we can enjoy emotional and conceptual responses to our furniture. All this and as much as the human imagination can engender is available to them to inspire us – just as long as adventures in design are based on a solid underpinning of service to the user.  The first criterion for judging a chair must be that sitting on it does no harm! ©Christine Ackers 2011 Drawings by Joe Wauters and Jing Sheng Wang. Drawings and accompanying quotations for this essay were made from photographs and text in:- “Fifty Chairs that Changed the World” —text by Michael Czerwinski 2009. Conran Octopus Ltd Octopus Publishing Group 2-4 Heron Quays London E14 4JP

Written by:

Christine Ackers

Graduated from the Constructive Teaching Centre in London where she continued working until answering a call for an experienced teacher to help train students in Sydney in 1983.Since then she has continued in private practice and working with a small group of apprenticed students.