Crafting a Life - Episode 8

Monday, August 25 2014

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Hello, and Welcome to Crafting a Life.

I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast

Episode 8, “Reading a Chair”

Last time we were talking about “reading” a chair design and understanding it on a number of different levels. I used the low hanging fruit of Wegner’s classic 1949 as my example. It was called “the chair” at the time because it was considered perfect and couldn’t be improved upon. That was something of an overstatement, especially as Wegner himself went on to design many more chairs, but it demonstrates what an impact that chair had on the design community at the time.

Let’s leave the Danes to one side for a minute and consider chair design generally.

Many well-known 20th century chair designers were motivated by new materials, new manufacturing techniques and the modern aesthetic. Surprisingly few were motivated by ergonomics.

One of the curious side effects of living in such a visual age is that design can be reduced to image, or perhaps even mistaken for image. Many so called iconic designs could be better described as iconic images. There are literally books full of what are, frankly, bizarre chairs. They photograph well or maybe they are structurally and aesthetically interesting or provocative, but they are best appreciated on those levels; they stink as actual chairs.

Let’s take a few really obvious examples. I’m hoping that most of you will be instantly familiar with these chairs when I name them. Please forgive my pronunciation. Here we go; Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig Zag chair, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair and Charles and Ray Eames’s Lounge chair. No book on 20th Century chair design would omit these three chairs, but only the Eames’s chair could be said to actually perform satisfactorily as a chair, or to re-think sitting in a positive way. Rietveld’s Zig Zag chair is famously impractical on every level. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that you could consciously design a less comfortable, less makerly or a less convenient chair. The Zig Zag is totally subservient to a single idea, at the expense of every other consideration. It is sculpturally successful and strangely appealing to the eye, but there is a very good reason that you don’t actually see many of them around in use; they’re atrocious to live with.

The Barcelona chair is closer to being a serviceable chair, if by chair you mean something that can be happily, if not joyfully, used as seating. The Barcelona is famously difficult to get into and out of, and is particularly disliked by women in skirts and Scotsmen in kilts. You do actually see a few Barcelona chairs around (or, more usually, dodgy copies), especially in corporate settings. I doubt too many people would choose to use them domestically. If you are a particularly tall reasonably fit man I am told they are not too bad to use. I’ll take their word for it.

Finally, there is the Eames lounge chair. This chair is a cracker because it uses what were new materials at the time, it employed new manufacturing methods, it was a response to a new lifestyle development (that is, watching TV), it has a strong and enduring aesthetic and, last but not least, it demonstrates a strong ergonomic logic. There was nothing quite like the Eames Lounge chair before the Eames lounge chair, but there is a whole cannon of designs that follow the form.

And yes, I know full well that neither the Zig Zag nor the Barcelona were ever really intended for popular everyday use; the first was largely an experiment in perception and the other was a visual statement; great. So… why are they always in books on chair design without any of these shortcomings explained?

Now we can return to the Danish mid-century chairs and their designers. The Danes always considered utility to be fundamentally important, both from the manufacturer’s perspective and the end users perspective. You would have to work pretty hard to find a broadly produced Danish mid-century chair that wasn’t comfortable.

These are the sort of chairs I love. My ideal chair is pleasing to the eye, the hands, the hip pocket and the bum, or should I say back. Or maybe it’s the bum and the back? Or the whole muscular skeletal system? You know what I mean.

The challenge of chairs is to design a complete solution. It’s a terrible copout in my opinion to design a chair around a simple meme. Reitveld’s Zig Zag fell into this trap, and for reasons that I don’t fully understand, or perhaps choose to not fully understand, it keeps cropping up as an example of interesting design, not an example of a failed design. If the Zig Zag was a car or an aeroplane, it would be illegal to use. If it’s art, then I must be a philistine, because I can’t see beyond its failings. I read the story, and the story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Anyway, back to good chair design. How we sit and the logic of sitting is a whole podcast on its own, but the challenge of a good chair design is to have all the disparate requirements in balance. A really great chair should tell a clear story, invite the audience to sit, and be lived with joyfully.

You have been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.