Part 1 of the series “The Function of Everyday Things”
What exactly is the function of a chair? On the surface, it seems a trivial question. The obvious answer is that a chair is made to be sat on, no more, and no less. However, I urge you to take a look around you. How many of the chairs in a given room are actually being sat on at any one time? I’ll hazard a guess and say, not many. Yet chairs dominate both our spaces (literal) and our language (non-literal, e.g. in turns of phrase such as “take a seat”, or “chairperson”). Clearly they are important to us, and being practical beings, we must therefore consider that they serve some purpose. The thing is, what exactly is it?
- What does a chair actually do?
- How is it made?
- Wherein lies its value (is it utilitarian? Aesthetic?)
- What metaphorical implications does a chair have?
All these questions lead to a spectrum of possible answers, a spectrum of possible functions that goes far beyond simply being sat on. Below, I want to investigate just a few of these.
First and foremost, a chair has to support the body. (Though I’m sure an interesting artistic statement could be made by creating a chair that is merely the symbol of one, remaining, however, entirely unusable. Is a chair which lacks its ergonomic function still technically a chair?) There is, however, no one way of doing this. Think armchair vs office chair, or restaurant chair. The exact context in which a chair will be used affects the way people will sit in it (upright or slouched, etc. In fast food restaurants, many chairs lack a back, making them uncomfortable and reducing the likelihood that people will linger). As well as shape, this leads to differences in the materials chairs are made out of. Their ergonomic implications mean that the materials of a chair begin to influence its function.
A good example of an ergonomic chair is the Chaise Lounge by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand. They developed the iconic chair as a response to the natural posture of the human body. The reclining position is inspired by the classical camper’s/soldier’s sleeping pose, feet rested up against a tree, and head on one’s backpack, taking the curve of the body to inform the shape of the chair for a comfortable, ergonomic design.
Historically, chair designers did not concern themselves very much with ergonomics (-> see e.g. “Game of Chairs”). Today, many designers see in chairs an opportunity to promote good posture and body language. The many and well-documented harms of sitting for too long, such as increased cardiovascular risk, shin, and spine damage, can be alleviated by good chair design. Many office chairs strive to improve posture by providing back support, and being of a height that allows the hands to rest at elbow level when working on a computer. (If you really want to do good for yourself, you should also take regular breaks and walk around). Recently, chairs have been done away with entirely in favour of standing, or even walking desks.
Not all chairs end in legs. Some, such as wheelchairs, go beyond ergonomics (adapting to the human body) to serve a prosthetic function, and enhancing the human body to make up for physical limitations.
Like walls, chairs not only occupy, but also create space, an attribute which allows them to organise human interactions and affect our productivity. The position of chairs in a room is known as proxemic design, which deals with human responses to space. Physically, they often fill out our empty spaces, such as corners, stopping them from looking awkwardly unattended.
Curiously enough, while they are passive objects, chairs can also actively promote certain behaviours and responses. Historically, chairs were arranged around a central fireplace, demarcating a gathering place with a focus on the source of heat and comfort. Nowadays, judging by the arrangement of chairs in our living rooms, that comfort seems to arise primarily from the television. While still encouraging people to gather together, the orientation towards a distracting entity actually restricts communication.
Chairs’ psychological effect on us goes beyond arranging us in ways that may or may not encourage conversation. Chairs, like the high-backed throne of the principal, looming behind a deep desk, can be intimidating. They can impress and depress people, or, as in the case of an armchair by the fire, welcome them. Simply buying a chair and sticking it any which way, reasoning that the only function of a chair is for it to be sat on, often doesn’t cut it. To be successful, a chair’s proxemics must also be considered.
The proxemics of a chair, or a group of chairs, may have very serious implications. The negotiations to end the Vietnam war, while held around a rectangular table, were extremely antagonistic. Rival states glared at each other across an expanse of wood, the key countries forming control points at the short ends while between them their client states formed twin walls of resistance. There was no resolution. One proposal to find a solution was to change the table to a triangular one. This proxemic arrangement too, was problematic. The three apexes of the triangle meant that one of the parties would have to be split in half, and their offset meant that state leaders were not looking directly at, but past one another. The final solution was to use a circle, with flexible seating arrangements. After a few days, the leaders began to mingle, representatives from both sides amiably sitting next to each other. As the camps were broken up, so were the tensions, and the negotiations were successful.
An extension on the theme of proxemics is the symbolic importance of specific chairs. The throne is an unmistakeable symbol of power. Even when unoccupied, as in the case of the throne in the Canadian parliament, it serves as a reminder of a ruler’s metaphorical, if not literal, presence, and power. Despite being a passive object, the throne’s centrality (proxemics) represents Canadian history, and the relationship between the former colonial power and its colony.
The electric chair is also a great example of a symbol, though of an entirely different breed. It is threatening, and the symbol alone of the electric chair prevents crimes by its clear association with punishment.
Aesthetic and economic
Finally, chairs (as may be suggested by the huge variety of designs, and many architects’ obsession with designing furniture) serve an aesthetic value; they are beautiful to behold. The beauty of certain designs, or the fame of their designers’ names, leads to their attaining economic value as well. Many collect designer chairs, and populate their homes with them. Though they may never be sat on, these chairs still have a purpose (also, linking back to symbolism, rare or designer chairs may also be symbols of wealth and influence).
A chair is a chair is a chair. We sit on them, yes, but we also use them to show social hierarchy, make up for our physical limitations, and make our lives more beautiful. Their arrangement determines how we respond to spaces and to one another. I hope, in this post, to have shown how an ordinary object might have such an extraordinary range of functions. I challenge you: pick an everyday object and think about its functions. Does it serve any purpose besides the obvious? If so, what? Your answers might surprise you!