Ruminating on Chair Design…

Thursday, November 14 2013

Cataract Desk Rocker
The conflicting qualities required for a successful chair design (ergonomics, weight, aesthetics, price-point, durability, sustainability) create a chess-like challenge for the designer. Many (if not most) chair designers over the last century approach the problem from a structural and/or aesthetic perspective; most of the “innovation” has centred on the use of new materials, new techniques, or the pursuit of a particular aesthetic (or some combination of all three). Very rarely has a modern chair designer come to prominence based on the “sitting logic” of their chairs.

In her seminal book The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design (published in 1998) Galen Cranz, a Professor of Architecture at UC Berkley, California, challenged the logic of the conventional (traditional?) Western chair. Cranz’s basic premise is that sitting in “conventional” chairs is an un-natural activity that inevitably leads to unhealthy changes in an individual’s body.

Despite her reservations about the traditional chair form, Cranz concedes that in the modern world there is often the requirement to be stationary (“sitting”) for significant periods; how else would we watch a movie, read a book, drive a car, fly overseas or attend a lecture? Cranz is of the view that, where possible, sitting should be an activity, not a passive condition. The idea of a “comfortable” chair is, she contends, largely illusory; the body should be constantly working to maintain position and only this way can we avoid muscle and joint discomfort.

Cranz’s arguments and their implications struck a chord with me.  As a craftsman, my primary concern had always been with structure, material and technique. After considering Cranz’s arguments, I re-thought what I was looking for in a “successful” chair. The starting point has to be “fitness for purpose”. A household chair is fundamentally a “tool for sitting”; every other consideration must be subservient to this requirement. I analysed how restrictive a conventional dining chair can be. I re-thought the problem “from the ground up” and the Cataract ergonomic rocker was born.

The Cataract works as a dining and/or office chair (the Tamar ergonomic rocker is the same concept with a different logic to the back support). The slick contoured timber seat, along with the shallow rock and the positive lumbar support means that the sitter is always active. Drop by the Fyshwick showroom and try one for yourself. I’m always happy to lend you a Cataract (or Tamar) “overnight” to test the chair for yourself.