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Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design, Galen Cranz

I picked this up at a used bookstore because it was only a couple of bucks and it was something other than another boring picture book of beautiful but uncomfortable furniture that I can’t afford and that nobody will want to sit upon. What I was looking for: an academic discussion of the history of chairs that would teach me the right “design words” to use in class or when talking to designers. What I found: an excellent history of things to sit upon, the social issues around why we sit, and the sorry mess we’ve gotten ourselves into by sitting on chairs for far too many hours a day during the past century or so.

Cranz — a Professor of Architecture at Berkeley — boils down the history of chairs, sitting, and ergonomics in plain terms that can be understood by the lay person. This history helps explain the ergonomic nightmare we live in today and suggestions on ways we can start to improve our situation.

I’ve always been (too?) willing to question elements of the world I live in, however where I sit has never been on my list of things to question. I don’t like sitting in chairs nor sitting up straight; I prefer to lounge, lie down or sit on the floor while reading, watching TV and even when doing metal work or fabrication. While this leads to interesting discussions at home about who is hogging the couch or why there are magazines spread all over the floor, it’s never led to my thinking about why I try so hard to avoid sitting in chairs. My job requires me to sit for extended periods of time (and I have worker’s comp RSI receipts to prove it) but when I’m doing something I want to do, I’m often standing at a workbench, sitting on a stool with rollers or squatting on the floor.

A few years ago I accidentally started studying Japanese wood and metal working techniques while studying Japanese history and modern Japanese design. One of things that surprised me was the number of modern Japanese craftsmen who to this day sit on the floor while doing rather difficult labor. Even an episode of Discovery’s Biker Build-Off showed the Japanese bike firm Zero Engineering working the way Japanese metalworks worked for centuries: sitting on the floor.

As it turns out, sitting in chairs at a workbench or table is the odd way of doing things in the big historical picture. Until the industrial age, plenty of people sat on floors or stood while working. If the average person was (is) lucky enough to have something upon which to sit, it was likely a bed, bench or simple stool without a back to lean against.

Not only did The Chair open my eyes to the “pro-chair” Western bias that we have sold to ourselves and other cultures, it also helped me understand just how much of modern chairs is form and how little is function. I never really understood why the really expensive designer chairs we had at work or the fancy chairs my friends bought were so uncomfortable. The simple fact of the matter is, they’re supposed to look good, not be useful chairs. These chairs were not furniture, they were art. Now there’s nothing wrong with filling your house with expensive art, but expecting your guests to sit on the art and be uncomfortable is another matter entirely.

The act of sitting in a chair, especially for extended periods of our waking hours, is a modern invention and something our bodies were not designed to do. We did not evolve sitting in chairs, they were thrust upon us (or us upon them) over the period of a few short centuries. This is stating the obvious, but the unstated obvious is that our bodies don’t like it one bit. We are suffering many health problems related to chairs and the sedentary lifestyle they encourage: back and neck pains, varicose veins, RSI injuries and so on. Making matters worse is the use of chairs that are picked not for their functionality or long-term effects on the human body, but for their form and cost.

The solutions are simple: stop sitting, sit differently or at least minimize the amount of time spent sitting. Solutions like these are easy to say but not easy to implement in a chair-based culture that is focused on short-term benefits . The average American is probably not used to sitting on a backless chair for hours on end or standing while working at their computer. “Perching”, or making a tripod of your legs and a chair, is also going to take some getting used to for many people. Sitting in chairs has destroyed our muscle tone and posture so much that what should be a simple task — standing or sitting up straight without any sort of support — is difficult for most people. The next time you’re in a “waiting” situation, in a doctor’s room or waiting on take-out at a restaurant, try standing instead of sitting and see how long you last.

Another problem facing a change in how we sit is the relationship between employer and employee. Some of these solutions — which would require spending as much on an employee’s chair as you do on their computer if you expect them to sit for several hours a day — are not going to go over well with the business community. I’ve done facilities management consulting a few times, and it’s amazing how much a company will spend on a computer that will be replaced in a year and how little they will spend on a chair and desk they expect to last for a decade. Spending $300 on an office chair when there’s one available for $250 requires extensive justification, while buying everyone a new PC every year for $1000 is obviously a good decision. Complicating matters, many employers will not let employees bring their own chairs to use at work, so an employee who’d rather perch or stand can’t even pay for it out of their own pocket.

Unlike many books I’ve read in the past few years, The Chair has made a quick and positive difference in my every day life. I sold my Aeron and have a Hag Capisco (designed for “perching” not “sitting”) on order. I bought a cheap-but-comfortable task chair in the meanwhile, ripped the arms off and sit forward on the seat with my feet elevated enough to take the weight off of my thighs. In the few months I’ve been working with better posture, I’ve noticed that I can stand for longer periods of time, that I don’t have achy legs after working all day and that my infrequent migraines and frequent neck-aches have all but disappeared.

I think the best possible thing I can say about Cranz’s The Chair is that it’s one of the few books I’ve ever bought extra copies of to give to co-workers and friends.

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TeX Dorkery:

Address = {500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110},
Author = {CRANZ, Galen},
Edition = {Softcover},
Isbn = {0-393-31955-5pbk},
Keywords = {chair design},
Publisher = {W. W. Norton},
Title = {The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design},
Url = {},
Year = {2000}}

posted by jet at 23:34  


  1. I think if its your sitting job then tell your boss to get you an egg chair that will help you to stay at your seat for a loonger time..

    Comment by Abstract Metal Art — 2009/03/20 @ 05:48

  2. Awesome review, checked out some of the links and found some more good information.

    Comment by Edward Schnelder — 2010/11/01 @ 03:36

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