#021 / 1999

a book review by Francis Lemieux

The Chair, Rethinking Culture, Body and Design by Galen Cranz

I have been designing and making furniture for the past twenty years and have a particular interest in chairs. Therefore, the cover of this book showing a period chair with a claw-footed leg reaching out to retrieve a wayward ball intrigued me enough to check it out.

Cranz begins with a look at the origin of chairs and their evolving social purposes. It is obvious from the number of chairs produced as sculpture or objects of art that throughout its history the chair has served a more complex role than aesthetics and function alone. This is something we often don't hear discussed in the context of chair design. These issues are important in helping us to understand the obligatory, ubiquitous presence of chairs in our lives today and to consider what we are up against in trying to change attitudes toward seating alternatives - a change advocated in this book.

The next section is a criticism of chair design and sitting conventions in our society with a focus on the work environment and public places. The author is critical of ergonomic studies of chair design which fail to consider the whole person in relation to sitting and chair use. Back pain is second only to the common cold as a reason for work place absenteeism. Poor posture is considered one of the major causes of back pain. How we sit and for how long has a major effect on our posture.


(After all the work that has been put into chair design, I am amazed that everywhere I go, from office waiting rooms to private homes, I encounter chairs which are more instruments of torture than instruments of comfort. Just yesterday in my accountant's office I chose to stand rather than risk the discomfort suggested by the sling-type chairs provided.)

The book also includes a surprising and amusing evaluation of some famous chairs such as the bean bag and butterfly chairs. Surprising for me was the author's approval of the Rietveldt Red and Blue chair because I once made some chairs with flat panel backs and seats and found that the pressure points where your protruding bones, shoulder blades, sit bones, etc., press the flesh against the chair surface caused numbness and discomfort after about ten minutes. But the author contends that no one should sit in any chair for more than ten minutes. This approach requires designer/makers to offer alternatives to the convention of sitting in one position for long periods of time - furniture that offers the alternatives of standing, perching, laying down, sitting, or changing between these postures as needed. This opens up all kinds of design challenges and opportunities for furniture designers.

Galen Cranz, Ph.D., is professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, specializing in the sociology of architecture. She is author of The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America and a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique - a kind of therapy to improve posture.

As well as offering practical recommendations for chair specifications the author advocates an integrated body-mind perspective to design. She uses the term somatics to mean involve the whole human being, focusing in a practical way on the interactions of posture, movement, emotion, self-concept, and cultural values.

Beyond Interior Design, the final chapter in the book, suggests how designers can contribute to making the world a more comfortable place by providing furniture for a variety of postures.

With its extensive bibliography, this book should appeal to anyone with a specific interest in chair design and interior design in general and how design affects our well being. It has inspired me to pursue some new ideas.

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© furniturelink and Francis Lemieux 1999 (text and images)