The Big Chair: Status and Luxury While We Sit - Part 4 The Big Chair: Status and Luxury While We Sit - Part 4

Now that we've arrived at the final installment in our four-part series on easy chairs, I'm here with two shocking pieces of news: there is no such thing as an easy chair, and the even the act of sitting is not a natural one.

While researching the preceding three articles on easy chairs, I read The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design (W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), by Galen Cranz, professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley.

She tells us that we choose chairs for beauty, comfort, and status and that we often obtain beauty and status, but seldom comfort. As a matter of fact, because of the posture we must adopt when we use a chair, sitting in chairs is harmful to us. Sitting cuts the flow of blood to and from our legs, weakens our back muscles, and presses our lungs into our abdominal organs. There is no such thing as an easy chair.

Nevertheless we spend most of our waking hours in chairs. We sit as we are driven to school where we learn to sit still and pay attention. According to Cranz, "This process of socialization to passivity starts early in schools, where the first task is not to teach content, but to teach (students) orderly behavior - specifically, the ability to sit still for long periods of time." She also points out that the verb sedate, meaning to calm, comes from the Latin "to sit."

We are trained to sit still, so we can write contract proposals, get our teeth drilled, or listen to a sermon. We acquire our sitting practices from our culture. Cranz says:

"We still need anthropologists to remind us that almost everything - including how we hold our bodies - should be understood in its cultural context. The American anthropologist Gordon Hewes has done that for posture. He documented the tremendous variety of recognized postures - over one thousand steady postures - that human beings assume all over the world. The right-angle seated posture is just one example, utilized by only a third to a half of the people in the world. But, you might ask, how can a person rest, eat, or write without a chair? A Chinese might squat to wait for a bus; a Japanese woman might kneel to eat; and an Arab might sit crossed-legged to write a letter. Are they forced to sit without chairs simply because they are too poor to own one? People who can afford chairs throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Polynesia do not necessarily buy them."

Hewes emphasized that postural variations are culturally, not anatomically, determined. Sitting, like other postures, is regulated all around the world according to gender, age, and social status. Sitting on the floor with both legs straight out in front is generally a woman's posture, wherever it is found. The cowboy squat - the one used by Indian workmen to the annoyance of British colonists - is mostly a man's, with one knee up.

Very likely, you are sitting as you read this text on your monitor, and your chair may have been advertised as an ergonomically designed sitting device for operating a personal computer. But you are the only person who can determine whether the chair fits your body well enough for you to sit for long periods of time in comfort.

Comfort is a personal choice, but we should keep in mind the etymology of comfort, taken from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: from Middle English comforten, from Old French conforter, to strengthen; from Latin com- together, with, joint, jointly, and fortis strong. Comfort should make us strong, not drain away our energy. Unfortunately most of our easy chairs do exactly the opposite.

In fact, we usually choose our easy chairs not for comfort, but for their appearance and the status we think we achieve when sitting in them. For example, in the 1950s, many of my parents' friends thought themselves very moderne as they showed off their new butterfly chairs. These are metals frames from which hang canvas slings. Cranz describes its amoeba shape as connoting modern sensibilities. "(P)ractically speaking, it is relatively lightweight, some versions can fold, and it can be bought in any number of festive colors or in natural canvas or sophisticated black at a relatively low price." But she goes on to describe what happens to your body when you sit in one:

Some people call them comfortable because they invite the sitter to slump and imply that bad posture is not only acceptable but also desirable. Because the chair is basically a sling, the torso is treated like a bag. The thighs and the torso are weighted to drop toward the same center point, so in adults the internal organs collapse and the hip joints are jammed. This is true no matter how you sit in it. If the sitter rotates and sits on the chair on the diagonal, it at least offers support for the head and the neck. But if you sit on it centered, your head has no support, so you bring it forward and exacerbate the collapse already promoted by the sling structure.

She then reminds us older readers of one of the funnier routines created by Lucille Ball. Ball's alter ego, Lucy Ricardo, floundered helplessly as she learned it was impossible to get up from a butterfly chair if you were eight months pregnant.

However, Cranz finds Garrit Rietveld's Red and Blue chair very comfortable. The chair was constructed out of ordinary milled lumber; the back and seat were made from a single sheet of plywood. None of the joints were hidden, but were blatant, resembling overlapping pick-up sticks. Though his critics found the chair unstable and uncomfortable, Rietveld considered it a success, and Dr. Cranz disagrees with Rietveld's critics.

Few easy chairs support our spines, necks and heads; their backs are usually shorter in height than our shoulders. Consequently, we curl our necks forward, and our slumps cause our internal organs to collapse. However, Rietveld's chair tilts us back so we do not slide out of the chair. And the chair back provides support for our shoulders, neck and head. She says, "Of course, without any padding it will become tiring after some time. But your escape from it is assisted by arms that help you push yourself forward."

Cranz recommends a variety of steps you should take in finding the chair that makes you comfortable. You buy clothing according to size. Why not chairs? Among the specifications you should use when choosing a chair is the following measurement: "(F)or conventional right angled sitting, seat height no greater than the top of your knee minus 2 (inches)."

Cranz practices the preaching of Matthais Alexander, whose psycho-physical techniques are summed up in the principle: "Use affects functioning." We should use our skeleton to support our muscles. Unfortunately, most of use our muscles to support our skeleton. When we sit, our abdominal and back muscles have to work in ways they were not designed to do. Our spine is designed to form an elongated S-curve, but when we sit, we often curve the spine not only in the forward direction, but also from side to side. Something resembling Marty Feldman's hump in "Young Frankenstein" appears on one of our shoulders, and our bellies protrude forward as the line of our lower spine and buttocks form a concavity that results in chronic lower back pain. But through training and practice we can rid ourselves of these deformities - not because we want to appear beautiful, but because we want our bodies to function properly. For more information about Alexander and his work, I recommend The Alexander Technique, by Wilfred Barlow (Alfred Knopf, 1973).

The Alexander Technique trains us to sit, stand, and move properly. We must use our bodies properly, whether we are working out at the gym or drafting a floor plan at our drawing board. Or, alone, sipping brandy and listening to Peter Serkin's performance of the Goldberg Variations. In more than one way, we are what we sit on.

Dr. Galen Cranz, an architect and a certified teacher of the Alexander technique, gives us insight and advice about beauty, comfort and status in our seating. Ultimately, what we choose as our easy chair is up to us.

As careful readers know, David Dannenbaum was trained at the University of Texas (BFA) and Florida State University (MFA), but was educated at the Brooklyn Public Library, the Gotham Book Mart, and various museums, flea markets and antique shops in the New York City area. His articles have been published in The New Orleans Review, West Coast Peddler, and Streams of William James. He and his wife live in Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan.

Reprinted with permission from the Sheffield School of Design

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