Evan's "bad design rant" on Radio National's By Design with Fenella Kernebone (9th Oct, 2013)

Wednesday, October 9 2013

Dear Fenella,

It was a delight to hear the dulcet tones of Derek Wriggly on By Design this week. Derek is one of the few people who has seen (and understood) the whole trajectory of the Australian post-war furniture scene.  Derek is a great friend of our workshop and has been an inspiration to my young makers who are trying to find a way to live as craftsmen in a society that struggles to value (commercially) their skills.

At the end of the episode, you invited us all to “have a rant” over bad design. As a chair designer, my “rant” concerns Gerrit Thomas Rietveld’s appalling Zig Zag chair.

When teaching chair design to students, I use the Zig Zag chair as an example of everything that can go horribly wrong with a wooden chair design. I believe the Zig Zag is the worst wooden chair ever designed, if your basic premise for a chair is that one should be able to actually use it.
The Zig Zag works against the nature and properties of timber, so I’m shocked that Reitveld trained as a cabinetmaker before he became an architect. To me, the Zig Zag looks like the work of an illiterate woodworker, as jarring visually as a discordant note is to a musician.  It is equally disastrous ergonomically; the wooden seat presents no advantage over any other plank of wood suspended horizontally off the floor. Indeed, the sharp leading edge of the seat digs in uncomfortably under the thigh, making it less comfortable than the average randomly selected plank. The severe back offers no positive support whatsoever, offering less comfort than if there was no back at all. The foot of the chair presents a trip hazard to anyone alighting and makes the chair unstable on uneven ground.  The design of the foot also makes it practically impossible to slide back while sitting (such as you might do when leaving the table) and the Zig Zag is relatively physically heavy due to the unnecessary amount of wood involved.  It is even an awkward chair to move even when you are not sitting on it. Just as interestingly, it is visually unwelcoming (there is no “invitation to sit” about the design) and its primary use is not obvious; is it a side chair, a dining chair or an office chair?

Yet the Zig Zag is identifiably a chair.  Pluck a Western person off the streets at random and show them a Zig Zag; I imagine most people would agree that, based on a visual assessment, it represents a chair. In profile the Zig Zag looks like a person bent at the waist and the knees, ready to make a standing jump. On this sculptural/graphic level it could be called a success. A simple web search will inundate you with photographs of the Zigzag as well as countless versions in different materials.  It is graphically strong, which will ensure that the Zig Zag will be a favorite chair image for years to come.

Unfortunately, that’s all the Zig Zag is; the image of a chair. It is a three dimensional graphic impression of a chair- almost a cartoon. This is not design, as design implies some practical element. Art can be whimsical and impractical; design must have a foundation in fitness for purpose. The Zig Zag is a complete failure as either a piece of woodwork or a practical chair design. A car, refrigerator or aero plane that was this bad would be laughed at. Why then does the Zig Zag feature in so many books on 20th century chair design?

Here ends the rant.

By the way, Derek and I have had a good laugh together over the Zig Zag, and Fred Ward hated it also, so I am in good company.

On a completely irrelevant note, my wife is also called Fenella. You are the only other Fenella I have come across.