No Easy Chair
Metropolis, June 1992
A chair is nothing more than the imprint of an attitude. It's the mold in which we pour our mental posture.
"Close the door and sit down," she said, pointing at a chair. I sat down and felt dizzy, as if I was experiencing a tremendous loss of altitude. Only 12" separated my standing from my sitting position, yet it felt like a long way down. "I am sorry," said my boss. "We have to let you go."
I never liked being asked to sit down. "Sit down" always means bad news in my experience. The same chair, which looked so inviting when empty -- an empty chair suggests that you are expecting company -- can feel like a restraining device when you are asked to sit in it. As far as I am concerned, when you sit in a chair, people are likely to fired you, reprimand you, or even worse, lecture you.
I learn to dislike chairs from my paternal grandfather, a man who seldom sat down. A typesetter, he spent his life standing in front of a workbench, laying out pages of copy by hand, line after line, one letter at a time. Far from being a sedentary activity, metal typesetting required in the early days a tremendous mental and physical involvement. Each carved letter had to be handled separately, sorted out and bundled together to form words in an endless and graceful spelling ballet. I have always admired professionals who work standing up -- maitres d'hs, stand up comics, teachers -- they seem freer, less strained than those whose work require them to sit down. Upright, alert and in movement, you feel like a kite leaning against the wind.
A free spirit, my grandfather did not want to be tied down. By the time his third child was born, he must have felt strapped in. My grandmother told me how he came into the bedroom to see my father, his newborn son, but could not bring himself to look at the baby. "He took off his hat, put it on a chair and then sat on it," she remembered. "He remained motionless and speechless, utterly uncomfortable. After a while he stood up, left the room and never came back." She was left with three kids, and the memory of the chair with his crumpled hat.
I was left with ink in my bloodstream. I inherited his fascination for typography and his mixed feelings toward chairs. I became an editorial art director and managed never to sit down, being the kind of person who runs around during deadlines.
The executive throne
Soon I realized that the printed page and the chair have a common ambiguity -- they both compete for the same authority. Early in my career, I worked for a newspaper editor who was famous for his paternalistic managerial style and for the pair of antique barber's chairs he kept in his office. He believed in the all-mighty authority of the printed word -- and in the power of the executive throne. Whenever he met potential contributors, he would sit them down in one of his monumental chairs as if they were about to get their first haircut, while he sat across the desk in his own high-back swivel-tilt leather armchair. He would invariably start his interview with the same standard question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It was a silly routine, but no one ever thought it was funny. There is something humiliating -- almost unbearably so -- about being questioned while sitting in a barber's chair.
Eventually he was pushed into retirement and sent home with his chairs. A woman half his age replaced him. She liked to conduct editorial meetings perched on the edge of what used to be his desk. Swinging her feet back and forth like a little girl, she would giggle and look like she was about to get her first haircut. You almost wished she'd grow up. You almost wished she'd sit in an executive throne.
A chair is nothing more than the imprint of an attitude. It's the mold in which we pour our mental posture. My ambivalence toward chairs comes from my dislike of the superior demeanor some chairs seem to promote. Men, in particular, manage to gain stature when they sit down. They command attention by simply lowering their center of gravity. It's a macho syndrome, says my husband. Guys feel mighty good when they sit on their tail. The seat of their power is below the belt.
That's why I would like to take down all the statues of Rodin's Thinker -- these humorless bronze castings portraying a naked man, sitting on a rock, deep in thoughts. We brought down the statues of Lenin... why not finsih the job and get rid of this other symbol of oppressive superiority? Cultural clichés, the sculptures can be found in front of libraries, theatres and museums the world over. Since the first unveiling of The Thinker in Paris in 1906, more people have been intimidated into thinking that sitting with a stern look on one's face is a sign of intelligence and creativity.
A world without Thinker would be a different world; this new world may be a place where people think on their feet, get on with it and move ahead. It may be a world without armchairs, an intriguing yet not inconceivable thought. There are some early warning signs. "Equal-opportunity seating" is the latest concept in the down-sized office.
Big chairs are loosing their status. In a business environment that encourages top executives to voluntarily forgo bonuses and perks, the over-assertive executive chair is a thing of the past. Interaction is replacing authority. Managerial types are forced on their feet; they must have the stamina of an athlete to keep up with their schedule; in meetings they have to stand up and run the show; in the privacy of their office, they must pace back and forth talking to invisible colleagues who wait for instructions at the other end of speaker phones. Who wants an imperial looking seat when sitting is the last thing you do -- usually at 7 PM, when no one is around to bug you and you get a chance to catch up with the day.
Chairs as props
Chairs are loosing some of their rigid heraldic appeal, but they are also loosing their ability to evoke comfort and ease. Most of us are too busy to take the time to sit, like our parents did, in big easy chairs. We read our mail standing up, we recline in bed while eating dinner. How often do we sit around the dinning room table for a formal meal? Sometimes we pull up a chair--only to lean on it while removing our clothes.
Are comfortable chairs becoming redundant? Were they necessary but temporary implements, soon to be replaced by more sophisticated contraptions? Are we saving our old-fashioned chairs only as anthropological evidence? Although we will probably always sit down, the reasons for sitting will keep changing. For example, chairs didn't have to be comfortable in the old days.
One of the roots of the word Chair is "Cathedra". It seems that at the beginning a chair was an architectural construction, not a piece of furniture. It was built to designate the place where power dwelt. It looked like a shelter, a sanctuary or a shrine. Sometimes portable, chairs were meant nonetheless to establish a sense of permanency. They were heavy, with solid back and side panels and even canopies. In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, chairs were thrones reserved for pharaohs, emperors, high magistrates, noblemen.
There is no indication that sitting down in a primitive wooden throne was supposed to be particularly enjoyable -- it was part of a job. To be isolated in one of those rigid enclosures during a religious ceremony or a state affair must have been like donning a bulky ritualistic vestment or a cumbersome military costume.
People did not sit in chairs to be comfortable but to be empowered. The power-elite chose to sit down to emphasize their stability, dependability and perseverance. In contrast, the intellectual elite chose to stand to express their spiritual alertness. Priests officiated standing up. They kneeled in prayer, but it's on their feet that they preached the gospel. The great philosophers of the antiquity believed that pacing around was the best way to stimulate mental activity. They compared reasoning to a voyage, a step-by-step process.
Plato created the Academy, a school of thought named after the grove of trees outside Athenes where he and his students would meet to stroll and discuss philosophical topics. Aristotle, his star disciple, developed the peripatetic approach, a method of teaching based on walking back and forth while reasoning. In the Middle Ages, monks did most of their meditating in cloisters, walking round secluded peristyles, punctuating their thoughts with the sound of their footsteps on the polished stone pavement.
In the early days of Christianity, reading, like thinking, was a rhythmical activity. The few who could read, read aloud, standing at the lectern in front of an audience. Reading quietly is a truly modern concept, one that implies the idea of privacy. Although monks knew solitude and isolation, they did not know privacy. Privacy means specialness, separateness and a sense of individuality.
When children learn to read, they first read aloud. Remember the first time you experienced a book as an inner journey -- it gave you a tremendous sense of individuality. St. Anselme, archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the last millennium, was the first man we know of who read silently to himself -- an eccentricity that heralded a change in the way we thought about thinking. But the concept was slow to mature. It would take another 400 years for Gutenberg to invent printing -- and for the widely available written word to make personal thoughts a more tangible and accessible reality.
As soon as people had books, they wanted chairs, because chairs, unlike benches or even stools, are enclosed spaces that grant you a degree of privacy. From then on, one sat in a chair to be left alone. Rodin's Thinker wishes he could be left alone. He is trying to block the outside world. Give The Thinker a chair, and he would look less worried and feel less frustrated and not quite so... naked.
The posture police
Some chairs are actually designed like garments to conform to the body shape. Pluck them off their stem and wear them like a coat. A magazine editor-in-chief, another former boss of mine, convinced himself after a thorough investigation that the Herman Miller Equa Chair was the perfect ergonomic solution to long sessions in front of the word processor. Particularly taken by the front-hinged tilt mechanism of the chair, he ordered an Equa for everyone in his office, regardless of their job or position.
A perfect fit for his ego, the elegant Equas turned out to be millstones around his neck. As soon as the chairs arrived, he was put into the position of having to defend their ingenious and spine-straightening design. Held personally responsible for the chairs anti-slouch stance, he was accused of imposing creative limitations on his staff. In the regimented office environment, bad posture is the last bastion of individuality. Bill Stumpf, the Equa designer, was cast as the villain, Big Brother hiding in the small of your back. And then -- mercifully -- a couple of chairs turned out to be defective, something went loose in the back panel. Herman Miller quickly replaced them, but there was a general sigh of relief -- it was as if once more the human spirit had prevailed over what had been perceived as mind-controlling technology.
For most of us, the ideal chair is a protective cocoon, a capsule in which to curl up around a favorite daydream -- or around a favorite book. The ideal chair was probably your mother's womb. Reluctantly, we all agree that chairs should be functional, but we are not sure how to define function. Ergonomic studies of the body in action have contributed to the design of chairs that claim to "adjust to our physical environment". But even if they bounce up and down, tilt and roll, and let you fidget and stretch, make no mistake -- chairs are not sneakers. They are designed to keep you in a seated position, concentrated on your work, allowing just enough movement to keep your blood circulating and your mind alert on the task at hand. You sit down in a chair not to adjust, but on the contrary to block out specific aspects of the physical environment.
Intellectual efforts and vague reveries have one thing in common: they are forms of escape. Sit in a chair, in a focused or foggy frame of mind, and in both cases you will expect to distance yourself from physical reality. The role of a chair -- any chair -- is to neutralize the body.
A chair is a sophisticated paralyzing device. As soon as you settle down, it goes to work. Your body puts on a small fight; it twists around hoping to make some adjustments; it leans forward to release the pressure points on the spine; it stretches the legs to lessen the strain developing in the thighs; if your body had any sense, it would get up and run. But that's just it -- it has been de-sensitized; A chair is a body trap. A chair is designed to serve one master, and one master only -- your mind.
That's why we are physically attracted to chairs the way small insects are attracted to poisonous flowers. The seat, the arm rests and the back panel, like petals turned expectantly toward the light, are enticing us with the promise of a delicious embrace. Fragile and elegant on their stem-like legs, chairs look innocent enough. But beware ... ornate, colorful, intriguing, chairs are predators quietly waiting for you to come within their range.
A room full of chairs can be as tempting as a field of flowers. I knew a fashionable magazine editor who furnished her office with prohibitively expensive one-of-a-kind black steel garden furniture, including 6 horseshoe armchairs with red pillows. She set them randomly around the room, as if they had blossomed after a rain. When you walked in, you had the impression that you had just missed some magical event. With 6 empty chairs, she marked the end of the rainbow.
Rethinking the way we think
I should rejoice -- the era of Rodin's Thinker is probably over. The way we think about thinking is changing one more time. New imperatives, new directions and new concerns are shaping the way we do everything, from eating, to working, to resting. Globalization is the new metaphor. Interactive information gathering is the new technology. No longer a private and personal endeavor, thinking is developing into an integrated process involving more physical activity. We are learning to share our thoughts with a greater electronic entity. The latest computers are becoming genuine extensions of the self and are fusing back with the body.
According to The New York Times, we are seeing "a new trend -- the merging of hardware and softwear...computers [will be] worn like clothing accessories... With some computers becoming small enough to be carried everywhere, they no longer have to be confined to their traditional boxy shape." Wearable P.C. are the next logical step. The "lapbody", a prototype developed by NEC Corporation, will hang from your shoulder. Also from NEC, the "Porto Office" will connected your neck to a belted keyboard and the "Tender Loving Care PC", shaped like a large cuff, will hook to your wrist. The United States Army is testing portable computer systems featuring earphones for audio messages with tiny screens attached to headgear that deliver images that seem to float in space. Like Plato, you will be able to study and assert the situation as you go. There will be no need to sit down to think it over.
The end of an era is often marked by a great outburst of creativity. There is today an unprecedented outbreak of extraordinary chairs. Their design suspends all conventions. Chairs you can hardly sit on because they are too small, too deep or too low. Chairs that look like they came out of the trash. Chairs so ornate, you'd like to wear as costume jewelry. The newest chairs are stunning, surprising, delightful. Looking like big upholstered question marks (Crawford, by Steven Charliton and Jeffrey Goodman) or skinny paper clip shaped contraptions (Lumbarest, Rock'n Roll, by Gregg Fleishman), they can be as hard as washboards (Isosceles chairs by Chairiots) or as fragile as ballroom gowns (The Debutante, by Ann Holden and Ann Dupuy). Some chair designers treat wood as if it was fabric (La Belle, by William Sawaya) while other turn raw steel into an existential statement. (Kafka, by Robert Wilson). There is a lack of restrain and a sense of dissipation. The Chair is dead. Long live The Chair.
Arthur de Santo, in his introduction to the catalog for the Franklin Parrash Gallery show called "The Endowed Chair," featuring chairs as works of art, suggests that all this creative expressiveness is a form of self-derision. "...the fact that we now show ourselves as having power over the chair by making it funny, or foolish, or amusing, implies, for me at least, that the chair has lost a measure of its own power, and that we, in consequence, are representing ourselves as having lost a measure of our own power." His comment is deeply insightful. We design chairs after our own image. The most compelling chairs are candid self-portraits.
I remember particularly one such chair. It belonged to Vincent van Gogh. I saw it -- the chair itself, not its famous still life -- in a little museum in Arles, the Provencal town where the painter spent a productive year in the late 1880's. I knew the painting well, but I wasn't prepared for an encounter with the real chair. The sight of it made me weak in the knees. Yet there was nothing special about the object, an ordinary pine chair with a rush-seat, and come to think of it, probably a replica of the one van Gogh had originally painted. But there it was -- so unassuming -- and yet a monumental landmark in the history of our humanity.
The room in which the chair stood was a historical reconstruction of van Gogh's peaceful narrow bedroom, the one with the old wooden bed and the red floor tiles. I took a deep breath. The vacant chair in front of me and its celebrated still-life became one and the same thing in my mind. The bare chair, I realized, was a universal symbol, the essence of all yearnings. It was a silent imprint of a genius that had come -- and gone. Its concavity left in space an impression as profound and intriguing as a footstep in the snow.
Perhaps I got it all wrong. The chair is not the seat of power -- it is the seat of the soul.
1/3 - People used to sit in chairs to be empowered, not to be comfortable
2/3 - As soon as we had books, we had to have chairs
3/3 - Imagine a world where one no longer sits down to think